I don’t know if you’re like the rest of the world in having some trouble coping. It’s no secret that humanity has been living through difficult times, and a lot of people have been struggling to stay afloat these past few years and counting. Buddha specialized in overcoming suffering – his teachings deal with all aspects of the human experience, including trauma, grief, loneliness, uncertainty, depression, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed. With this in mind, when I saw this CNN article …
Here are some of the top traits and behaviors resilient people used to survive the worst life had to throw at them — and thrive.
… I couldn’t resist but to give a Buddhist perspective on all 8 of these coping strategies.
Have a purpose in life
The article says:
Research has shown having a passion or purpose in life is important to developing resilience.
(This is #5 in the original list, but I am leading with it.) Resilience increases our capacity to withstand challenges and difficulties. This starts with an appreciation of what our life is about so that we know what we need resilience for and have an ongoing incentive to develop it.
The little bear that could
You may have seen this video. This small polar bear is trying to reach his or her anxious mom at the top of a big bank of snow – he is almost there when he backslides all the way down. He manages to scramble up again, only to slide back again. This happens a painful number of times, all the while we’re rooting for him, “Come on, you can do it!” And he never gives up – he keeps trying every approach – until he makes it.
Why? Because that little bear really wanted to get to the top of the mountain. His resilience came from this strong determination, which in turn came from a strong sense of purpose: “I need to get up there.”
Our purposes and aims of late, as a society, have been largely disrupted. Many of the things that we normally see as valuable and fun, that make our life interesting and livable, are relatively off limits now or simply harder to pull off. (Tell me about it, I have been in this airport for 4 hours – rail and tube strikes, along with long queues at Heathrow, meant I had to get on a later plane). Since Covid times, the shows, the restaurants, the travel, the ability even to just wander around and chat without infecting each other, all of this has been harder.
It seems to me that people all over the world have been feeling that their control and to some extent their purpose is being taken away. Yet one key factor in resilience is the feeling of being in control. Studies show that people who have an internal locus of control, in other words who feel responsible for their experiences, are more likely to be successful than those who are blaming their experiences on other people. Which makes sense, right? Because if we have an internal sense of “I can do something about this,” we can keep some agency, we can stay resilient.
One key consideration is therefore what is it that I can and do control? Clearly I cannot control many of the things outside of me – for example, despite being muzzled, we still have no real control over whether we get sick or not. Even if we are lucky enough to be relatively well off compared to most of the world, we have no control over the heat, or the war, or the politicians, or the prices, all of which are having growing impacts on our lives. Over the Pandemic, this feeling of helplessness led to a lot of hobbies (and crazes), such as baking bread (or eating Tide capsules) – giving us perhaps an appearance of control over our circumstances, but not really cutting it. Why? Because if we fail to understand where control actually lies, we have no choice but to remain helpless. We need to understand that the only real control we can gain is the ability to control or change our own minds.
What is the purpose or goal of getting up the snowbank of life? Happiness. We all want to be happy and free from suffering, but the methods we normally turn to for happiness and freedom seem to be working less and less well. So perhaps we need to be rethinking what happiness is and where it comes from.
Precious human life
It is important to understand that when we’re talking about happiness in a Buddhist context, we’re not really talking about the ephemeral happiness of ice cream, or a good meal, or a laugh among friends, and so forth, all of which can be excellent or very unhealthy, depending on what’s going on. What everyone is actually looking for is lasting happiness.
The way most of us approach lasting happiness is to amass a bunch of temporary happinesses, one after the other – if we can get enough of these arranged in a line from here to death, including approximately 1,000 movies on Netflix, maybe we’ll have a happy life overall, until the eventual decimation and tragedy and collapse of it all.
And regarding our final days, a lot of us are thinking: “I just want my death to be over with quickly, preferably without my being aware of it.” But that’s not the way it is for most people, for whom there is a slow and gradual decline. Even as we hear that, we may be thinking, “Yeah, that’s true”, but still we are not thinking, “Yeah, that’s going to be me. I may well end up staring at a wall as I slowly wither away.” The denial is deep for most of us. There are exceptions, of course – for example one of my mother’s gentle caregivers, Gretel, told me yesterday that she went into care work and treats her clients with love and respect because “We are all going to end up like that, and we need to treat others as we want to be treated.”
Someone was telling me about a recent comedy (!) about someone aware of their own oncoming dementia, who says at one point:
How cruel is this? You just build up a life full of memories that you then can’t remember.
The point being that we are all looking for lasting happiness, but how do we find it? It is clearly not to do with the body. If we live long enough, one by one our inner organs will decay — it’s a crapshoot as to whether that’s our liver or our brain, but neither which way is pleasant. It is not to do with a bunch of experiences either because, no matter how pleasurable or expensive, these all vanish like last night’s dream. We have to look at the nature of happiness through a deeper more spiritual lens.
