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Thriving with resilience
The role of contemplative practices
As manager for Resilience, Stress Management and Contemplation programs for the Health Improvement Program (HIP) and BeWell, Tia Rich, PhD, designs, teaches and directs programs that help Stanford community members thrive. BeWell spoke with Rich to learn about ways to reduce stress and enhance resilience.
How can I thrive in a fast-paced world in which I have multiple roles and responsibilities?
Practical self-care tools and resilience-building behaviors that rest the mind, refresh the body and restore the spirit help us thrive. HIP/BeWell’s memorable acronym for fundamental stress management behaviors is PEACE: Pause, Exhale, Attend, Connect and Express. These actions easily fit into the flow of daily life to increase resilience and reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of distress — thus preventing stress-related illnesses and burnout.
From November 4 through 12, the campus-wide, multidisciplinary Contemplation by Design (CBD) Week will offer the opportunity to experience the 5 PEACE behaviors and the variety of contemplative practices they reflect. (CBD Week events are free, but registration is required; click on the previous link for details.) All CBD collaborators offer classes that provide knowledge and skills in PEACE behaviors, including many listed here:
PAUSE – Stillness practices: quieting the mind, silence, centering, meditation, prayer; Ritual/Cyclical practices: cultural or spiritual ceremonies/rituals, establishing sacred/personal space, retreats.
EXHALE – Breathing practices: walking meditation, yoga, Qigong, Tai Chi, Aikido, labyrinth walking, contemplative dance, breathing/Pranayama.
ATTEND – Mindfulness: present moment awareness of sensations, thoughts and emotions.
CONNECT – Generative Practices: journaling, values clarification, visualization, loving-kindness and compassion meditation; Relational Practices: community contemplative pause, deep listening, dialogue, council circle, storytelling; Ecological Practices: nature walks/stewardship, Ikebana, Bonsai.
EXPRESS – Creative Practices: art, music, theater, improvisation; Activist Practices: community-engaged research/learning/service, volunteering, pilgrimage, vigils, marches.
Why do I want to do contemplative practices?
PEACE practices foster distress tolerance, emotional intelligence and compassionate action. Contemplation helps us to be more understanding of oneself and others, and thus enhances our ability to function effectively in the complex, globalized world.
Contemplative practices also cultivate the capacity to sustain: equanimity, mindfulness, positive emotions, discernment, wisdom, pro-social behavior and creative expression. In the heat of challenging demands, this capacity facilitates the ability to be calm, compassionate and competent. For example, when speaking to a person who is behaving in a distressing way, if the speaker sustains equanimity, mindfulness and positive emotions, he/she can step toward the stressful situation and engage fully with the difficult emotions and confused behavior of the other person, providing them empathy, compassion, and wise guidance. This type of interaction renders bidirectional sustenance for both people. For example: both an employer and employee feel enlivened when insight emerges from a “mistake”; both doctor and patient feel relief in response to the words, “I have successfully treated this condition before”; both lawyer and client feel peace of mind in response to the verdict of “not guilty.”
PEACE practices develop the resilience that supports full engagement with all the challenges life brings. Full engagement sustains connections fundamental to joy, happiness, health and well-being.
Could you describe some of the important research on the benefits of contemplative practices?
Over 50 years of research indicates that contemplative practices:
- support the development of attention and concentration
- facilitate transformative learning and creativity
- enhance physical and emotional health and well-being
- foster emotional intelligence
- sustain empathetic connection, compassion and altruistic behavior
- render wise engagement with complex moral, spiritual, and social challenges
What happens during a contemplative practice?
Contemplation helps us access feelings of safety, comfort, and connection to other people and to something larger than one’s individual life. This connection renders a quality of relaxation and calm confidence that allows us to leave ruminating thoughts or worries behind temporarily in order to enter into full concentration or meditation. Consequently, we can receive new ideas, gain perspective, discover insight and discern what action to take going forward. Clearing your head makes room for new ideas. Contemplation reveals our inextricable connection to each other, opening our hearts and minds to community, deeper insight, sustainable living and a more just society.
