Learning Resilience (Part One)

Learning Resilience (Part One)

by Michael Texeira

Estimated reading time: 6-10 minutes

The modern world asks a lot of us. No longer is life as simple as chopping wood and carrying water, hunting and foraging.  While the movement away from a simple and highly physical life means we are generally under less physical stress, it does mean we have to deal with a much greater amount of mental stress. This is compounded by a culture of comfort in which we are told repeatedly through advertisements to want more, and that happiness arises from getting what we want. Yet, the economic reality is that despite wanting more, many of us can afford less. It is no surprise that diagnoses of mental illness have been on the rise for decades. In order to understand how to develop resilience in modern life, however, we first have to understand the ways in which we fail to.

Where We Are Weak

There’s a common saying in the West, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  Apart from the dubious implication that lemons are somehow an unpleasant fruit, the saying itself encapsulates the core idea of emotional resilience.  Life is, after all, a series of gains and losses, accord and discord. Most adults have long since realised that you can’t control everything so that only good things happen to you.  When we say someone is acting childishly, what we really mean is that they’re failing to expect, account for, and adequately handle the aspects of their life that they don’t like and can’t control.

In the digital and social world, however, it appears that we have cast such citric wisdom away.  Outrage has become the order of the day through the rise of digital media and the reach and anonymity it provides. The internet has become a toxic place that many use to condemn total strangers for their unproven opinions if in conflict with their own. On platforms like Instagram we elevate people to celebrity status, while on Twitter we pull them down when they too are exposed as human beings, capable of ignorance, bad behaviour, and unpopular opinions.

This becomes a self-reinforcing habit, as we begin to seek out reasons to be outraged, getting neurological hits of pleasure when we self-righteously go down the digital warpath.  Each action undertaken from outrage not only makes the internet a less pleasant place for us, but usually comes with anger, an emotion which places stress upon our hearts and vascular system. Most of the time we do not know the people we are angry at, nor get to see them change. While anger leading to change can be functional, this form of internet dog-piling without direct connection and empathy for the other rarely leads to change in the other. Anger without catharsis triggers us to repeat the behaviour without resulting in the social payoff that the behaviour was evolved to produce. It is not only modern social interactions which are failing to provide their required function, however.

In the economic world, we see the demise of community as more and more economic activity is done entirely through faceless corporations.  Small local businesses flounder and fail, and many people have never had a conversation with the people next door or down the hall. Our neighbours and local businesses are inherently invested in our shared environment and it being an environment worth occupying. In contrast, large corporations have no inherent stake in the wellbeing of our communities. 

Instead of putting their profits back into local infrastructure, many use their wealth to avoid taxes that support the infrastructure they rely on, and to reward their executives, regardless of success. On top of that, the free market economic model which neo-liberalism aspires to promotes specialised labour and systems. Work is often repetitive leaving people little opportunity or incentive to build new skills. This specialisation creates systems which are fundamentally complacent and incapable of predicting or responding effectively to quick or large changes that affect their foundations.

The majority of people rely so heavily on the economic model for their survival that they cannot allow themselves to question it. Our livelihoods are extremely fragile, able to be disrupted by minor economic changes. The economic model itself, ideally an extension of the real economy of goods and services and in service to the common good, also has toxic elements. The largest economic actors are increasingly finding ways to benefit from the infrastructure of the commons without paying back into the pot. The wealth of the richest individuals dwarfs that of the majority. Instead of providing a level-playing field through an agreed-upon medium for exchange, the model has become warped into a means for those with a disproportionately large percentage of the wealth to further extract value from the earth and people around them. Yet, more than just the economy is being distorted by complacency.

In the physical world, we spend more and more of our lives seated or reclined, our spines passively moulding around our sofas and office chairs.  This passivity permeates our lives. We increasingly turn to processed foods as a means to fit nutrition into our busy alternating schedules of repetitive labour and the passive consumption of entertainment. Many people grow up never learning to cook nourishing food, let alone spending time on a farm, connecting to the living earth and the cycles which underlie the cling-film wrapped offerings at the local supermarket. There are even fewer who could point to a local edible plant while walking through a field. Our passivity is such that our connection to the natural processes which feed us seems to be continually diminishing. We sit and we consume, passively allowing the easiest options to mould and inform us.

When teaching hatha yoga, it is startling to see just how physically weak many people in our society are.  It is, however, unsurprising, as modern society has oriented the means of production towards making our lives as easy and free of physical effort as possible. Where the very effort of survival in days long past would have kept us strong, flexible, and knowledgeable about our environment, we are now free to be weak, stiff, and ignorant.

