Building our resilience muscle…
Any bread makers out there? You’ll know that there is a critical stage in the baking process: the leavening. As the dough sits, the fermentation process commences letting all those lovely bubbles of CO2- the essential raising agent- to do their magical work. The leavening time is when you step away, put the dough in a warm and cozy place and let the yeast be yeast. The rest is part of the rise.
In my favourite café in Dublin, the Fumbally, there is a large quote from Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote) written on the wall; ‘All sorrows are less with bread’. We can play with this a little and also say, ‘All sorrows are less if we act like bread’. Bread, you see, holds a valuable life lesson; that rest is integral to the whole.
As humans we need our own form of leavening time, and yet, why do we resist? In the world of go go go, on on on, it can feel like total self-indulgence to rest. More and more frequently when I ask people how they are doing, ‘busy’ is the response. (Is busy now a euphemism for ‘I am wanted, I am useful, I am important?’). What if we were to step away from work, and let the air that holds us all together do it’s work. In other words; take some breathing space. When it comes to building our resilience, is rest part of our rise too? And when I say rise here, I am wondering if it’s not just about what we do in the world, but how we elevate our state of being in the world.
This is where the rest part gets beautifully nuanced: it turns out that there is not just one form of rest. Rest instead is on a spectrum from stillness, to awareness, all the way to flow.
Let’s skip over to the poetic for some more clues. The poet David Whyte has written a delightful little book, ‘Consolations’, which is a series of mediative reflections on, as he puts it, ‘The solace, nourishment and underlying meaning of everyday words’- rest being one of them.
Rest, he proposes;
‘is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavour, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals. To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right; to rest is to fall back literally or figuratively from outer targets and shift the goal not to an inner static bull’s eye, an imagined state of perfect stillness, but to an inner state of natural exchange’
To feel rested, then, does not necessarily mean to stop everything; but instead to fall into rhythm with life’s daily occurrences, with the exchange of breath, and with our domesticated selves. As Whyte continues..
..we are rested when we let things alone and let ourselves alone, to do what we do best, breathe as the body intended us to breathe, to walk as we were meant to walk, to live with the rhythm of a house and a home, giving and taking through cooking and cleaning…. To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given.
Rest and Design Sprints
When it comes to entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, rest is a critical component to the creative process- both within the process, and at either end of it. That time to step back from a canvas and take in the big picture; that time in the writing process when you print out what you’ve done, and set it aside for a few days, only to return to it with fresh eyes; that time in music when there is space and quiet again so that we can really take in the crescendo. The silence, the space, the pause is part of the music too.
In design and innovation circles, the idea of working in sprints has been taking off- a period of rapid thinking, prototyping, and launching, followed by periods of rest. These burst of creativity have their own momentum and give rise to new ways of seeing things without getting stuck in the typical creative traps of procrastination, overthinking or never getting started in the first place.
David Hieatt, author of DO Purpose, founder of Hieatt Denim and co-founder of the wonderful Do Lectures, integrated sprints into his own working life, commenting:
A short sprint followed by a longer rest, can get way more done. But, we think of resting up as some badge of dishonour. As humans, we are built for short bursts. Our attention span is built for short bursts. Our creativity is built for short bursts. Yet mostly, we work like we are built for marathons. I think sprints are a practical way to make a lot of stuff happen quickly with limited resources.
In terms of building our inner resilience, it could serve us well also to think in sprints; focusing on short bursts of personal goals, short-term but intense creative experiments, using deadlines to build our momentum- and then valuing the break as an intrinsic part of the creative cycle.
Stop, Look, Go: Gratitude as a way of living
If we are looking for a cornerstone upon which to build our resilience as a way of living, then we would be well to go back to Whyte’s sense in Consolations: ‘To be able to understand what we are given’. This awareness, we will note, gives rise to gratitude, and this gratitude could even be the start of a revolution. I’ll let Whyte and the benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast elaborate further.
‘Gratitude’, continues Whyte, ‘is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not necessarily something that is shown after the event, it is the deep, a-priori state of attention that shows we understand, are present for and even equal to, the gifted nature of life.
Brother Seindl-Rast also takes on this mantel in his work and research on the power of gratitude in our lives and the importance of this a-priori mode of being. ’It is gratefulness that makes us happy’, he eloquently offers in this TED talk, explaining that in order for us to lead a grateful life we must become consistently aware that every moment is a gift, and within each of those moments is the gift of opportunity. Moment by moment, he suggests, we are gifted with an opportunity to create our lives, to respond to the beauty which surrounds us and to simply enjoy the tastes, the sounds, the colour, the light, the texture or the world presenting itself to us. And if we fail? Well, the will of the world is a marvellous thing: we are gifted with another opportunity to pay attention.
