To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.
(Thich Nhat Hanh)
The mindfulness we practice on our cushion in the morning is the same mindfulness we practice to notice our reaction when our spouse frowns at us or our boss yells at us, and to notice our reactivity when we are frowning or yelling at them!
The compassion we practice in a weekly class or a daylong is the same compassion we practice when we or someone we love loses a job, or a relationship, or a home, or their health.
The resourcing in community we experience on a meditation retreat is the same resourcing we seek in a support group for cancer survivors or for those who have lost a loved one in a car accident or in combat.
Anchoring our wise effort in the Dharma—cultivating the wholesome and letting go of the unwholesome—informs the choices we make about the food we eat, the time we spend playing with our kids, how we vote, how we mobilize to deal with global warming, racial inequality and economic injustice, and how we face old age, dying, and death.
Our spiritual practice is the foundation of all the choices we make in our lives, all the ways we behave in the world, and all of the coping we are called upon to do with the challenges and crises, the losses and suffering inevitable in the human condition.
All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.
Resilience and trauma researchers are identifying five factors essential to reducing distress and recovering from any trauma, and we can skillfully apply our practices of mindfulness, compassion, and community to all five of them.
1. Acceptance of Reality
Be willing to have it so. Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.
Mindfulness is essential to accepting the reality of any distressful or tragic event. To notice, be aware, acknowledge, allow, tolerate, accept, be with, and work through every facet of what’s unfolding, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year. To see clearly the new reality, the full scope of the upheaval, the difficult truths of ongoing consequences.
This happened. Never should have. Not fair. Any major difficulty or disaster can cause upheaval, even sweep away our old constructs of how the world works, the old rules we relied on to guide us and to keep us safe.
Accepting the full scope of a new reality, even when we want to fully resist and protest, is considered a significant predictor of how well people will cope with any trauma. Mindfulness—accepting every aspect of the new reality—gives us a space to reflect on and choose our responses, and that is the beginning of post-traumatic growth.
Compassion, for ourselves and for everyone impacted by such an upheaval, is also essential for acceptance of this new reality—compassion for the waves of distress, anguish, panic, and rage we and others might be experiencing. Compassion will activate the brain’s caregiving system, moving us beyond feelings to action.
2. Resourcing with People, Refuging in Community
When we, or someone we care deeply about, are struggling to keep our head above water, it’s essential to be held in a safety net of support.
The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
Being able to share our story and hear other people’s stories brings us into alignment with our common humanity again. I am not the only one. I am not alone. Feeling seen and understood without having to explain or defend or justify anything can be very normalizing and regulating.
An important gift of seeking the understanding, solace, and comfort of others in difficult times is experiencing the support of people who believe in you and who believe in you recovering your resilience. This helps us shift from any victim “poor me” stance into a more empowered “I can do this!” stance.
And it’s important to be protected from people who too quickly say, “You’ll be fine; move on!” or who doubt your capacity to recover or who doubt your process of recovery.
We gain courage from other people who help us see the light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel because they have traveled the same or similar road themselves, and who have courage themselves to accompany us on that journey.
3. Resourcing with the Positive
With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.
It may seem completely counterintuitive at first to attempt ourselves or to encourage others to find a positive moment in the midst of a catastrophe, and we certainly don’t do that to avoid being with and empathizing with the fear, the grief, the agony of the experience.
But finding moments of respite—in a warm cup of coffee, in the smile of a friend, in playing with a puppy, in a walk in a park—is essential to shift the functioning of the brain out of contraction, reactivity and rumination, into possibilities and a larger perspective. A temporary respite from unbearable uncertainty, fear, and grief. Finding a space to breathe and regroup in the midst of a very difficult effort.
4. Turning a Regrettable Moment into a Teaching Moment
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
Our practices of mindfulness, compassion, resourcing with others, and resourcing with the positive, create a platform where we can begin to look for the silver lining—the lessons in the learning, the gift in the mistake—in whatever storm we are in the middle of and reframe the event or series of events of a lifetime into a new story, a new wiser view of ourselves, of our lives, of life in general. This reframing is considered the turning point of recovery from trauma and moving into post-traumatic growth.
Our new life story now includes a distressing event or calamity as part of the story, but that event is not the whole story. Our new larger sense of identity and purpose includes the trauma but is not entirely defined by the trauma. The trauma can take its place in our life story without determining the rest of the story.
Trauma is a fact of life. It doesn’t have to be a life sentence.
It may take many moments to do this step. This step may need to be done many times.
5. Appreciating the New Life Because of the Disaster
Because there is no returning to baseline for people whose worlds have been upended by trauma, a traumatic event is not simply a hardship to be overcome. The trauma becomes a dividing line in people’s lives. It can catalyze deep transformation. People do more than survive; they become wise.
This is the hardest step of the practice, it is also the most redemptive.
Very often (researchers are discovering up to 75% of the time) genuine tragedy can force people to dig deeper, to seek a deeper meaning, a truer purpose for their lives. Not always, never easy. But our deepening spiritual practice makes it possible to see more clearly, accept more fully, the changes and growth that come about in our lives, not just in spite of whatever has befallen us but because of it. New dedication, new commitment, new gratitude for what might yet emerge, takes root and blossoms in our lives.
[Trauma] is a catalyst for the emotional growth. The worst has happened, and we are changed. Let’s face it. Few of us live our best and kindest lives. Most of us hurtle along, propelled by bills and responsibilities, somewhat impervious to our true potential. A breakdown also breaks down the musts and should-haves that ruled our daily routines, along with life as we knew it. Temporarily suspended in a vacuum, we can recalibrate, and maybe for the first time, tune into what truly matters.
It’s the process of rebuilding and rediscovering who you are in a world where “bad things happen to good people” that fosters new meaning, new purpose, new direction for people. Not just bouncing back but bouncing forward into a new sense of fulfillment and thriving. That’s the growth. That’s the practice.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.