The problem of consciousness
When we meditate on the nature of the mind, one of the natural beneficial side effects is that we come to experience directly how our mind is creating our reality. Our mind is primary and it is also unceasing – one moment leading to next, throughout this life and in life after life. This is radically different to the view we are usually presented with in modern society. The commonplace understanding is based on a materialist outlook that matter is the primary building block of reality and that consciousness is simply a completely inexplicable arising out of these material components that literally nobody can explain — hence “the problem of consciousness.” And yet it has become the predominant view to the point that when somebody talks about formless awareness, past and future lives, and so forth, this is seen as embarrassing. Not something we would bring up in polite company unless we immediately want to be written off as a little bit of a, you know, fringe character: “Excuse my friend, they’re really quite nice, but …”
However, this is the main view or outlook of thousands of years of spiritual practitioners, not just in Buddhism but in all spiritual traditions, all of which assert a continuity of consciousness. If you want to look at it, there is so much evidence out there – investigations into out of body experiences, near death experiences, people who remember their past lives, child prodigies, mind over matter, etc. There’s no other explanation. Not to mention that we can investigate the teachings and experiences shared by all the great Yogis and Yoginis of the past, who see in their own direct experience that consciousness continues is formless and continues from life to life.
The reason I’m saying all this is because what we’re talking about when we’re talking about happiness is a lasting happiness, not just a happiness that will last at its very most for 80 years or so. Otherwise the very notion of resilience is just trying to get from wherever we are in our life to death relatively unscathed, until finally we get monumentally scathed at the end. That is, let’s be a resilient Little Bear until eventually the massive avalanche comes along and obliterates us. From that point of view, whether we are resilient or not resilient, who cares? Ultimately we’re going to be wiped out either way.
Existential predicament and opportunity
In the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism, our main bread and butter daily meditations are called “the stages of the path to enlightenment” (“Lamrim” in Tibetan) – the first of which is meditation on our precious human life. And the essence of that meditation, as explained in The Mirror of Dharma, boils down to:
We should know that at present we have reached the human world for just a brief moment from our former lives, and we have the opportunity to attain the supreme happiness of enlightenment through practicing Dharma. This is our extraordinary good fortune.
This quote simultaneously encapsulates both our existential predicament, we might say, and our existential opportunity. I love that first line — you’ll probably never hear anybody else say: “Hello, newborn child, you have briefly reached this human world” because it sounds like an alien spaceship has landed. You have briefly reached this human world but we know you are traveling onwards to somewhere else. But it is true, and that is all of us – we have briefly reached this human world, and now we think of ourselves as inherently human when in fact we are only temporarily human.
“And we have the opportunity to watch a lot of movies and go traveling and maybe meet some nice people.” Or … “we have the opportunity to attain the supreme happiness of enlightenment.” Why is this important? Because we have actually experienced, as explained by Buddha, countless lifetimes in all the different realms of samsara without this opportunity. What is unique about this current lifetime is that the causes and conditions have come together for us to realize our full spiritual potential. We can listen to, contemplate, and meditate on Buddha’s teachings – receiving an explanation for why things happen, why we have the identity and personality we have, where we have been and where we are going, and so on. We learn what we can do with this unbelievably rare lifetime, which includes not only our own permanent liberation from suffering but also the supreme happiness of enlightenment. This puts us in a position to liberate others — we can help our family and friends, and their family and friends, and their family and friends, until one day we are helping all living beings. We have this opportunity provided we use this life to escape from our ignorance and transform our minds.
Instead of thinking that we have landed in an inherently sucky situation: “This sucks and I need to get away from it,” we know the solution, which is to transform our mind by applying Dharma. In so doing we turn situations that look like they’re inherently terrible into opportunities to attain permanent freedom and happiness. We can seize the day, which means taking advantage of every day by recognizing we can attain liberation and enlightenment “through practicing Dharma.”
That’s the key — we have to apply these teachings to our life. This opportunity is our “extraordinary good fortune” and it is worth remembering it when we get up in the morning, before the boring worried thoughts switch on and we cannot switch them off again. Right now, in this life, everything has come together to give me the optimum conditions for achieving permanent liberation from suffering and the supreme happiness of enlightenment. Instead of first thoughts being, “Oh no, I am dreading today,” we can as soon as possible take a moment to drop into our heart, clear the mental decks, relate to our potential and opportunity, and feel really happy.
What we do every day depends on what we want to do, which depends in turn on who we think we are (as explained more here). If we identify with being a Bodhisattva (someone who wants to attain enlightenment), we will naturally welcome every opportunity to fulfil that goal and therefore find ourselves using all situations, good or bad, to our advantage.
If we really take the time appreciate our goal or purpose, resilience becomes almost a side-effect. For the bear, it is very simple: “I need to get up to my mom;” so he keeps finding a way through or around the obstacles. At this point, it is his existential necessity. What is our existential necessity? What are we here to do?
The next installment is here, Grace under pressure. Please share your thoughts in the comments. 😁