Meditation and Mindfulness for Resilience

“…meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. How could that not be a skill worth cultivating?” ~ Sam Harris in “Waking Up”

Meditation is the practice of training attention and awareness. We do so by focusing on the sensations we feel, the sights we see and the state of our mind and thoughts. Mindfulness is the most common form of meditation practiced in the West today, alongside transcendental meditation and metta. 

Mindfulness, or focussed attention meditation, comes from the traditional Theravada school of meditation, and has two goals at its heart, two mental qualities to strive for. The first comes from the Pali word ‘samatha’, which roughly translates to “tranquility” and is characterised by a steady, composed and concentrated mind present enough to facilitate the second state to occur. The second state comes from the Pali word ‘vipassana’, which translates to “insight” and refers to the development of awareness of our thoughts, reactions, conditionings and so on.

With these two mental states, we can work to avoid applying subjectivity to objects and situations. What that means is coming to the realisation that we live separately to our thoughts, sensations and feelings. They only last and persist as long as we enable them by attaching them to our sense of self. Instead, we can view sensations and thoughts as messages, which then allows us to view them more objectively – determining whether they are useful to us in a given moment, and telling us something important (e.g. that a deadline is looming). Or, alternatively, do we determine that our thoughts are hindering us (e.g. dwelling on a breakup instead of looking to form a new relationship). Through meditation we can achieve this separation, and in doing so, develop resilience – the capacity to overcome obstacles and recover quickly from adversity.

A crucial piece of the resilience puzzle is having a clear mind that can focus on issues at hand, avoiding the subjective conditioning that can manifest as nagging anxieties or insecurities about the future, or our own ability to deal with difficulty. To be truly resilient is to be objective, and our first step in arriving at this is understanding how our mental conditioning prevents us from being objective – which is where mindfulness practice comes in.

Research into mindfulness has become more prevalent as the practice has gained traction in the West. We now have evidence to suggest that mindfulness can support immune function, positively impact the biological markers of aging, improve clinical anxiety, symptoms of psychological stress and overall mental quality of life.

Mindfulness has even been used to great effect to decrease eating disorder-related symptomology, including emotional and binge eating.

Mindfulness has been shown to positively affect resilience in multiple studies. Galante et al. (2017) found that eight weeks of mindfulness training in university students was effective in significantly boosting resilience during exam season – one of the most stressful points of the year. Hanna and Pidgeon (2018) applied a similar resilience programme to health care workers, reporting similar results, but adding that the changes in resilience were additionally responsible for reducing the markers of burnout and compassion fatigue that typically occur in these populations.

While we concede that more research is needed to fully confirm the above findings, and that research into mindfulness and meditation is still in its early stages, it is safe to say that the findings are encouraging so far. The mechanisms involved in both mindfulness and meditation do seem to have a positive impact. For more information about what form those mechanisms could take, we refer you to a 2016 paper from Dahl, Lutz and Davidson.

How do I start meditating?

Meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zun of the University of Massachusetts has pulled together a set of instructions specifically for developing resilience through meditation. They are as follows:

  1. Find a quiet, private place where you can be undisturbed for a few minutes
  2. Sit comfortably with your back straight, but relaxed
  3. Focus your awareness on your breath, paying attention to the sensations of inhaling and exhaling
  4. Do not judge your breathing or try to change it, the practice should not be effortful, and there is no specific goal than to remain aware of the sensations of breathing
  5. When thoughts, sounds and sensations start to come into your mind, notice them without effort or judgement, then let them go slowly before returning to the breath

Follow the above for 5-10 minutes daily at first, working up to 30 minutes or more wherever possible. The key is to do this every single day, no questions asked, and no excuses. You’ll build a resilient mind and outlook before you know it.