“A young student was sent into the wilderness by his teacher to develop self-knowledge and ponder the meaning of life. Upon his return, he would share what he had learned with his teacher and classmates.
The student set out on his journey as instructed. On his way home, he came upon a stream of cool, crystal-clear water, sheltered under a canopy of shade trees. Stopping to quench his thirst and rest, he was delighted to discover that this water was the best he had ever tasted. It was so clear, so clean, so pure, so satisfying! He filled his leather pouches with the magnificent water, excited to bring this special gift back to his teacher.
After several more days of arduous travel, the student arrived in his village. He was greeted with enthusiasm. All gathered around with great anticipation to hear him speak. The student described his journey and magical experience at the stream. Then he presented the leather pouches filled with delicious water to his teacher. Nodding, his teacher thanked him with deep appreciation, took a long drink from one of the pouches and then offered it to another student. This student eagerly received the pouch of water, quickly took a sip, but immediately spat it out. Turning to his teacher in disbelief he said, “That water is terrible! How can you pretend to enjoy it?”
The teacher smiled tenderly and responded, “You tasted the water. I tasted the gift.”
This teaching tale illustrates the universal challenge we all face as we grow up. We journey through life in search of self-knowledge, meaning and connections with others. On the way, we may discover that our expectations are met beyond our wildest dreams, or that the results we desire elude, surprise or disappoint.
How do we learn to think about and understand our experiences and choices, to find hope and meaning from what is wonderful and from what is disappointing, and to cultivate contentment? Growth results from bringing awareness to and working through life lessons — both positive and negative — as these arise. We can then build a solid foundation while continuing to master the essential survival skills necessary to guide us on our lifelong journey.
Life is a problem-solving process
Problems, along with their inevitable and unexpected twists and turns, actually provide opportunities to practice and hone skills as we experience important life lessons from which we learn and grow. Choosing worthy teachers and companions along the way is essential for ensuring success. And it is often the quality of our relationships that hold our experiences along with us that makes the difference in how things turn out.
All of us require helpful relationships throughout our lives — parents, family members, friends, wise teachers, even psychotherapists and counselors — who challenge, support and influence us in significant ways. Knowing whom to choose is not always obvious or easy. Recognizing and utilizing our own strengths and sensitivities when facing problems and challenges is equally important.
- What are the special qualities within each person that assist in making use of both inner and external resources and guidance?
- Is the ability to discriminate and choose between positive and negative influences and attitudes innate? What if this doesn’t come easily? How can these be learned, nurtured and mastered?
- How do we choose wisely and remain positive, balanced and respectful of ourselves and others in a world that can be so pressured, selfish, alienating, unpredictable, anxiety-ridden and even violent?
Resilience is the key
Resilience entails the ability to be alert and open to stretching our capacities, and to be prepared and ready to respond rather than react to problems. Our ability to notice and assess differences between positive and negative options, to evaluate consequences and then to choose a positive path, fosters reflective awareness, reinforcing choice, responsibility and the capacity to rebound from adversity. It is what we tell ourselves, how we give self-comfort and encouragement in good and bad times, that carries the day.
Mental attitude — how we perceive and meet life’s inevitable challenges with intention and responsibility — makes all the difference in defining the experience. This perspective will then determine how we embrace opportunities, seeking resources from within as well as from trusted others in order to solve life’s problems. This practice enables us to develop a healthy, positive, confident sense of self. As we learn to understand and direct our thoughts and feelings — to reflect instead of react — we are better able to deal with diverse relationships, experiences and outcomes in all spheres of life.
A more recent branch of psychology developing over the last twenty years by Martin Seligman, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, examines how utilizing a positive approach in tackling life challenges, instead of a problem-saturated point of view, builds resilience and can produce better results. The aim of Positive Psychology is to study and document how these strengths and virtues enable people and communities to flourish. They assume that people desire meaningful and fulfilling lives, and when properly guided and given a choice, opt for what is best within themselves in order to enhance love, work and play.
Achieving and maintaining your personal best requires your intention to develop positive traits such as becoming aware of your strengths and virtues, and developing a capacity for compassion, creativity and curiosity. As you begin to practice and integrate these positive perspectives toward yourself and others, you become better able to regulate and moderate thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This also enables you to master better self-control, self-knowledge, and wisdom, all of which promote the ongoing capacity for love, work and play — the keystones for a healthy life.
Like any new skill, developing these, at times, daunting capabilities when not innate and coming naturally, requires awareness, commitment and practice. Here are a few guidelines to get started:
- Value and make use of your connections with family members, friends, and respected teachers. Ask for help when you need it. Remember that relationships thrive on reciprocity and are best maintained with a balance of give and take according to appropriate age relationships, boundaries and circumstances.
- Take care of yourself by attending to your needs and feelings, and maintain your mental and physical health in a timely way. Breathe, get plenty of sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly.
- Cultivate a positive view of yourself. Differentiate negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences — what you think, feel and do — from who you are. Develop positive “self-talk” to comfort and carry you through difficult times.
- Make every day meaningful and balanced with love, work, and play. Dare to dream and set realistic goals for the future that give you a sense of purpose, enjoyment and accomplishment.
- Meet your challenges with curiosity and your disappointments with compassion.Expect the unexpected and accept that change is part of living and growing. Be sure to include people of all ages and life cycle stages in your life to keep you psychologically and physically fit.
- Don’t panic! Problem solve! When facing stressful events, make a conscious effort to open your mind and fight that instinctive tendency to isolate, avoid, or “catastrophize.” Keep your mind on desired outcomes and how to reach them, one day at a time.
- Learn from experience and constructive criticism. Take an inventory of your strengths and accomplishments, as well as any under-developed skills. Then set proactive goals and decisive action plans.
- Seek opportunities to grow and learn about yourself, others and the world around you. This can stretch your mental and emotional muscles, allowing you to develop a greater capacity for flexibility and .. resilience!