Inner and outer resilience
The secret of living a meaningful and fulfilling life is to be ready — at every moment — to give up who you are for what you could become.
Brian Goodwin (personal comment)
Definitions of ‘resilience’ vary according to what discipline the word is used in. In engineering, the resilience of a material refers to the tendency of the material to return to its original state after being stretched, bent or compressed. In psychology we can speak about emotional resilience as the ability to cope well with changes and recover after illness, misfortune and traumatic experiences.
In socio-ecological systems resilience includes to the persistence of existing patterns and is not necessarily always a good thing, depending on how appropriate the patterns of organization and behaviour are that we are ‘bouncing back to’. The resilience of some of the outdated systems we have created can actually resist transformative innovation and prolong patterns that are destructive. This is also true for inner resilience.
On the one hand we need the ability to maintain our individual identity and recover from setbacks in a rapidly changing environment; on the other hand we have to be discerning about our own habits and mental concepts. Many have been passed on to us through cultural transmission and an education that might not reflect the deeper values we would like to live in accordance with.
We were raised and educated within the cultural narrative of separation. We are therefore carrying the habit of seeing the world through the lens of scarcity and competition. Inner resilience is about becoming conscious of how our worldview influences our judgement and behaviour. If we are willing to try on other worldviews and perspectives for size, we can often see connections and opportunities that we were blind to from within a fixed point of view.
Another important aspect of inner resilience is to deal with disruptions in our own life creatively and to overcome setbacks, turning the lessons of failure into the opportunity to develop a more successful approach and adapt to changes in our living conditions. Mental and psychological health, as well as a supportive family environment and embeddedness in a community with high social cohesion, are all important contributors to high inner resilience.
It can be disempowering to be submitted to the flood of negativity and seeming hopelessness we face by simply watching the news and seeing how the multiple converging global and local crises are playing out through the suffering of humanity and the desecration of nature. Habits of mind, learned through cultural osmosis, can lock us into the separation perspective that makes us feel powerless to make a difference in the face of so much misery.
We get so absorbed by this negativity and hopelessness that we forget that billions of people are in love, nurturing their children, helping their neighbours, rescuing strangers, caring for animals, nurturing plants and restoring ecosystems, saving lives, delighting their communities through art, dance and poetry, celebrating the beauty of life and contributing to the thriving of their communities.
Inner resilience is about the capacity to face the horrors and misery of the world square on, rather than trying to ignore them, but it is also about seeing the beauty, collaboration, compassion, care and love that is all around us. Finding the strength to be actively hopeful in the face of calamity; living from the conviction that abundance is all around us if we shift our narrative and live accordingly; being willing to plant an apple tree today even if others try to tell you the world will end tomorrow (as Martin Luther suggested) — all of these capacities are expressions of inner resilience.
While writing this chapter I heard about the death of the Hollywood actor Robin Williams, who inspired millions with his humour and the deep caring for others he portrayed in many of his roles. He killed himself unable to find a way to exit the spiral of depression and addiction he kept secret from the world. In conversation with a fellow writer, Jonathan Leighton (see Leighton, 2011), trying to make sense of this news, I found myself suggesting: “It seems that depression is not an illness but a symptom of and reaction to the pathological narrative of separation”.
Most of the conventional psychological approaches to the treatment of depression focus on having a dialogue with the depressed person about their own perspective on their situation. These approaches tend to focus people back on the separate self. Maybe there is a point, early on in the downward spiral of depression, where the simple act of encouraging the depressed person to apply their abilities — in whatever way they can — to caring for and helping others would be enough to shift people from feeling locked into the perspective of separation to having a direct experience of interbeing.
This experience of being capable of helping others and seeing the positive impact we can have on their lives inspires new hope and can trigger a transformative response to depression. By living from the narrative of interbeing we are able to propagate positive health in our eco-social systems, helping ourselves by helping others and the wider community of life.
Connecting with our innate biophilia — our love for life — and the insights and strength we can gain from being in communion with nature as nature are powerful sources of inner resilience. As Joanna Macy once told me: “Things change when you step into your full authority as a living being, speaking as and on behalf of life.” Connecting with our ‘ecological self’ is a powerful source of inner resilience.
Transformative inner resilience is about personal development and transformation, not in order to become somebody else but to become more fully who we really are and share all our unique gifts and creative passions with our community. On the path of personal growth we are repeatedly challenged to give up who we are for who we could become. If we want to live in regenerative cultures and thriving communities we need to ask ourselves:
How can I best live in accordance with the insight that by serving others and the community of life I am serving myself in both a deeper and a higher sense?
What are my unique gifts and my role in co-creating thriving communities and a regenerative culture?
The dynamic relationship between inner and outer is a recurring theme that this book invites us to explore. This dynamic describes how our cultural narrative shapes our worldview and vice versa, and how both affect our perceived needs and intentions, and therefore the designs we create and solutions we propose. Working consciously with our inner resilience points us towards the deeper dynamics of transformative innovation — culture and behaviour change.
We are all co-creative and co-responsible microcosms of our culture, and therefore changing ourselves is changing our culture. Transformative resilience is also about our willingness to give up and let go of the status quo, questioning who we are individually and collectively, and letting go of patterns, systems and attitudes (narratives) that no longer serve so that we can transform into co-creative change agents of diverse regenerative cultures in service of all life. This process of continuous learning and transformation never stops, as it is in its very essence a reflection of our continuously transforming universe and life’s continuous exploration of novelty.
Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
The Taoist sage Lao Tzu’s advice paraphrases the fourth book of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads (IV, 4.5) which is often translated as “You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Both of these versions express the same profound wisdom. They are good advice for anyone deeply committed to co-creating a regenerative culture.
We will never live, act and contribute to the world in any other moment but the present moment. This is not to say that our actions cannot be informed by past insights or have formative effects on the future that lies before us. Acknowledging the future potential of the present moment we come to understand that how we relate to ‘other’ and behave from moment to moment is how we contribute to bringing forth a world.
The most culturally creative spaces we engage in are the conversations we have about where we are going and the re-telling of the narrative of who we are and what we are here to do. Such conversations create future consciousness. The vibrant and meaningful visions of diverse regenerative cultures we can co-create will inspire worldview and behaviour change, and affect what kind of future will emerge. Our ideas, thoughts and visions of the future have creative agency and contribute to bringing forth the world we will live in.
Watch your intentions, they become the way you contribute to the design of the world you live in. Watch how and what you design, it will shape the culture you live in. Watch the culture you live in; it will shape how you see the world. Watch how you see the world, it will shape your intentions. The cycle continues. We are bringing the world into being. We are bound to make mistakes. We learn through making mistakes. They help us to change our attitudes and responses. Being forgiving with ourselves, so we can be forgiving with others, is also a good practice for developing inner resilience.
Come, come, whoever you are
— wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.
Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–1273)
This invitation by the Sufi sage and poet Rumi reminds me not to be too harsh with my own shortcomings and fallibility; to let go and forgive myself over and over again if I have fallen short of acting on my own higher intention to contribute not only to a fulfilled, joyful and meaningful life for myself and the communities I live and work in, but to do so while caring for all of life. Rumi reminds me: now is the time to act on these intentions, in every new opportunity of the present moment. What good is it if I miss such an opportunity because I am busy mulling over my past shortcomings?
My personal source of inner resilience is the deep knowledge that my actions and my way of being can help to create the world I would like to live in — a world in which all of life thrives and creates conditions conducive to life. In such a world, inner and outer resilience are expressions of whole-systems health. By paying attention to my own interbeing I can live the connection of inner to outer, mind to body, and self to world. In those moments I experience humanity as nature.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from my book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]