Change the Brain for Good: Resilience 

This entry on resilience is the second in a five-part series. The series describes what we know about the impact of contemplative practice on the human brain and the relevance of these findings to doing meaningful work in groups. The first entry introduces this series and describes the impact of meditation on whether we can respond effectively to disturbing events instead of reacting to them.

Over forty years ago, I started dabbling with meditation because I became frustrated with how my emotions could overwhelm me. This was especially problematic because I was working as an Organization Development consultant and process facilitator. I needed and wanted to be able to remain calm and competent in the midst of difficult conversations.

Doing this was challenging. In my younger years I seemed to have a hair-trigger temperament, crying, raging or freezing when upset. For the most part, I was not able to notice or manage my emotions before they hijacked me. In addition, it took me time to recover, in part because I would unconsciously feed these emotional fires by replaying the event over and over in my mind or by making up stories about the “terrible” people who had done or said something that I found disturbing.

In other words, I was not resilient. I was not able to respond effectively or recover quickly from upsetting situations.

Over time my commitment to a daily meditation practice strengthened when I noticed that these cycles of upset were shorter, less frequent and intense. My commitment grew stronger still when the results of research into the impact of meditation on the brain made its way into the mainstream, initially through the writings of Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence.

Altered Traits, a recent book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson summarizes and updates the research. It appears that meditation can transform four neural pathways: those related to (1) how we react to disturbing events; (2) empathy and compassion; (3) our ability to pay attention; and (4) our sense of self.

Resilience is an essential aspect of handling disturbing events.

In conversations or meetings, what happens when colleagues or friends ignore you, disagree with you, dismiss you or your ideas, or criticize or interrupt you? Do you feel angry, helpless or simply give up? Is there a pall over the rest of your day? Or, do you bounce back quickly so you can respond effectively in the moment or shortly thereafter? In other words, are you fast or slow to recover from adversity or disturbing events. Are you resilient?*

Mindfulness meditation is a kind of mental training, not unlike the physical training you do for your body, which increases your resilience because it changes the brain. According to Davidson, “Mindfulness trains the brain in new forms of responding to experience and thoughts.”

First, meditation quiets the amygdala, the alarm bell in the mid-brain, so you are less likely to experience the anxiety, fear or anger that events might have triggered previously. Second, it strengthens the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, enabling you to notice and redirect thoughts and feelings that, in the past, you might have used to stoke your initial reactions.

Please reflect on what might have been disturbing events over the last few days. How reactive did you get? How quickly did you recover? How might you strengthen your resilience during interactions at work or home?

In the next blog, I explore the affect of meditating on empathy and compassion.

* For more on “resilience styles,” check The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson.

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