The practice of gratitude becomes powerful when it becomes exactly that- a practice. When we learn to orientate ourselves to pay consistent attention to the opportunity arising with each breath. Easier said than done- perhaps?
Sensing the complexity in the simplicity, Brother Seindl-Rast gives us a little formula as a methodology for living gratefully:
‘Stop. Look. Go’ (remember the safe cross code?)
Stop= rest, look= pay attention, go= respond to the opportunity which life is presenting in this given moment.
Building more ‘stop points’ in our lives is the key- moments when we actively take note of the gift of life in front of us. Brother Seindl-Rast recounts a little story of living in Africa for a while, when he had no running water or electricity. When he returned home, at first each time he turned on a tap or switched on a light, he stopped, in awe of the miracle of both. After a while though, he became accustomed to these things, and stopped paying attention. And so, as a reminder to stop, look, and be in awe, he put a little sticker on the light switch and the tap.
When we learn to build more stop points in our lives, we develop our capacity to notice connections, patterns, creative solutions and new ways of showing up. If we are go go go, we simply miss out on this opportunity to reconfigure ourselves in response to the needs and moments which surround us. To Brother Seindl-Rast, living a grateful life, has the power not just to transform our own individual lives but also to revolutionise how we collectively respond to the ongoing opportunities. When we are grateful, we don’t act out of fear, which in turns leads to less violence. If we are grateful, we act not out of scarcity but with a sense of intrinsic abundance, which, he asserts, in turn leads to more sharing and therefore more connected and strengthened systems.
So we really have cause not to stop and pause? It may in fact be the start a revolution.
Before leaving the topic of resilience for the moment, there is one other core principle which is important to incorporate. It’s to do with baking again, or swimming, or painting, or juggling or any multiple of things which brings us into a state of flow. The writer – who I regularly introduce as, ‘you know that guy with the unpronounceable surname’- yes, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (see that I mean!), has written about the importance of flow state, describing is as;
‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz’.
Why do I write so much? Well, it’s one of my flow activities. I can loose track of time and become completely oblivious to any worries or concerns I was carrying before I started. And why do I paint? For exactly the same reason. I’ve a hurler friend who speaks of the same experience on the sports field, and a fiddler friend who speaks of the same flow when he looses himself in playing. And you? That thing that you loose yourself in? That’s a key to your resilience.
Maureen Gaffney, the psychologist who I referenced in a previous article (remember the 5:1 ratio, and negativity bias), also writes about flow in her book Flourishing referring to flow also as ‘the art of vital engagement’;
‘the more a person reports experiences of flow in their average week, the more likely they are to describe themselves as strong, active, creative, concentrated, motivated and happy- the way most of us would like to describe ourselves… The capacity for being in flow is intimately connected to your ability to control your precious units of attention and to strengthen your executive self’
There are eight elements identified to flow, including taking on an activity that is challenging and requires skill. As Gaffney explains; ‘You are most likely to enter a flow experience when you take on something that stretches you, when both the level of challenge and the level of skill required are above average level’. This is the good stress, or stretch, which is about reaching for a goal and having a vision. And a critical ingredient to flow? Joy. For flow to happen, the activity must have meaning to you and is something you find enjoyable. I’m personally not going to find it in playing chess, for instance, but you might- and I won’t judge you for that, I promise! But I will find in the things I love- writing, art, photography, swimming and yoga.
So, if you know what your flow activities are, but you are rarely doing them, can you increase them to once a week- you’ll find you are more confident and more resilient. And if you haven’t found out what brings flow into your life, then perhaps it’s time to experiment. A clue may be in what you enjoyed as a child. Maybe it’s art, or writing, or doing handstands, or playing chess- whatever it is, it has a little secret to your ongoing wellbeing.
A word of caution though too: social media- that endless stream of distraction and noise, is the enemy of flow. To flow, we need learn to switch off the stream and be more discerning of how we use our attention. Our time is precious, and we must learn to use it wisely.
So, we’ve covered a lot of territory in this resilience thinking. If anything even the experience of writing these articles has reminded me of the power of paying attention to the joy and beauty which surrounds me. I know I’ll likely get stressed and anxious again, I know I’ll face challenges, but I also know that there is an arsenal of tools and practices available, as immediate as my breath, to carry me onwards.
To breath. To pause. To pay attention. To express gratitude. To remember our values. To think of the positive. To cultivate flow states. To rest. To start over. These are the building blocks to resilient living.
And with that, I’m off to bake some bread. It’s been a while.
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