We are talking resilience in a crisis: how to be resilient in tough times.
This special episode is a conversation with psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, whose work really focuses on the need for mental resources such as mindfulness, self-compassion, and positive emotions.
This episode was recorded on March 17, 2020, just one day after many counties in California announced a shelter in place order, the same day I found out we were out of school for my daughter, and a time during which uncertainty and fear are everywhere. This conversation is intended to give you a resource for resilience in crisis, or how to be resilient in tough times.
For lots of reasons, including the accumulation of benefits from privileges of different kinds, Rick describes his current state of mind as a cake with top and bottom layers. The top layer is the alarm, concern, befuddle, and overwhelmed by the latest news. It feels like we’re living under the occupation of this virus, reminiscent of novels about France during WWII, or like London during the Blitz when people hunkered down and got through. There will be another side to this, though. It might take a while to get there, but there will be another side to this and meanwhile, it’s really heavy. The top layer also includes concern for people. When this thing, this pandemic, hits developing countries, it’s going to be like a firestorm moving through the houses.
Underneath it all, though, there’s deep inner peace, contentment, and love. As humans, it’s our true nature, found way down deep and cultivated through practice. If we just keep putting one foot in front of the other in our practice, we will progress. The benefits will be real in our own lives and then they’ll ripple out and help a lot of people.
There are fundamental building blocks of resilient wellbeing that we tend to just fly right by. For example, we hope our kids will develop skills, learn how to interact with others in a reasonable way, develop a moral compass, acquire things like emotional intelligence, develop compassion, resilience, and grit. All of these are inner resources and inner strengths. The importance of such resources is really emphasized in a longstanding framework from healthcare and psychology, which explains that what happens in a person’s life is the result of three things: challenges, vulnerabilities, and resources. These are challenges that come at us, the vulnerabilities that those challenges pierce through, and the resources that we have to draw upon to deal with challenges. People can look at these three things when they are trying to understand what’s happening to them and what they can do about it. These three things (challenges, vulnerabilities, and resources) exist in three contexts (the world, the body, and the mind) can be combined to give us nine ways to make life better. It’s reassuring to know that there’s something we can do as we move through this pandemic, even if only inside your own mind, which is where Rick tends to focus.
Then, it’s about how to grow those resources, which we do by practicing them. As we practice keeping others in mind while we go through this pressured and turbulent time, we will grow the capacity for compassion, kindness, and commitment to justice as traits inside ourselves. When we practice something, we experience it as a state, but with repetition and by drawing on some of Rick’s methods for taking in the good to really heighten the internalization of the experience, we do begin to internalize those experiences. As we experience that state of being, the feeling of compassion in our body, the emotion of compassion in our hearts, the perspectives about compassion in our cognition, as we experience it, practice it, and have those states, they will gradually turn into lasting traits and hardwire into our nervous system. To get at this process, Rick likes to ask himself, “How am I coping with that? How am I practicing with that?”. With that in mind, “coping” is directed at the outer world and “practicing” refers to what we do inside our own being.
You don’t have to go anywhere to do this, which is especially helpful to know in times like now when we are being asked to not go anywhere that can feel very threatening for people. The reverse of that is that this type of work and practice can occur anywhere at any time at no cost. This is accessible regardless of what’s happening outside of yourself. At this time of dealing with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the ripple effects in the economy when we’re worried about shrinking 401k’s and life-savings as the stock market plummets and concern for other people, the simple presence of right now is a strength we can draw on.
I am in this moment safe.
The suffering in our minds is often around things that have not yet happened. It’s important to have something to bring us back to what is happening right now, back to gratitude, to receive the good, to help us realign with balancing out the threats, and to radical compassion for ourselves and letting that radiate out to other people. There’s so much we can’t do, but these resources, the capacity to really rest in the present moment, gratitude, and radical compassion, are things that we can do.
It’s easy to have these experiences, but quickly they’re gone. How do we develop trait present moment awareness, trait gratitude, or trait compassion so that these qualities are enduring?
We do this in two steps:
First, experience whatever you want to grow. We grow it by practicing it. We experience it by looking for moments to drop into the present, to feel grateful for what you’ve received, no matter what else is problematic. This kind of gratitude isn’t positive thinking; it’s seeing the whole other world, the red tiles as well as the green tiles that you’re thankful for.
The second step is to internalize the experience. It’s very simple, we have to slow down for a breath or so (the more, the better) so the neurons continue to fire and to give them a chance to wire, instead of just skidding around to the next thing. Stay with it for a breath or longer; keep those neurons firing so they can wire together.
A tip for this is to feel it in your body. Instead of just having ideas of gratitude, feel it in the body to increase internalization.
