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The Art of Resilience




Excerpted from
The Art of Resilience: 100 Paths to Wisdom and Strength in an Uncertain World
By Carol Orsborn

"Life moves upward and lets the mistakes sink down behind it." - The I Ching

Three thousand years ago, the ancient Chinese understood that every aspect of life is in a constant state of change. At any given moment, certain aspects of our lives are falling away - and certain aspects are birthing. So it is that we progress through our days, leaving behind qualities and aspects that no longer serve us and acquiring new depths of awareness about who we are becoming.

More often than not, pain is the catalyst that causes us to shed outmoded ways of being and to stumble with various combinations of grace and muttering onto the threshold of new passions. The ancient Chinese sought to master the art of resilience by accepting, rather than fearing, change as the way of the world. As we approach the turn of the millennium, we have access to the knowledge and wisdom of not only these ancient seekers, but of the mystics, philosophers, and scientists of virtually every era and culture. From Christian mystics to Hasidic rabbis, from Sufi masters to scientists, this book is inspired by these spiritually gifted individuals who teach us through many symbolic, philosophical, and even scientific symbols the core truth of universal faith: that there is a tendency for good to prevail.

Call it Tao, Life Force, Great Spirit, Energy, or God. Or, as Nobel prize-winning chemise Ilya Prigogine postulated, call it the theory of dissipative structures. Utilizing the scientific method, Prigogine theorized that people, things, and events are involved in a continuous exchange of energy, impacting one another on an ongoing basis. When something disturbs or upsets the system, the components have the capacity to reorganize themselves into a higher order. The new order tends to move away from destructive propensities and toward actions and states representing a greater capability to protect the system from threats in the future.

We do not stand alone, rigid objects in a static world. Rather, we are part of the complex interplay of the entire energy field, both internal and external. Change any part of it, physical or metaphysical, and you impact the whole. This book is based on the premise that you have it within your power to effect a response that will bring forth from the things that happen to you the greatest good possible. This is not to say that there are not certain times when crises may overwhelm your ability to recover on your own. If you have a suspicion that this may be the case for you, 1 urge you to seek professional help. But understand that even this act, the recognition that you need assistance, sets in motion forces leading to recovery.

The summer that birthed the idea for this book gave me many opportunities to practice the art of resilience. In a short period of time, I faced challenges, pain, and disappointment in my career and personal relationships as well as physical well-being.

My initial response to my troubles echoed an incident that pastor Bruce Larson tells in his book Living Beyond Our Fears: Discovering Life When You're Scared to Death. Bruce shares the story of an elderly friend of his, who had decided to invest all of his retirement money in the stock market. Then came the crash of October 1987. His friend's entire life savings were wiped out in one fell swoop. Bruce called his friend and asked how he was doing.

"I'm sleeping like a baby," his friend replied.

"I wake up every three or four hours and cry."

Ironically, crisis is not built into the fabric of the actual events our lives deliver to us. Rather, psychologists contend that crisis occurs "when our theories about ourselves in relation to the outside world go fundamentally wrong," explains author Glenys Parry: "It is as if your front door, one day, instead of opening when you turned the key, gave you an electric shock."

It is the dissonance between our expectations and our outcomes that causes the pain - not the outcomes alone. Foremost among our expectations is our belief that pain is something to be avoided at all costs; that it is bad for you. Suffering does not fit our theory about what it takes to succeed in life and so we fail to concede that pain is inevitable in each of our lives. The fact that each of us suffers misfortunes from time to time may be our society's darkest, deepest secret. From a quick survey of the self-help spiritual supermarket, it is apparent that as a whole, we would rather focus on the abundance of the universe. On prosperity, thinking positively, we work to build life structures so big and powerful that it would take an army tank of a disappointment to break through.

If even so, upset threatens to break through, we'll try another strategy. We'll simplify ourselves to the point where there's nothing left to lose; we'll get busy so that we won't have time to feel our losses; or we'll medicate the pain with drugs, alcohol, or food. Perhaps that is why sales of Prozac are so high - and why most of the gurus on the talk-show circuits place their emphasis on mastering success to avoid pain rather than on how to deal with and rebound from it when it occurs. As a result, we know a great deal about how to push through our fears and feelings to attempt to achieve our goals, but we know precious little about how to suffer gracefully and productively when we are up against forces we cannot control.

While our culture tends to call surrendering to pain "apathy," the truth is that the Greek root for the word apathy actually means the avoidance, not the experience, of suffering. It is not when you are feeling the pain of setbacks that you are being apathetic, but rather, when you squash your fear of appearing morbid, stupid, guilty, faithless, emotional, or powerless. Suffering pain fully and wholly is not a passive act of resignation. Rather, it is the dynamic groundwork from which, lovingly tended, the seeds of transformation and transcendence will sprout.

