On Resilience: Part Four

 

 

This is the final part in a four part series on resilience. Missed the others? You can read part one, Part two, and Part three

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.

Rest

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.

Flow

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.

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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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An invitation to slow…

It felt a bit ironic that I read ‘Slow at Work’ quickly, but the ease in which it reads is part of its charm. Aoife McElwain writes in such an earthy and grounded way that reading her new book is like sitting down beside her in her favourite Fumbally Café as she openly and honestly talks you through her quest to get to core of the often ‘elusive’ concept of ‘Work/Life Balance’.

Aoife is a freelancer. For a long time that meant, like so many, running around like a mad thing, chasing deadlines, and juggling multiple projects. Then, one summer, after a bad back injury – induced by too much work and carrying heavy loads, both physically and mentally- she clearly realised the trap she was in: a distinct unbalance modulating her between extreme activity and burnout. And it was taking its toll.

Slow at Work, published by Gill, is the result of Aoife’s year long (ish) investigation in this core question, essentially: how to stay sane in an always ‘On’ world. Alongside extensive reading into the topic she interviewed about 100 people from different sectors- wellbeing professionals, coaches, other self employed people, restauranteurs, artist and creatives- gathering insights. Over the year she then experimented with new approaches and tools to actively apply to her personal and professional life and kept a list of her own nuggets of insight and ‘aha’s’ along the way (which she shares at the end of each chapter).

Diving into topics ranging from managing our inner critics, procrastination, technology and social media, burnout, energy management and gut instinct, Aoife provides a useful distinction between ‘percolation’ and ‘procrastination’ and a handy approach for getting to know (and tame) your inner critic. There are also plenty of insights into how our working environments, diet and physical activity have an impact on our overall wellbeing, alongside an open conversation about money and also our relationship to social media.

It would be tempting to wrap up such a book with the presentation of a ‘Seven Steps to having it all sorted’, kind of list. Refreshingly Aoife instead gives a considered evaluation of the evidence for ‘slow’ in the context of her own life. In that sense ‘Slow at Work’ is not a prescription, more of an invitation. “It turns out you can slow down and keep up’, she writes, ‘it just depends on what your idea of keeping up is”. Like many of the interviewees, Aoife is open and frank about the pitfalls of the entrepreneurial lifestyle- that the promised freedom can come at a high cost unless clear boundaries around time and a very very conscious commitment to wellbeing is applied – with discipline.

In our fast paced, ‘always on’ world, it’s reassuring to meet someone life Aoife who is writing so candidly about the perils of ‘ON’. It’s reassuring too that she’s not alone in her quest to switch gear, still do brilliant work and find ways to create flow and freedom. So if you are looking for new ways into considering what ‘keeping up’ means for you, you’ll find a fresh, friendly and honest voice in Aoife. So grab yourself a coffee, turn off the devises, and in finding your way to Aoife’s words you are already finding a way towards your own quest for sane…

You can pick up your copy of ‘Slow at Work’ in any good bookshop, as they say, or over on Gill Books website.

Happy reading 🙂 And if I have one piece of advice: take your time…

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(I was honoured to be one of Aoife’s interviewees in the book, alongside many wonderful Irish voices who I respect and admire. I am also so delighted that Aoife’s work is out in the world in book print form- such a great achievement and a valuable addition to the wellbeing conversation.. well done Aoife! )


What to do on a slump day…

What to do on a slump day

 

We all have them- those days we’d rather not. The day the internal weather turns on us and we’d rather hide.

I had one last week. It had started with big intentions-  to get up early, to do yoga, to dive into work and turn up my energy and productivity. It didn’t happen. I fell back asleep. I did a very brief bit of yoga. I felt resistance to being at my laptop. I ate cake.

Working for myself I try to put best habits in place, be consistent and show up to my work with gratitude for the opportunity and the freedom. But that day, quite simply, I didn’t want to. I wanted to hide. I wanted companionship and I started to question it ALL.

What does it matter in the bigger scheme of things? And I doing the real and important work? Does what I do make any difference at all? Who am I kidding?

