On a trip to Ireland a few years back, we were driving along the coast in County Clare and we stopped to see a tree, on the edge of the ocean. First glance showed, it had, obviously, been beaten and weathered by the elements. The trunk almost parallel to the ground and its branches and leaves blown sideways like the malleable hair of one of those troll dolls from my childhood.
It was bordered by another wall of rocks and brush that separated one plot of land from another.
A closer look revealed a blanket of rocks protecting and anchoring its base, holding it firmly in place. The fields on either side of the rock wall gave grazing space to sheep and cows but there was a reverence and sacredness to the presence of this tree that stood alone.
Facing the elements with little protection.
But also providing safe haven to imagination, mythology and dreams.
This tree, my friends, was no ordinary tree. What I have come to learn is that this "fairy tree" is one of many just like it in Ireland and if you see one, you should definitely pay attention.
Legend has it that fairy trees are surrounded in superstition, as you’ve probably guessed, involving magic and bad luck. Some believe if you damage or cut down one of these trees you’ll be faced with a life of bad luck. As you can imagine people are very wary of touching one.
But why in this modern age, do the people still succumb to a mindset that you could argue is just an ancient folk tale? It's because these fairy trees hold the key to mystery of resilience.
Resilience is the ability to "bounce back better" after a challenge, struggle or trauma. Our levels of resiliency will change and develop throughout our lives, and at points, we will find that we do not cope as well as others, as well as surprising ourselves when we manage a difficult situation. In another sense, resilience is just one of many psychological tools we implement to get us back to feeling normal again.
What you should immediately connect with is that one of the requirements of resilience is the need for some kind of adversity. We need the struggle. In fact, my Sanskrit teacher, Manorama and her teacher, Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, would even say "Pray for more problems". I remember hearing this and thinking to myself, "Seriously? Pray for MORE problems? WTF? As if I don't have enough?"
True story though...if you want to get better at bending without breaking in the winds of change, the answer is yes, pray for more problems.
Why is resilience important?
Unless you are going to live your life, curled up in a ball in some corner, you gotta have some level of resilience. It enables us to develop mechanisms for protection against experiences which could be overwhelming, it helps us to maintain balance in our lives during difficult or stressful periods, and can also protect us from the development of some mental health difficulties and issues. (Miles, 2015)
Kinda sounds like a valuable skill in a pandemic, huh?
Some of the various benefits of becoming more resilient are listed below:
Improved learning and academic achievement.
Lower absences from work or study due to sickness.
Reduced use of risk-taking behaviors such as excessive drinking, smoking or use of drugs.
Increased involvement in community or family activities.
A lower rate of mortality and increased physical health.
"Weather Whatever" - Going beyond resilience
I think that I would have written a completely different perspective just a few weeks or months ago, but the global coronavirus pandemic has shocked me into the need to rapidly develop not only resilience but cultivate a highly curated risk-tolerant skill set that offers a springboard for the return to regularly scheduled life programming.
Friends, we are being given the magical, fairy gift of time to drink from the firehose of wisdom and practice skills for the inevitable return to usual and customary.
There’s a big difference between being fragile, being resilient, and becoming antifragile.
If you’re fragile and life hits you hard, you break.
If you’re resilient and life hits you hard, you withstand more and eventually… you break.
If you’re ANTIFRAGILE, when life hits you hard, you actually get stronger.
Our aversion to struggle is that many of us have not been taught the skills of how to sit with difficulty, how to lean into the sharp edges of life and how to self-soothe in times of significant stress. It's not magic, it's science.
1) Mantra practice - "This is what is happening NOW" - this is the ability to NOTICE the reality of the current situation and NAME the true elements. Right now, I am in my house. Right now, I am safe. Right now, I have everything that I need. Right now, I am missing nothing.
Even when you are not under significant stress, practicing observation skills and identifying truths. Meditation can increase the neural pathways for our pre-frontal cortex to perform the executive function of discernment between elements and ratchet up our capacity to sit with the swirling winds of change.
Instead of guided meditations that take us out of our own experiences, consider a three step meditation process - Choose your seat, be still and focus. Watch your breath and notice what comes up for you in the now. Instead of following your thoughts, step back and witness that if not fertilized, random thoughts can have very little staying power when you are fully present in time.
2) Put yourself under some controlled stress and breathe into the intensity.
Your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system can actually be purposefully regulated through the use of deep, expansive breathing. Our bodies are hard wired to react to threats by increasing cortisol to prepare us for fight, flight or freeze. When we are under stress, the breath tends to be more shallow and located in the chest, which releases adrenalin, chemically-inducing an increased physical response opportunity.
Practicing techniques like nadi shodhana - alternate nostril breathing (see a video here) involves inhaling and exhaling through one nostril at a time. This practice calms, purifies and strengthens the nervous system and deepens self-awareness.
Practicing vinyasa (breath aligned with movement) yoga can restructure the response patterns and strengthen your ability to breath through adversity. You can also practice this with other physical movement practices like IntenSati
3) Learning to self-soothe
Most of the time, my self-soothing technique involve pouring a glass of wine or reading a good book. Not knocking a little "numbing out" and escape, but developing true anti-fragile status requires that we lean how to NAVIGATE with proven strategies.
Havening techniques are a healing modality that is designed to help individuals overcome problems that are the consequence of traumatic encoding. Havening Touch (see a video here) involves a simple touch of the hands, upper arms and face. This touch generates a delta wave in the brain to calm the nervous system in times of trauma.
Tapping (EFT - emotional freedom technique) - Similar to acupuncture, EFT focuses on the meridian points— or energy hot spots — to restore balance to your body’s energy. It’s believed that restoring this energy balance can relieve symptoms a negative experience or emotion may have caused. (see a video here)
Begin by tapping the specific point while simultaneously reciting your setup phrase three times. Then, tap each following point seven times, moving down the body in this ascending order:
side of the eye
under the eye
under the nose
beginning of the collarbone
under the arm
After tapping the underarm point, finish the sequence at the top of the head point.
While tapping the ascending points, recite a reminder phrase to maintain focus on your problem area. If your setup phrase is, “Even though I’m sad my mother is sick, I deeply and completely accept myself,” your reminder phrase can be, “The sadness I feel that my mother is sick.”
Recite this phrase at each tapping point. Repeat this sequence two or three times.
So, let's all take a lesson from the Fairy Tree.
Bless yourself with adversity, especially in these times and know the time will come to return to the world. How we choose to return is up to us.
I embrace randomness and uncertainty, which also means— crucially—a love of errors, especially a certain class of errors. I am resourced to be strong but flexible, falling in love with what is and leaning into the sharp edges of my discomfort.
I choose to show up anti-fragile, with the mindset of the Fairy Tree. I pray for more problems and harness the power of the storm, grateful for this one, precious life.