When the woman returns to her loom, "she stands meditatively above the chaotic mess and despairs," says Meade, author of "The World Behind the World." "Then she picks up an end and starts weaving again, this time to create an even more beautiful design."
It's a story that speaks of creating and undoing, of hope that comes from despair, of picking up the pieces and carrying on -- and it couldn't be more relevant in our world right now. "We're living through one of those times when things seem to be dark and unraveling. But from a mythic point of view, we're in a time of re-creation," says Meade. "All creation emerges from darkness. The great myths are about getting lost in darkness and then finding the surprising way out."
For those personally affected by the recent economic upheaval, this prospect of reinvention is often the only thing keeping despair from taking over. But even in flush times, when foreclosures, massive layoffs, and bankruptcies aren't constantly dominating the news, it's a pertinent message. Why? Along with its joys and pleasures, life is famously rife with disappointment -- and not mining our low points for insight only holds us back. "If you make meaning out of your suffering," affirms life coach MJ Ryan, author of "AdaptAbility," "you can turn surviving into thriving."
The key to spinning gold from straw? Adaptability, not alchemy. Brilliant adaptors have an innate ability to shake off adversity with a "that was that, now what?" attitude, according to Ryan. With unasked-for change, "there's always a death involved -- the death of a dream, a belief, or an idea of how we thought it was going to be," she says. Successfully adapting to adversity means moving, when the time is right, from mourning and regretting to focusing on the options and opportunities opening up before us.
Among those opportunities is the discovery of our own resilience. "Trouble makes people go deeper into themselves and find hidden resources," says Meade. Recent studies on "post-traumatic growth" suggest that the rewards of meeting challenges include an improved sense of personal strength, an increased appreciation for life, a sense of new possibilities, and improved relationships. "I haven't met one person in my entire life who hasn't gone through a hard time without gaining something -- courage, tenacity, patience, independence -- that they simply wouldn't have gotten any other way," says Ryan.
Hard times also offer a priceless reminder of the most fundamental truth about happiness: It comes from inside, rather than out. "Our lasting happiness can and needs to be independent of our circumstances," says inspirational speaker Marci Shimoff, author of "Happy for No Reason." It's not some spike of emotions or a temporary kind of pleasure that comes when everything is finally perfect and we have all we've ever wanted. "It's an inner state of peace and well-being that you carry with you wherever you go." Sometimes, it takes a setback to realize this distinction, and to start developing happiness as a skill and an attitude, rather than a goal.
1. Worry Well
Facing fear and anxiety head-on is the first step in handling a setback. "The goal isn't to get rid of your worry, but to make it work for you," says psychotherapist Jerilyn Ross, coauthor of "One Less Thing to Worry About." She has clients distinguish productive worries (which spark action) from destructive ones (which trigger an endless loop of catastrophic thinking). Challenge doomsday ruminations with knowledge and perspective, she says, and write down your arguments in a journal. Is getting a roommate to help pay the rent really the worst thing possible? Hasn't the stock market always bounced back? Isn't it true that you have other ways to earn money while you search for your dream job?
2. Practice Expansion
When bad news hits, our first response is often to tighten up, saying, "No, this can't happen." Learning to stay expanded rather than contracted, in mind and body, allows us to better accept what's unfolding, pay attention to the sensations of the moment, and transform paralysis into productive action.
First focus on the body. "Changing your posture can change your mood," says Shimoff, who offers this simple exercise: Take a wide stance with your arms stretched out from your sides, so you're as large and open as possible, and stay there for five deep breaths. The open position of your body can make you feel expanded inside as well.
Next, expand your thinking to see all the options. Because we naturally put up protective emotional walls in times of crisis, it helps to methodically walk yourself through the process. To that end, Ryan suggests brainstorming seven possible responses whenever you feel cornered by misfortune; after listing these options, cross out the ridiculous and unacceptable choices and focus on the ones that sound feasible and positive. Ryan also believes in the power of gratitude to open up our mind to abundance rather than scarcity. "Our real wealth lies in our talents and experiences, our connections to other people," she explains. Counting these blessings helps us feel happy, and "happiness puts us in touch with the resources we need to pull through."