Given the breadth of contemplative practices, where do I start?
First, understand that traditions in which contemplative practices developed offer three fundamental components for a life well lived:
- 1. Engagement in contemplative practices to experience firsthand what is true;
- 2. Conscious cultivation of your values and world view;
- 3. Living in community.
Regarding the first component, CBD lets you discover what resonates with you. Similar to what is true for new exercise or nutrition behaviors, doing one new contemplative practice on a regular basis for at least two weeks or a month will give you the opportunity to experience its benefits.
Regarding the second component, writing in a journal and reading inspiring biographies, poetry, philosophy and scriptures can help you cultivate your values and world view. Ask yourself, “Who and what do I care about? What helps me to feel safe, loved, clear-headed and wise? Will my choices help me, and others, to feel safe, loved, and free?” BeWell’s “Values-based Stress Management” workshop facilities this process. Professional development and strategic planning sessions also often include values-clarification activities. Transfer that process to your personal life: it’s a great activity to do annually during your birthday week. When the going gets tough, having your values and world view at top-of-mind helps you stay the course and know what matters. In the words of the German philosopher, Nietzche: “He who has a why can endure any how.”
The third component, living in community, is fun and offers opportunities to love and be loved. In community, we experience an “upward spiral” of growth in which we develop insight about life’s dynamic tensions as well as effective skills for engaging with people in a wide range of situations. Community life reveals the common humanity beneath people’s diverse temperaments, needs, strengths, ideas and values. This “shared experience” perspective creates the deep sense of belonging that supports the acceptance of self and others that can sustain relationships through thick and thin. Moreover, community life is where the bidirectional sustenance mentioned earlier occurs. Remembering the happiness and contentment we experience when we help another person supports us to ask for help when we need it — thus offering someone else the joy of helping, and us the joy of gratitude. Tips for living in community include:
- Trust. Have faith in others, and let it show that you believe they will do their part.
- Engage. Set aside time to reach out and make new acquaintances, as well as to talk to long-time friends. Be present, attentive, and affirming.
- Discover. Observe what is possible and what is not. Assume everyone has the best intentions and is doing their best. Discern if someone needs help to sustain this.
- Support. Find out what the other person’s goals and challenges are, encourage them, and do what you can to help.
- Share your admiration and gratitude. Notice what you enjoy or admire in someone and let them know by expressing it to them.
- Celebrate. Respond to each other’s good news with enthusiasm and joy.
- Play. Make time for fun, laughter, and recreation, with nothing else on the agenda.
After I select a practice, how frequently and long should I do it?
This issue is an area of current research. At this time, there is no “recommended daily amount.” Although extensive research has identified benefits from numerous contemplative practices, there is no unifying protocol for how often, what type or how long they should be practiced. Historically, many cultures have included at least a weekly contemplative pause, the Sabbath, as an opportunity “to be” rather than “to do.” Enjoying PEACE behaviors at least once a week, if not once a day, is a general suggestion. Let your own experience guide you. Not surprisingly, research shows that breathing diaphragmatically is key, and best enjoyed throughout every day.
For 30 years, HIP, in conjunction with Stanford Prevention Research Center (SPRC) researchers, have contributed to evidenced-based lifestyle recommendations for diet and exercise. The new SHALA 2015 questions on resilience-building behaviors, including contemplative practices, in conjunction with SPRC’s WELL project’s research on contemplative practices and health, will in time lead to recommendations for contemplative practices.
As the science of contemplation progresses, HIP and BeWell will continue to offer pioneering, evidenced-based programs to the Stanford community. A cornerstone of Stanford’s tradition of innovative health promotion is CBD’s signature event, the campus-wide Contemplative Pause and Hoover Carillon concert. This year’s concert, on November 6 at 12 noon in the redwood grove beneath Hoover Tower, exemplifies Stanford’s community engagement in contemplative practices for helping people thrive. My colleagues and I look forward to sharing CBD week with you!