At the Archdeaconry Conference last week we had a person from LPP Consulting come to talk to us about ‘resilience’. I thought I would share with you some of what was important to me about what he said.
First of all Albert (our speaker) reminded us about the ‘flight/fight’ response of humans and other animals. This response is triggered by a perceived danger, and produces adrenaline, which then goes to work on all our systems to prepare us either to flee or to fight.
This is fine for short term danger from predators, but becomes dangerous to us when we experience constant, low grade adrenaline in our bodies. This is brought about by other kinds of dangers (demands at work, inner ‘self talk’ about how bad we are, for example), which cannot be immediately dealt with. So being ‘resilient’ means being able to ‘recover’ after a stressful time.
Albert gave us the example of Roger Federer. He performs at a high level, but instead of being ‘turned on’ all the time, Roger Federer’s stress levels go up very high when playing a point, but then, between points he totally relaxes. This ability to ‘turn off’ and ‘turn on’ is a model of being resilient.
It is easy for Roger Federer in some respects, because his ‘work’ involves the very physical activity that breaks down adrenaline. For the rest of us, we have to find ways of building physical activity into life, in order to use up adrenaline.
But the other thing that Albert said, which connected with some spiritual practices, was that to be resilient involves the two-fold action of ‘attention and letting go’. This is exactly what they say when giving instructions about meditation. To meditate is to try to empty one’s mind, by bringing my breathing, and the repetition of a word like ‘maranatha’ (come Lord Jesus) in to a kind of synchronisation. Then there will be intrusive thoughts that come from other places, like the events of the day and so on. The instruction then is to notice this thought, without judgement, and then to return to the ‘word/breathing’ pattern. Now I can understand part of the logic of meditation: it is practice in ‘attending and letting go’.
But there are other things that help me to ‘let go’ of the rumination on events that produces constant low levels of adrenaline. Being able to ‘flow’ emotionally: mostly to cry helps me a lot to honour the sadness of parts of life: my own failures to do what I would like. My failures in relationship, my conflicts with others. Being able to bring myself in prayer to God, and to express all these things in God’s company helps me to ‘process’ the events of life, and what I think about them. Like the song ‘The Gambler’ “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em!’ The trick is not in knowing how to ‘hold’ or ‘fold’ but knowing when to do what!
An other thing that Albert said was that the thoughts that give rise to the ‘perception of danger, that then makes the adrenaline flow are often unconsciously held. It is important, he said, to constantly have a good look at what ‘thoughts’ I implicitly hold. I can then ask myself whether these thoughts are ones that I want to keep, and whether or not there are small changes in behaviour that I can make, that will counter these thoughts. Listen to this list of the ‘mind traps’ as Albert calls them. Focusing on the worst case scenario; over generalising; blowing things out of proportion; thinking that everything is personal; having too many ‘shoulds’ in life; all or nothing thinking; thinking that you know what others are thinking; believing that whatever you ‘feel’ must automatically be true. Some of them sound familiar to me.
Last week’s reflection was a go at really examining the ‘should’ that says ‘You should not have foes’. At other times I have thought ‘You are not working hard enough’, so I wrote down everything that I did for two months, and showed myself that I was working ‘OK’.
Another time, I fond myself in conflict with an office manager. I had done lots of ‘group work’ and had owned the values of such work like ‘use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements’ and ‘if you have an issue, don’t go straight to the boss, but try to deal with it directly with the person concerned.’ I was trying all these ‘rules’ for good relating, but seemingly getting nowhere. Then my friend said to me “You know, your trouble is that because you have learned all these ways of being, you expect others to do the same. In this office relationships are not conducted according to ‘group work’ rules. I had not known that I had implicitly held this expectation. Once I became conscious of my unconscious ‘should’ then I could see better, and change my behaviour.
In Christian life this kind of ‘examination’ is what goes on when one has a regular spiritual director or confessor.
Much of the wisdom of this kind of psychology is in fact available to Christians simply by being part of the tradition. Take the Eucharist for example. I have written a lot about the process of living the baptismal life, which involves ‘dying, entombment and rising.’ This process happens in the Eucharist too, if we bring something to it. Participating in Eucharist is about renewing our ‘communion’ with the God who loves us, by unpicking and dying to the negativity of thought and action that separates us from God. The programme of resilience training that we were exposed to does this within a secular framework.
An interesting thing to me about this kind of training is that it does not take much account of the context in which one is working. You know the joke: Person 1 “Boy, are you paranoid!” Person 2: “Well you’d be paranoid too if everyone was looking at you!”
Some conditions of work or life are in themselves inhuman. When this happens, what is needed is not resilience, but the power and courage to try to change an inhuman context. IT is difficult for consultants in ‘resilience training’ to bight the corporate hand that feeds them, but as the ‘happy natives’ line encapsulates, the ‘natives’ can be ‘happy’ ,but who is looking at the conditions of slavery under which the natives are kept! No amount of resilience training will change this injustice. In a sense, if one accepts the ‘rightness’ of the conditions that frame an environment, then learning to be resilient within that framework is a good thing. But if the context is unjust, then resilience training becomes ‘the opiate of the people’ just as religion was accused of being by Karl Marx, when he was looking at the unjust conditions of work in the nineteenth century.
Being a Christian gives us the opportunity not only to learn some practices of resilience, but also to look at the context in which these practices might yield their best fruit.