3. Look for the Lesson
"There's always a lesson, often one we've avoided or won't learn any other way," says Shimoff. So practice what positive psychologists call "creative construing," or finding something meaningful or useful in a bad situation. Author of "No Matter What!" and bounce-back specialist Lisa Nichols learned valuable lessons from living with, and extricating herself from, an abusive fiance. After mourning the failed relationship ("You can't skip this step," she says), she asked herself what gifts this traumatic experience could possibly have given her. "I made a long list," she says, a tally that included patience, diligence, focus, and negotiation skills. She also learned that she can handle anything that's thrown at her -- a good thing to know when she faces adversity in the future.
If you're stumped when trying to find meaning in a given life event, ask the hard questions. Shimoff suggests, "If this were happening for a higher purpose, what would it be?" Ryan likes to ask, "What could be right about this?" Nichols suggests, "What did I learn?" and "How am I stronger now?" However you phrase it, these questions will help unearth what really matters to you, and what you really want to do with your life.
Dwelling endlessly in anger and resentment at the unfairness of it all creates emotional turmoil. Additionally, lab studies show that anger triggers our fight-or-flight response, which can reduce our brain's ability to think clearly and creatively so we can find solutions. How can you break that cycle? Breathe your way through. "Meditation is one of the most powerful tools for creating the mental resilience and clarity necessary to make good decisions and weather bad times," says Kamal Sarma, author of "Mental Resilience." "If we can drop our thoughts for a brief period of time, we can get that mental rest we so desperately need."
Integrating meditation into your busy life doesn't have to be complicated, he says. At the office, close your eyes and sit still for five minutes, focusing on the tip of your nose as you slowly inhale and exhale. Your mind will naturally wander, but keep gently bringing your attention back to your breath. Instead of racing to beat traffic as you cross the street, stop at the curb and notice how you're standing and breathing; then, carry this awareness of your posture and breath as you start walking again. At lunch, eat a piece of fruit as slowly as you can, taking at least five minutes, savoring the sensation, smell, and texture.
5. Take Advantage of Downtime
"The modern world moves too fast for the soul," says Meade, "and there are things trying to catch up with you, like books you haven't read or people you want to spend time with." So when downtime unexpectedly comes along (from a job loss or the ending of a relationship that used to take up all your time), use it to do those things you've been meaning to get to for years. Write that novel; learn to knit; check out the classics from the library and finally read "Pride and Prejudice" or "Anna Karenina"; paint your bedroom a different color; visit tourist attractions in your area that you've never seen. As English professor Willard Spiegelman, Ph.D., author of "Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness," puts it, "A world of simple and not-so-simple pleasures awaits anyone with good eyes and ears, a library card, and a pair of walking shoes."
6. Tap Your Resources
In the best of times, a strong social life increases our health, happiness, and longevity; in the worst of times, that network acts as a crucial stress-buster, helping us to process our emotions, get perspective, and have fun. While meditation and action plans work to develop your inner resources, it's equally important to turn to what Ryan calls your "outer resources": your friends and confidants. After all, when things get hard, people need help. For instance, when Ryan was getting divorced several years ago, she wrote a letter to all her friends, telling them what she was going through and what she needed from them. "People were so happy to know what to do," she explains. "Your friends want to support you, if you just tell them how." In her case, she asked to be taken out to dinner, to get nourished through food and company. Her friends obliged, and she eventually made her way through.
7. Help Someone Else
Remember that connection goes both ways. Sometimes it's supporting others that can best pull you out of your despair. That's how Azim Khamisa, coauthor of "The Secrets of the Bulletproof Spirit," turned his personal tragedy into something deeply meaningful. After he lost his son Tariq to murder, he used the crisis to redefine his priorities and redirect his life: Khamisa founded the nonprofit Tariq Khamisa Foundation, dedicated to countering youth violence. "I'm a better person now, concerned with the community. I'm making a difference in children's lives," says the former investment banker. Of course, to get to this point, he had to grieve for a full three and a half years. But he also had to do something. "Take your energy and put it into action," he advises to others who find themselves in similarly devastating situations. "Look at hard hits as God giving you a clue to find your real purpose in life."
Text by Frances Lefkowitz
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