Reflecting on obstacles & resilience

2020 probably has been giving us quite enough examples of how hard times look like. Sitting and reflecting on the past twelve months, each of us have had moments of quitting, giving up, hiding or running away. These are very usual phases of human reaction to hardships. It usually starts with a sudden shock of the event due to unacceptability or maybe just the spontaneity of it. Since we did not perceive it in advance, we start with denying it. Slowly this denial turns into frustration about why it happened to ‘you’. Seeking answer to this question pulls us to the black hole of depression. We feel absolutely miserable and betrayed by our luck or by God or by ourselves. The final phase, hopefully, is accepting it. That’s when we start to get up and continue living. This is such a long process and sometimes we are not able to get out of those phases, especially the depression. Why is that? Even more important question is: how can we control it?

When something happens, there are two parts of it:

  1. the fact that it happened
  2. how we react to it.

We are not able to control the former part. Let’s take an example of COVID-19. Scientists assume that the virus is originated in bats, but how it got transmitted to a human being is not yet known. We don’t know how, but it happened and we are not able to reverse the time to stop it from happening. There are unlimited amount of such examples. Events in life are random and unpredictable. If we are not able to predict it, then we dont know what we should control and once it happens then it is late. Therefore, we are not able to control the happening of them.

That brings us then to the second part: how we react to it. Reaction happens in our mind – our amygdala, the almond-shaped ancient brain region, is the so called “fear alarm” of our brain that releases a cascade of chemicals which eventually turns into an increasing heart rate, difficulty in breathing, sweating, etc. Naturally, amygdala hijacks our brain and uses our instinctive reactions to fight against a threat. But in reality, what amygdala perceives as a threat, is not a threat as long as it does not kill us. We deform the reality and create an image of the given event in our perception.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves…”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

What we can do then is to train our mind on how to react. When we face an issue or an obstacle, probably the most important skill we should have is to keep calm and not let amygdala hijack us. By teaching ourselves mindfulness we can train our mind on keeping calm and controlling our emotions.

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.” says Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle Is the Way. If we can teach ourselves how to find those action points within the obstacles, we can use it to gain much more than we thought we’d lose by looking at it just as an obstacle.

Resilience is not only protecting ourselves from the repetition of the same disaster, but generalizing the mindset to other possible events. Once we are able to control our emotions and shape our reactions towards events, there will be no more obstacle ever. As given in Zen philosophy, the duality, “the wheel of birth-and-death”, the karma can be overcome only by letting it flow. “To be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it. It is to be able to use it as an instrument instead of being used by it.” says Alan Watts.


Read more on similar topics…

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