Contemporary psychologists and theologians are just now shaping theories of recovery that the wisest of our ancient philosophers and mystics intuited to be true thousands of years ago. There are stages to the process of recovery, stages that you will be encouraged to traverse through the pages of this book. The process is initiated the moment you recognize that it is not only the actuality of the challenge you face that has caused you to search deeper for answers, but that the real issue is that the presenting event has outstripped your current capacity to manage the world to your satisfaction. You can't be good enough, try hard enough, be smart enough, meditate enough, eat enough vegetarian meals, and say enough prayers to get your life to turn out the way you'd like each and every time. Certainly, you can influence your destiny by utilizing all the spiritual, physical, emotional, and practical technology your spirit can muster - but you cannot guarantee any single one of your outcomes. You cannot even know for sure what will happen to you one second from now.

You may struggle to hold on to the things that you thought you could count on - like branches hanging over the quagmire of hopelessness that threatens to take you under. And then the branches crack. Destiny swallows you deeply into the mystery. Let it. For this is the very route to meaning. To extract this meaning, your life must seek to find the powerful fulcrum point where there exists balance between opposites. On one hand, there are times when you will feel the vital drive of hope, ambition, and dreams enticing you forward. On the other hand, there are times when the finitude of the human condition presses in upon you. Surrender, and you will gain velocity and direction from your limitations. The philosopher Rollo May guided us to think of our lives as water flowing to the sea. Without its banks, there can be no river. Without your disappointments, your duties and responsibilities pressing against your dreams, giving shape and direction to your destiny, you could never reach the sea.

By distilling and applying the wisdom of those who came before me to my own recovery, I recognized why it is that the art of resilience depends so heartily on the principle of surrendering rather than pushing through. For it is when we loosen our grip on reality that disappointment has the opportunity to reorganize our understandings of ourselves and the world into a higher order. Writer Dorothy Lessing notes:

Almost all men . . . have strange imaginings. The strangest of these is a belief that they can progress only by improvement. Those who understand will realize that we are much more in need of stripping off than adding on.

As I write this, four months after the last of my summers disappointments, I find my pain to have gently receded. In its place is a mysteriously replenished supply of faith. It is not that all of the issues that caused me pain this summer have been rectified, but that somehow, my spirit has grown large enough to encompass a broader spectrum of the human condition. I feel blessed to have this opportunity to share what I have learned about the art of resilience with you.


You have encountered obstacles in your journey through life. Perhaps the pain you feel has to do with a relationship that is important to you, a change in your job or financial situation, or worrisome news about your health. At this moment, you may feel alone with your wounds. Outwardly, you may feel resentment about others who participated in your suffering - or about the un-trustworthiness of the world. Secretly, you may harbor shame about the role you played. Swirling around it all is a sense of having lost your footing. The ground you thought - or at least hoped - you could count on feels as though it were crumbling beneath your feet.

But the truth is, there is nothing that fate has brought you that you can't handle. Your recovery will occur sooner or later. You will feel yourself again - and this time, your self will be standing on the firmer ground of experience hard won through today's suffering.

There is one difference between those individuals who rebound sooner and those who rebound later from the disappointments they've suffered. Those who rebound sooner have opened their hearts to the notion that resilience is an art that can be learned. When misfortune comes their way, they do not let their pain whip them into extremes - neither frenzy nor denial. Rather, they engage with their pain, trusting that however complete the wreckage, the greatest possible good can yet emerge.

To become a candidate for mastery, you do not need to feel grateful for what has happened to you. Resilience can be acquired whether you are feeling sad, angry, depressed, or numb. You don't even need to have faith that this will work for you. For the time being, if you are feeling depleted, these pages will hold the faith for you.

The subsequent ten stages will acquaint you with the art of resilience. They are organized in a progression, from the initial shock of impact, through both short- and long-term stages of recovery. The words have been inspired by those who have overcome setbacks in their lives and careers. These are the voices of those who have spoken to me from the pages of books, in the classrooms I frequent both as a student and as a teacher, and through both the chance encounter and the most intimate connections that grace my life. These are spirits whose lives have revealed to me the innermost secret of resilience: The deeper the channels pain carves into your soul, the greater the capacity for joy your soul can contain. Mastering the art of resilience does much more than restore you to who you once thought you were. Rather, you emerge from the experience transformed into a truer expression of who you are really meant to be.

Prepare to be surprised.



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