Machines do much of the work of building, we can largely curate our immediate spaces to require little movement, and we increasingly allow the internet to know things for us. Whether or not we are conscious of this, there is a deeper recognition of our shortcomings and disconnection, which we experience as general stress and anxiety. We can liken this to the stress of getting a task or job in which we lack the tools to succeed. In this case, the task is thriving in the physical world. Stress and anxiety can then compound our weakness and difficulty in making the changes to our lives that would allow us to grow more capable. We know that feeling strong, mobile, and knowledgeable instills a sense of positive self worth, and yet, many of us in the modern world ignore this, preferring to live in denial of our weaknesses rather than face up to the difficulty of making changes.

As ecological and economic forces seem poised to throw the structural basis of our Western lifestyle into disarray, it’s sobering to see just how unprepared we are for the potential changes on the horizon.  While some will stockpile supplies, most of us have no lasting plan for what to do should those supplies run out, no deeper understanding of how we might replenish them, or build the means to create new systems of production. To face widespread change with grace and adaptability requires a skill that our grandparents took for granted, but which modern social infrastructure has largely rendered optional.  We need to develop resilience.

We Have Hidden Strength

McMillan’s online dictionary (online being likely the only format of dictionary many of the younger generation have access to in their home) gives us two definitions for resilience.

 

  • someone’s ability to become healthy, happy, or strong again after an illness, disappointment, or other problem
 
  • the ability of a substance or object to return to its original shape after being bent, stretched, or pressed

 

Both definitions give us insight into what we’re lacking in the modern world.  The second definition can give us insight into the first using the lens of anatomy and the lessons we learn on the yoga mat.

Our capacity as animals to adapt to our environments is rooted primarily in the complexity of our neurological system. Our brains process massive amounts of information, most of it unconsciously, and provide us with the information we need to navigate a world rife with predators, obstacles, and shifts in the environment. In order to make use of this information, however, we have to be able to react to the environment that we are receiving information about.  The bridge between the information and the action is our spinal cord, and surrounding the spinal cord is perhaps the most innately resilient large structure in our body, the column of mutually supportive bones and connective tissue that make up the spine itself.

In Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews’ book ‘Yoga Anatomy’, there is an entire chapter dedicated to looking at the evolutionary roots and mechanical properties of the spine. To sum it up, the spine is the product of the evolutionary drive to protect this bridge between the brain and the body as evolutionary forces changed from the aquatic to the land bound to the bipedal. As humans, our spines are tremendously complex and uniquely specialized as a result of our bipedal motion. The curvature of our spine reflects the gravitational forces that act upon a standing, walking primate.

Despite being the most ungainly animal on the planet, top-heavy and unstable, we nevertheless thrive thanks to the range of motion afforded us by our incredibly adaptable spine. What makes the spine so tremendously resilient is the way it distributes and responds to the forces which are applied to it, dispersing energy (within limits) by using connective tissue to provide internal tension and compressibility to its structure. I highly recommend the above book for a wonderful breakdown of the anatomy of the spine within a yogic framework.

It is telling that so many of us in the modern world suffer from postural problems and back pain.  Despite the resilient nature of the spine (its tendency to automatically return to a neutral position once pressures and tensions are released), our spines are increasingly suffering from issues which stem from our behavioural choices. Regarding the resilience of the spine as a primary form of support in the core, Kaminoff and Matthews note that, ‘when this support asserts itself, it is always because some extraneous muscular effort has ceased to obstruct it.’ (p. 43) We are the antagonists preventing the spine’s resilience from asserting itself, when we hold ourselves in unnatural postures for long periods of time.

Not all postures are maintained directly through our conscious actions. In the case of the spine being passively moulded by a slumped position on a couch, we are not choosing to slouch. Our slouch is the result of inaction and inattention, not noticing discomfort being caused by our environment. Similar distortion can be caused by a posture we’re passively lounging in, or a group of friends or family that we adapt our ideas and behaviours to, or our jobs.  If you feel physically, emotionally or ethically uncomfortable in your context whenever you allow yourself to bring attention to it (instead of distracting yourself with television or personal drama, for example), then your context may be unsuitable for maintaining healthy physical, mental, or emotional resilience.

What we can take away from this is that we are built to be resilient.  We shouldn’t have to learn or try to be resilient. A billion plus years of evolution in hostile environments has already cemented the capacity for resilience deep into our DNA and the structures that it builds. The problem appears to be that we actively choose to put ourselves in situations where that resilience cannot express itself. We entertain ideas, ideologies, and behaviours that disrupt and obstruct this innate capacity. Of course, for most of us, these behaviours don’t feel like choices at all, but expressions of who we are. How can we choose something when we aren’t even aware that a choice exists? I’ll look at how the pervasive influences of identity and social programming inhibit our resilience in the next post.

To be continued…