How Mindfulness Practice Strengthens Resilience
Guest writer Daron Larson uses what people already know about physical fitness to help them navigate the challenges of mindfulness practice — an idea he explored in his TEDxColumbus Talk: Don't Try to Be Mindful.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted, “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” We’re probably even less able to do this now than people were three or four hundred years ago when he said it.
I don’t think sitting still was ever really the end goal, though. The skills required to sit still are the same ones that lead to what we really want — the ability to savor pleasant moments more, to fight with ourselves less during unpleasant ones, and to feel more at home in the messiness and uncertainty of real life.
People who are interested in becoming more physically fit don’t start running on treadmills to get better at running on treadmills. It’s just one of many ways to challenge their hearts, lungs, and muscles in an effort to have more energy and vitality.
There’s something very similar at play when trying to develop your attentional fitness. You don’t practice mindfulness meditation to get better at sitting still in quiet rooms. You do it to develop attentional skills that make it easier to focus, regulate your emotions, and behave in more fulfilling ways.
Practicing mindfulness helps you discover that you have a greater capacity for resilience than you could have imagined — that you can get better at growing through challenges instead of just surviving them.
How does mindfulness practice strengthen resilience?
Mindfulness builds your immunity against making discomfort worse.
Habitually noticing sensations without trying to change them works like a vaccine. When we notice pleasant sensations, it leads to being able to savor peace and quiet which can be really satisfying.
If you’re willing to expose yourself to low doses of uncomfortable sensations (for a few seconds at a time), you become better equipped to avoid escalating yourself when you’re outside your comfort zone.
Mindfulness practice strengthens your ability to focus under pressure.
When you do timed mindfulness practice, you chose a category of sensation to focus on. Other categories of sensation will tug your attention away from what you’ve decided to notice. Each time you realize your attention has wandered off and you gently steer it back, you strengthen your capacity for persisting through life’s inevitable challenges. You’re also equipping yourself to be less at the mercy of what demands your attention.
Mindfulness practice helps build your ability to persist through obstacles.
Deciding what to notice is also about making conscious decisions about what is most relevant at any given moment. A big challenge people report when trying to stay focused at work is determining what is most important instead of what just feels the most urgent. It can feel effortless to spontaneously reallocate our energy towards each new request.
One way to apply mindfulness practice in this situation would be to find ways to keep track of those new requests while sticking to what you’re working on and to practice interpreting the discomfort of persistence as evidence you’re on the right track. This isn’t easy, but it can pay off with practice over time because you’ll get more done and have more energy left at the end of the day.
Mindfulness practice helps us remember the common humanity we share with everyone.
Exercising our bodies is challenging. So is exercising our attention. It’s easy to notice a sensation. It’s even easier to get distracted away from it. It’s not easy to keep redirecting your attention back without getting frustrated with yourself, but it’s important to try.
It’s counterintuitive to turn towards what is physically or emotionally uncomfortable — more often than never — without trying to change it. But when you do, you learn to relax the resistance to it that you didn’t realize was there at first. When we do this, a kind of visceral compassion can take root. Instead of conceptually understanding that life can be difficult for everyone, you get a deeply felt sense of compassion for the human condition. This doesn’t mean you condone troubling behavior or social injustice, but that you can see a little more clearly the humanity you share with people. That includes those who you relate to, the people who push your buttons, and the ones you work with and serve. You can also feel compassion for yourself.
To exercise your attention in the way I’m describing, pick a category of sensation — sights, sounds, body sensations — and selectively pay attention to them for a few seconds at a time. Start with a minute or two and gradually nudge up the duration.
Consider pausing a few times a day, to pay attention to some sensory detail that you can notice closely for a handful of seconds. Before you know it, you’ll be relating to your life differently whether you’re sitting quietly or navigating uncertainty.
Cultivating Resilience is a twice-weekly video conference series curated by Relay Resources Learning & Development Manager, Jonathan Cresson. The series was started during COVID-19 to allow employees time for sharing and provide them with a new tool or technique to help focus on resilience while managing the overwhelming emotions they may be feeling. This blog series captures the topics covered.