Mindfulness & Resilience

A few years ago in the UK I had the opportunity to attend to a Mindfulness & Resilience course held by Threshold. It has been extremely useful, thus I’m happy to share something of what I have learned.

Curiosity, Connection, Compassion

The first thing about Mindfulness is Breath:

It helps to create a gap between the stimulus and the automatic reaction, which will allow you to choose your response to the stimulus.

When dealing with stressful situations (or any situation, really) it is important to remember the 3 Cs:

Curiosity: get curious about what’s happening, about other people and about yourself.

Connection: stay connected with others through eye contact, which increases trust, and of course stay connected with yourself and your feelings.

Compassion: remain compassionate with others and kind to yourself. Don’t blame others and don’t be judgemental with yourself.

General rules:

1. Keep breathing to give yourself the time to choose your response.

2. Avoid judging and blaming so quickly.

3. Take responsibility for your own development.

A little exercise:

Ask yourself ‘I wonder what might happen if…’ and challenge yourself to change something about your habits in order to see what happens.

For example: I wonder what might happen if…

– I didn’t judge myself so much.

– I didn’t spend so much time on Facebook.

– I’d read more etc.

Respond rather than React

3 Minutes Meditation, a really useful way to take some space on a daily basis.

Step 1, acknowledge your thoughts, emotions, body sensations, where you are at.

Step 2, narrow the attention down into the breath, focus on being present with the breath.

Step 3, expand the focus to your whole body.


Neuroscience supports the idea that developing reflective skills of mindfulness activates the very circuits that create resilience and well-being and underlie empathy and compassion as well.

The Brain has different components:

– The limbic part of the brain, essential in survival, is the part which holds our emotions (when we are stressed this area of the brain triggers a release of cortisol which mobilizes energy by putting our entire metabolism on high alert to meet the challenge). This response is great for short term stress, but can grow into a problem in the long term if it is continual, then cortisol levels may become chronically elevated. Amygdala is an almond shaped part of the brain which responds to primitive emotion. It will help you hurl your friend out of the way of a speeding car or stop you dead still when faced with a bear in a forest. The hippocampus is a sea horse shaped part of the brain, which is like the filing cabinet when memories have been processed and ordered.

– Luckily we have the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, which enables us to reflect and modulate the responses of this limbic area. Finding empathy for others, gaining perspective, taking a breath, being mindful of our normal emotional reactive loops, getting aware of our reactions, all open up the possibility of choice, to respond rather than to react.

Our fight/flight/freeze patterns are activated whenever we sense danger. The limbic system is continually assessing environment for possible threats. Regulating your own emotional reactions and attuning to intentions and feelings of others is essential. Get intimate with your difficult feelings. The ability to be spacious inside even in times of stress increases the possibility of creativity.

With focused attention we can change rigid neural pathways. Through tracking our responses and increasing self-awareness we bring choice into the equation. Key to this is the breath.

Window of Tolerance

It is different for all of us. I may have a high tolerance for sadness and a low one for anger.

Within our window of tolerance we remain receptive; outside of it we become reactive.

[Mindsight by Daniel Siegal]

The challenge for us is to widen our window of tolerance so we can hold elements of our internal world in awareness without being thrown into rigidity (depression, cut-offs, avoidance) or chaos (agitation, anxiety, rage). Then we can experience fullness in our lives with more acceptance and clarity.

Exercise: Take a piece of paper and draw your own window of tolerance. What is at the edges, what pushes you over?


You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf

[Jon Kabat-Zinn]

Approach vs Avoidance

Buddhism, the two arrows. We suffer twice:

– Primary suffering, the basic pain of existence that is unavoidable (the first arrow)

– Secondary suffering, resistance and the contraction of mind and body to avoid this pain. We CAN do something about this (the second arrow)

A core quality of all mindfulness based approaches is acceptance… helping people to recognize how the understandable drive that we all have to push away the painful and unwanted aspects of our experience, becomes exactly what causes distress and suffering

[Jodi Mardula, 2009]

Mindfulness enables us to see and feel our responses, and noticing this response in our bodies is the first step of being able to break habitual reactions. We can then choose how to respond rather than habitually react.

Anger Escalator

There is an acceleration between the trigger moment to the explosion of anger. If you can become aware that you have been triggered this may help you slow your reactions down and give you more choice. What do you notice when you have been triggered? Speech? Thoughts? Body Sensations? What can alert you to this window of opportunity to take some breath here? What actions will help you calm the situation down?

Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing mindfully in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away.

[Thich Nat Han, 2001]


This one was for me a shocking concept: Self-confidence is like a muscle, you can train it.

You can learn to have more control over your levels of confidence. Remember that people read your levels of confidence from the moment you walk in a room or speak on the telephone.

Think about:

What would be possible for you if you were even more confident?

What have been your confident moments?

When have you really committed to something and tried really hard?

Who do you know who is confident that you can ‘act like’?

Power poses

Your body language shapes who you are – by Amy Cuddy (TED, Ideas worth spreading)

Link: Full research report

About Making Mistakes

Be easy on yourself around making mistakes. Think how you would treat a child learning to walk.

Be compassionate and supportive.

Avoid storing up mistakes in your ‘rucksack’, inhibit the masochistic desire to reach into the rucksack for a mistake you can beat yourself up with when you feel a bit low.

