Recently the word ‘resilience’ has become much used. What does it mean? Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’. In materials science, it means ‘the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.’ In Zen training we don’t talk much about resilience – if things change, how would we spring back into an old shape? And why? Instead, perseverance is valued.
There are several ways in which to consider resilience: personal, communal and that of nature. Arguably a lot is known and understood about personal resilience. We all know somebody who has dealt with a bereavement, emotional heartbreak, loss of a job or business – but who nonetheless has carried on, and emerged with renewed energy. It is impossible to put time limit on ‘quick’ recovery: it may take one person just a few weeks, somebody else may spend a few solitary years before starting a new relationship, for example.
A lot depends on how we view the facts and vicissitudes of life. We may not be able to avert disasters if we live in the shadow of an active volcano, but we can change our perspective on this volcano eruption. On the emotional or relationship level we may resort to cognitive therapy, any other psychotherapy, life-long Zen practice or a combination of both.
There are plenty of books around about resilience. It is fine to read, but how we implement this knowledge is more important. Somewhat simplistically, rather than sitting and moaning ‘why me’? when disaster strikes it’s more productive to say ‘ok, I don’t like it, so what? What can I do about it?’ Maybe no action can be taken straight away but I can stop moaning and think what’s next…
When the universe doesn’t smile on me, I think of a Japanese doll, Daruma, which has a rounded bottom. When you strike it, it falls but then gets up again. A Japanese saying ‘seven times down, eight times up’ captures this.
On a deeper level, a lot how we react and recover depends on our personal history and attitude to life. We can’t change the past, but we can adjust our attitude. This becomes of ever greater importance when a natural disaster such as pandemic strikes, with no control in our hands.
What are the conditions for resilience? In my view, these are the most important: opening up to acknowledge the current state; willingness to change; help by others. This has been demonstrated in a Fukushima disaster in March 2011 – a combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown. The fallout in terms of people’s lives changed forever is well documented, as is the role of innovative counselling by a Soto Zen priest, Taio Kaneta, chief priest at Tsudaiji temple in Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture. He realised that the trauma went so deep that people lost their ability to acknowledge and to express emotions. Hence, he set up a travelling Café de Monk which provided a pop-up place for people to get coffee and be able to open up in a chat. Not just with him, but others who lost everything in the disaster, volunteers or practitioners of other faiths. A nice touch is the name of the café: he’s a monk, in Japanese ‘monku’ means ‘to complain’, and he plays music by Thelonius Monk. A wider community involvement in the healing process thus has happened in an unobtrusive, informal way. However, for this to occur he had to go out and create opportunities for people to approach him easily rather than waiting in his temple. His credo is to really listen, to allow people’s emotions to surface as the first step to recovery.
It is enough to switch on the news to see the ravages that humans cause in natural world. Can our planet survive us, as we’re not likely to survive outside natural world? There are many examples of destruction and havoc wreaked by humans, but also a few signs of hope. A recent example of natural resilience is provided by a rare wildcat kitten which had survived outside its den for several hours before being found by humans. The resilient animal hanged onto his life but would have perished without human help. He’s doing very well, and it is planned to release it into the wild in due time. It can only thrive if there is enough territory to sustain it. There are several organisations in Scotland working on preserving the land where not just Scottish wildcat can live but other animals and plants can flourish.
The story of this kitten is a symbol of a more enlightened understanding of our place in the universe: rather than being its masters, we’re the guardians.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan, Richard Lloyd Parry, Vintage, 2018