Life is anything but permanent, as many of us who work in the area of life-threatening illness and dying know, and it demands of us that we show up with compassion and resilience for our everyday encounters. My understanding of resilience includes the capacity to be present and to feel okay with what arises for us every moment of each day, and to meet it with flexibility of spirit and response. This capacity of resilience can be cultivated to enable us to meet life in all its complexity.
I have spent the past nine days at a small retreat centre at the base of a mountain in the southern Drakensberg Mountain Range in South Africa. This particular mountain is revered as sacred in both San and Zulu traditions for its capacity to bring forth rain. Cave paintings depict the San elders performing rain-making ceremonies. Zulu rituals to pray for rain take place at its base in times of scarcity.
During the nine days I sat in retreat, we did not suffer from a lack of rain and at times it was hard to believe that there was even a majestic mountain behind the curtain of mist, rain and cloud. But the mountain did appear at times and the last two days it shone with clarity against a deep blue sky between torrential downpours, only to be swallowed up again by the mist as we drove away. What I intimately learnt from sitting under this mountain during the weather patterns that swirled around it as well as through my heart-body-mind-space, was a deep knowing and a felt sense for how impermanent the weather patterns of our personal as well as our physical environments are.
The capacity to be with what presents itself in our heart-body-mind-space, like weather swirling around a steady ever-present mountain, helps us to understand how a greater capacity for mindfulness can impact how resilient we feel in our day, our life, and our work. How we perceive and understand events, or for that matter, fail to perceive or understand them, often determines how we respond to them.
Most of us have an understanding that we have little control over external events, such as the weather, but have some capacity to determine how we respond to them. In 1979, Suzanne Kobasa looked at how personal dispositional factors influenced whether we interpret a stressful event as threatening or not. She described three psychological aspects: control – whether we feel we can impact some areas of our lives positively; commitment – how engaged we feel with our daily lives; and challenge – how much we feel we can effect change on our life circumstances. She related these factors to ‘Stress Hardiness’, which is understood more and more as an important factor in psychological resilience, our capacity to be resilient even in the face of great challenge.
Our growing capacity to be with all our moments as they arise, with patience and kindness, supports our capacity for presence, for resilience, for being mindfully engaged in every moment. A capacity to be able to engage with the positive moments that arise in our lives, to be engaged with what we are doing, and to see the difficulties that may arise as challenges rather than problems. The simple exercises: staying with your breath, body scan, eating, walking with mindful presence, can be supportive of engaging with a capacity to recognise each moment as it arises and even in the face of impermanence, illness and death, to be stress hardy and resilient.