Celebrate your ability to learn from mistakes and move on quickly.

Examples of exercises22

Start the morning listing all the things you are grateful for

I am grateful for… health;

I am grateful for… the novel I’m reading;

Write at least three “I give myself permission to be… ”

List all your positive qualities / capabilities “I am… enough.”

Write a letter from your successful self in five years time reassuring you and advising you.


Mindfulness is no stranger to us, the richest, deepest moments of our lives have all been moments of mindfulness.

[Christina Feldman, Buddhist Path to Simplicity, 2001: 167]

A Moment of Being Present: Find a positive memory where you felt truly present. What made you remember that moment? How do you feel in your body? What emotions are around for you? What do you feel connected to?

Art Exercise: Use art materials to make an image of this moment and notice any judgements that might arise during the art making process.

Kindness, curiosity and a willingness to stay present.

[Crane 2009, p4]

Dealing with Creative Blocks: “PEACE” Pause, Exhale, Accept, Choose, Engage.

The intention is to allow us to be fully present with less judgement and expectation – facing our experiences as they actually are, rather than coloured by historical ways of thinking of past and future experiences.

[Kabat-Zinn 1994]

Impact of Different Environments: Explore the impact of different environments upon you by making art images of a challenging environment, then an environment which feels like a comfortable, safe place.

Reflections: What did you notice about the art making? Was it easy or difficult? What feelings did you notice? Were you anxious? Bored? Immersed? In the flow? Self conscious? Spontaneous? Playful? Any judgements? What were they? How did you feel in your body? Did your experience change during the exercise? How? What did you find helped you engage with the art making?

The challenge for us is that when we are in front of the perfect sunset it is easy to drop our other preoccupations and become truly present. When we are in a more challenging environment, such as the workplace, creativity can be blocked by judgements, fears, frustrations, the everyday stuff of life. We are working in changing environments all the time. We are being triggered in many different ways all the time. What can help and support us make choices to respond rather than react to stress?

Mindfulness means developing an accepting, inclusive, curious, open, compassionate stance towards every aspect of experience.

[Exeter Uni mindfulness course]


About Thought distortions

Above all: we like to think that we can read minds. We can’t!


A few examples of catastrophizing language: It’s a total nightmare / Complete failure / I’m completely useless  /  We completely messed up.

Stop and breathe, take an observer perspective and ask yourself: is this a fact or am I making up a story?

Facts and Stories

Reality is subjective, it’s largely our own perception. For any situations, there are two separate things going on. There’s what actually happened, the facts, and what we make it mean, the story. This is how we make sense of the world. Our minds are set up to conflate the facts and the stories into the same thing.

If you hear the words ‘He always does this’, ‘She never does that’, ‘Nobody works well with’, ‘Everybody thinks that about them’ you are probably listening to a story.

Practice separating in your mind what are the facts of a situation and how much is the story.

Inner judge and inner lawyer

Once the stories have eclipsed the facts, our minds now seek evidence to support the view that we have taken and discard any evidence that is not consistent with this view. It’s reassuring to be right. We have evolved an in-built tendency to form rapid judgments about others.

We have an inner judge in our minds to form rapid judgments about others, based on whatever evidence is available.

Then we have an in-built lawyer to keep seeking evidence to confirm that we are right and dismissing any evidence that does not fit with this. This is called the Confirmation Bias.

And the inner judge is not neutral, if he feels any uncertainty he is more likely to be on the safe side and condemn people. This it is known as Negativity Bias.

It’s really hard to be objective in any situation to counter this confirmation bias.

When giving feedback we are rarely objective and impartial: we all have our own interests in a situation. That’s ok, so long as you are clear about it. We can only really give feedback if we start by understanding others. What is going on for them? How do they see the situation and how do they see themselves? It is almost certain to be different from the way you do. Most of us make the mistake of simply giving feedback from the position of our world view and assuming that it’s the right and only one.

Exercice: Driving practice

Accepting the traffic lights as red, breathing and relaxing.

Accepting that sometimes people do not thank you when you let them through, allow that to be ok.

Letting others into a queue of traffic: you may arrive 30 seconds later but in a much more calm and resilient head-space.


Exercise: Gratitude lists

Every morning when you wake write a page of:

I am grateful for …

to reboot your brain into a more peaceful space. Let it be a stream of consciousness. It’s fine to state small gratitudes: running water, food in the fridge… and ok to repeat similar ideas day after day.


Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them.  In fact I’d try to do nothing else.  Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.

[Nadine Star, 85 year old resident of Louisville Kentucky]

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment, the here and now, while our mind tries to escape, wandering in the past, in the future, anywhere but the present moment.

Mindfulness is moment to moment awareness.  It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to.

[Jon Kabat-Zinn, 1990]

Mindfulness enables us to see and feel our responses, and noticing this response in our bodies is the first step of being able to break habitual reactions. We can then choose how to respond rather than habitually react.

Body Scan Meditation


1. Choose one everyday activity you will do in a mindful way (for example: the first cup of tea in the morning; preparing lunch; talking to your partner when you come back from work; reading).

2. Several times a day come back to the present moment, pause and ask yourself:  What is going on for me right now? How am I feeling right now? Notice when you are having a pleasant moment. Remember: when triggered into a stress reaction, bring in the breath.  Notice what is happening for you in the moment, then make a choice to respond.


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