The latter question in particular is an open door to my inner critic. For me it’s the ‘your so lazy you’ll never get there’ voice. And when that voice starts it gives rise to lots of others. There is the ‘imposter voice’- this is the ‘who do you think you are’ voice. Then there is the voice which is constantly worrying about building my business and finance- this is the voice which says ‘here you go again, it will never work’.  Then there is the more personal one that thinks I’ll be single and alone for the rest of my life- the ‘you’re not good enough voice’. Pretty soon there is a party in my head and the chatter so deafening it is no wonder I want to hide.

It turns out though that most of us have parties in our head. I know of no person who doesn’t experience it from time to time; and of course, I know for some people, the conversation is so loud it challenges longer term function.

What I say now is directed towards the days when you do feel in a slump, and need to find ways to quite the critic. That voice is so sabotaging, and learning to manage it and speak calmly to it is one of the most valuable learning adventures we can go on.

Here are a some of the few ways I find useful. It’s not a definitive list and quite personal to me, so I’d love to hear yours too… 

 Go for a walk

Nature has so many answers for us. The rhythm of the day, the pattern of the seasons, the crest of a wave reminds us that everything passes. The voice will pass too. When I put my ear up against a gush of wind or the whirl of the sea, the inner voice softens and I hear a deeper wisdom, ‘this too shall pass’.

Open the ‘cheerleading folder’ 

I have a folder in in email account called ‘cheerleaders’. These are emails I have kept on file from friends, readers and clients who say the good things. They are reminders of the small or big ways my work has reached and influenced them. They are like electronic bouncing castles for the spirit. Everyone should have a cheerleading folder!

Name the inner critic

Give that voice a name, an actual name, like Betty or Bob, or Hilda. When the voice arrives, welcome it and say, ’Here’s Hilda again, I wonder what’s up with her today’, then thank her and ask her to leave now because you are busy and have work to do. Naming the voice does’t deny it but does help to put it in its place. It helps to separate yourself from it too and opens some space from a more positive reaction and response.

Do a job on your list that you enjoy 

So maybe the day that your inner critic is speaking loudly is a day you have all the nasty jobs on your list. Scrap that. Instead, do a job that brings you joy, or if it’s not a job, ring a person that brings you joy. Or if not a person, dance in the kitchen, sing in the bath, jump up and down, shake something out. Some action is important. Physical activity really helps. Chats with good friends can work wonders too. Share it, shake it!

Write it out

Journal. Journal. Journal. Scribble. Getting the voice on paper is another way of distancing it. If it is on paper it’s not in your head- or at least not in your head as much.

Shake up your environment, shake up your routine

Walk to work the same route every morning? Change your direction.

Sit at the same place in your house if you are working from home? Move. Work in the garden, or in the bathtub, or on the floor. Changing your external perspective can help to shift your internal perspective. I love to go to a coffee shop and work there too, depending on my mood.

Get off your screens

Turn off your phone, laptop, tv and social media. There are so many messages swarming at us that on days when we are not in great headspace they are amplified and can be so utterly tormenting. Reducing tech stimulation helps to quiet the mind. When it’s not possible to entirely switch off, can you become more aware of your reading and viewing patterns, and limit the time you are using?

Get dressed up

Even if you are working from home, get dressed as if you are going to a really important meeting, or date! Put on the good clothes, put on the red lipstick (or whatever your equivalent is!) , brush your hair. Showing up to yourself, especially on the days when you couldn’t be bothered, helps you to see yourself differently. The inner critic hates that…

Give in (for a day… )

Somedays it just doesn’t budge or you don’t have the energy. Let the day slide. Stay in bed. Go to the cinema. Give yourself permission to have a slow day… the inner critic loves to chime in when you are tired but feeling obliged to be full of energy. Giving ourselves permission is one of the biggest game changers, and one of the hardest to implement… so before you go to bed that night, set some intentions for the following day. Plan your schedule. Set your outfit out and pre-empt some of the critic thoughts. Tomorrow is always another day.

And when all else fails, find a puppy! 

It’s hard to be down when there is a little playful animal around! For me, it’s Milly. On days when I just don’t feel up for anything, she still demands love, attention, cuddles and walks. In giving them I receive then all too… and somehow the slump is de-slumped!

Over to you.. any thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions? 

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