BW photo of a young tree being blown by a hard wind

What Is Resilience?

We usually talk about resilience in connection with negative situations. But in my view, it’s related to the positive as well as the negative events we encounter.

When something difficult or challenging occurs in life, our calm mind is usually thrown off balance. We lose our equilibrium. Generally, a disturbing situation can shift our mind from responding rationally to reacting impulsively. And whether we are responsive or reactive, rational or impulsive, determines whether that experience –– good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant –– will have a positive or negative impact on our mind and its well-being.

If you are able to respond to a situation with a calm mind, with confidence, and most importantly, with kindness, then whatever the situation, it can ultimately have a positive impact, and that in turn promotes resilience.

On the other hand, if you react to any situation with an agitated mind, becoming overwhelmed with emotions and a sense of irritation or being intimidated, then whatever you encounter can actually have a negative impact, which can make you lose the shine of your resilience. So you can see that whether or not we show resilience all comes down to our state of mind.

So then, what is resilience? Webster’s Dictionary says it’s “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.” That’s the first definition given and it’s quite clear. It’s when a physical body knows how to face such a stress or challenge and then find its way back to its original shape or state. I like that definition. And the same goes for your mind as well, which is important to remember.

And the second definition given is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” So you can see that the word “resilience” refers to some original state. Like a physical body that’s facing an intensely stressful challenge being able to bounce back and recover its earlier shape or form. We can recognize dramatic examples of that in some animals that quickly recover from stress or injury.

What determines our resilience?

There are many factors or conditions that determine our resilience. Our environment, opportunities, early life experiences, and so on. And scientists also say that resilience is influenced by genetic factors. And of course, there’s the matter of luck.

Luck is an interesting aspect of resilience. Once I walked into a bank in Canada, and behind the teller’s window there was a huge banner that said, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I really like that statement. So I guess that’s what luck is. It’s when preparation –– your preparation –– meets with opportunity. When you’re ready to roll and take hold of that opportunity, that’s luck.

So resilience, in a conventional sense, is basically the ability to withstand unfavorable conditions, to face and respond to them correctly, so that we bounce back from such difficult life events. To be able to do that really depends on the skills that you have learned or built, as well as how you embrace and integrate those skills as part of your being. It isn’t only a matter of learning or reading about responding with resilience, or trying it out a few times. You need to embrace those skills fully. You have to make it a part of you, so that it becomes habitual.

It is clear from all the studies that being resilient does not necessarily mean you don’t experience stress, strong emotions, or pain. It’s not like that. Sometimes we misunderstand, thinking that somehow being resilient means you have to be like a beautiful Greek statue, unmoved by events. Or like a garden Buddha. On the contrary, you still experience stress, emotions, pain and suffering here and there. But the way you handle that and how you come out of it –– how quickly you bounce back –– is what determines your degree of resilience. And all of that depends on your skills and habits.

What are we bouncing back to?

If we look into it a little deeper, in terms of our human wisdom, according to Eastern philosophy or psychology, the basic energy or power of resilience is actually native to our human mind. So from the point of view of the dharma teachings, resilience is that brilliance and gentle wisdom at the core of our being

At the same time, that basic quality may not necessarily be obvious to us, and we may not see it right away. So in order to really tap into that brilliance of human wisdom and experience it, we may need to explore a bit further.

Therefore, as the dictionary definition of physical resilience indicates, there’s a sense of going back to the body’s original state of wholeness. In the same way, our mind has to go back to its original form or shape –– its original state of being healthy and whole, with a sense of fullness and brilliance. It is crucial to know this about resilience. If you don’t have that understanding to begin with, then no matter how hard you try, it’s going to be almost impossible to acquire resilience or to make it a part of you. It would be quite a challenge to make yourself into something else entirely.

For example, I may want to fly. And I may be able to flap my arms, but I don’t have the genetic makeup of a bird –– I don’t have wings to fly. So no matter how hard I try to acquire a bird’s flying ability, it’s going to be a pretty tough challenge to get myself up into the air. 

The same thing is true with resilience. If you try to bring resilience into yourself from the outside, it’s going to present a difficult, if not impossible, challenge. But we don’t need to do that. Because fundamentally speaking, this basic sense of resilience is right at the core of our human heart. It is the original shape of our mind, in a sense.

No matter how much stress our mind is under, due to various upheavals or neurosis, no matter how much pressure the emotions are exerting on us, the energy and power of resilience is available to us. We can always come back to our full, calm, open, free state. We all have that quality within. Therefore, the first and most important thing, in my opinion, is to bring some awareness to that –– to cultivate a sense of appreciation for the wisdom that we innately possess. And we can begin with a basic appreciation of our life. 

Appreciation of Life: An Exercise

1. Sit quietly for a moment and place your attention on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Appreciate your breath for a moment.

2. Experience the sensations of your heart beating. All your life, your heart has been beating from moment to moment without you having to think about it. Take a moment to appreciate your heart’s steadiness.

3. For the past several minutes you have been reading this article. This was possible due to your mind’s astonishing ability to look at the forms of letters, discover words, and understand whole sentences. Appreciate your mind for a moment.

4. Your life is sustained by the constancy of the breath moving, the heart beating, and the mind’s intelligent awareness. How amazing! Take a moment to appreciate this essential energy and power, this resilience, that you innately possess.


The teachings on which this article is based were given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at the retreat “Be Wise, Go Kind: Joy on the Path of Resilience” in April 2021, hosted by Nalandabodhi International and Nalanda West.