Another tip is to focus on what is rewarding and feels good about it. What feels good about gratitude, compassion, or just coming into the present? What’s meaningful about it for you? As a sense of reward in an experience increases, so does the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, two neurochemicals that matter. As these two chemicals are more active, it flags that experience as a keeper.
The two steps are summarized as: have it, enjoy it, but don’t forget the second step. We routinely leave out the second step when we’re working with others or practicing inside ourselves, and then we miss an opportunity to harvest the value of the experience.
There’s a difference between building these inner resources into traits so that you have resilience in difficult times and positive thinking. One motivation for Rick to focus on growing the good as a durable trait comes from recognizing what scientists call the brain’s negativity bias, which essentially makes the brain like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones. This bias helped our ancestors live through the stone age, but today it creates a lot of unnecessary suffering and conflict with others. We need to be mindfully aware of the red tiles in the mosaic of reality. We need to be aware of them flashing and to not fight with them or push them away because then they stick around. On the other hand, if we dwell on or ruminate about the red tiles, we are then reinforcing them in our own brains and increasingly developing trait anxiety, trait sensitivity, trait feelings of hurt, inadequacy, or resentment. The other big motivation for Rick with these practices is knowing that life is challenging. There’s always something coming around the bend, a storm is coming, so we need to grow strengths inside. This is relevant for all lives. This is the essence of self-reliance, not just sprinkles on the frosting of the cake of life, this is the cake of life to grow the good inside so that we have more to help others with.
Positive thinking tends to be framed as just looking on the bright side, but that’s not always good. On one hand, we want to know what’s lurking in the bushes and on the other, we don’t want to think we’re always in crisis. When nothing bad is happening in the present moment, we don’t want to be diluted by an exaggerated sense of threat. Rick believes in realistic thinking, not negativistic thinking nor positive thinking, which includes so many good things in the world that have been and will continue to be. You can be aware of the goodness in other people, have gratitude for running water, gratitude for the world and nature around you, for the people in your life. Yet, people struggle to have gratitude without intertwined guilt. For example, as we feel gratitude for the beauty around us on a walk, sometimes we immediately have a guilt response because others are suffering while we feel gratitude. A term for that is survivor’s guilt.
Reconciling this sense of guilt is a moral question, so Rick provides a personal response with no claim to expert authority:
Be mindful of what could be blocking you from having beneficial experiences, like gratitude, feeling listened to, or cared about by another person. There may be various blocks to having those experiences in the first place and then additional blocks to internalizing it and really receiving that experience. It takes five or ten seconds to really internalize it. It might include a feeling, perhaps, that the experience is sifting down into oneself like a gentle rain or moving into oneself like a warmth. Be mindful of those blocks in general and in particular, this sense of survivor’s guilt or feeling like it’s unfair for you to feel grateful when others are suffering. Rest in compassion and have the courage and moral standing to allow yourself to suffer with, that’s what compassion means in its word origins: “to suffer with” We need to be strong enough, moral enough, and big enough to widen our heart to have that kind of compassion.
It’s true that the sky is magnificent and you feeling grateful for the sky will not add to the suffering of a single being and if you deny yourself the gratitude or enjoyment of that beautiful sky, you will not lessen the suffering of any other being. It’s also true that as you rest in experiences of gratitude and other emotionally positive experiences, you build resilience inside so you will be less rattled by the waves coming at you; you’ll be able to recover more quickly, and you will be able to be more of a resource for other people.
It’s good for other people for you to take in the good inside yourself. Generally, this guilt of taking in good feelings when others are suffering is a particular issue for women, who tend to be socialized to focus on others feeling good instead of feeling good themselves. Caring for yourself is a necessary part of caring for others.
You can connect with Rick on his site where he has free resources, including a new 5-minutes video of how to have resilience during a time of fear. You can also sign up for his newsletter here. Rick has a new book coming out in May titled: Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and 7 Practices of the Highest Happiness. That material is at the center of developing an unshakable core, resilient well-being so that no matter what is coming at us we can preserve that innermost sanctuary inside ourselves where we feel solid, strong, calm, and clear with an open and caring heart.
As we navigate this unknown and take it one step at a time: Help yourself stay in touch with a grounding feeling, a sense of your own personal keel deep in the water in the sailboat of your life, centering, grounding, calming, stabilizing, which also then extends upward and outward with a heart that’s open to others. A little friendlier, a little kinder, a little more compassionate these days than is maybe typical, keeping in mind that they’re scared, too.
“Feet on the ground, heart as wide as the world”.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times bestselling author. His books have been published in 28 languages and include Neurodharma, Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture – with over 900,000 copies in English alone. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he has been an invited speaker at Google, NASA, Oxford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with 150,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity.
Dr. Rick Hanson’s books: