Getting through adversity with endurance and determination is a trademark characteristic of every single person living with chronic illness. This is the strength of survivors. The coronavirus pandemic especially hard on those of us who are sick already but I hold on to the fact each of us is stronger and more resilient than we give our selves credit for, and these inner resources will help carry us through this time.But to acknowledge you own strength, you have to know what it really means. Think about it… what does it actually mean to be strong?
What is strength?
Strength is often described in terms of a fight for control – pictured as a physically tough warrior doing battle against the forces of opposition (Kabat-Zinn). In terms of life with chronic illness, being a fighting warrior can mean advocating for better care from your doctors or standing up for yourself to maintain boundaries in a challenging relationship. “I have the inner strength to fight for what I need.” But this metaphor is relatively limited in how it lets us conceptualize our own strength.Strength can also be understood as having the internal resources to cope in difficult situations. A strong person might be described as having the capacity to exercise physical, mental or moral power in challenging circumstances. You might have a strong mind, a strong support network, strong principles, or strong abilities that help you navigate through life experiences. Learning to cultivate and rely on these resources is an aspect of strength that I would call resilience, and it’s an important part of living a better life with chronic illness.Finally, and I think most importantly for individuals with illness, strength is about endurance, tenacity and perseverance – think of the phrase “a pillar of strength”. This is the strength of survivors. Getting through adversity with endurance and determination is a trademark characteristic of every single person living with chronic illness. I love the phrase “remember, your success rate for surviving your worst days so far is 100%”.Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness in medicine, created a meditation based on the visual metaphor of a mountain to help patients in his programs learn how to adopt a mountain’s qualities of strength, stillness and stability as their own. I would include an additional symbol – a tree –which offers additional insights on how we can understand strength as adaptability in a way that helps us cope with chronic illness. What can the metaphors of a mountain and a tree can teach us about the strength of survivors? How can we come to know our own grounded presence, our ability to encounter both good and bad experiences one day at a time, and our own will to survive, uplifted from deep within?
The base of a mountain is embedded in the Earth’s crust, and the deepest roots of a tree ground it in the soil. In the same way, we can anchor ourselves in the present moment, and root our attention in the here-and-now. This is what it means to be “grounded in awareness”, which is a stable foundation for living that can be very reassuring in the face of overwhelming circumstances.Growing deep roots in the firmament of awareness is a source of great inner strength. If we stay mindfully connected to the present, then we don’t get swept away by memories, imaginings, and other mental or emotional preoccupations. Whenever grief over losses caused by illness arises – or frustration about physical limitations, or anger over inadequate health care – staying grounded in the present, even as you feel your feelings, provides stability, continuity and reliability. You can always count on just this breath, moment to moment, to anchor you. It is sustaining and nourishing for our well-being to be grounded in the present in this way – just like it is nourishing for a tree when its roots absorb water and nutrients from the surrounding soil.Meditation instructors often liken thoughts, feelings, and experiences to the weather. How would you describe the forecast in your own life today? Sunshine and blue sky (happy), overcast (low mood), partly cloudy with sunny breaks (neutral), storm clouds with thunder and lightning (anger), blizzard conditions (turmoil) – using the emotions-as-weather metaphor is a wonderful way to check in with yourself to identify how you’re doing throughout the day. Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that the mountain experiences these conditions on its surface – but underneath, the solid base sits in unwavering stillness. In the same way, beneath the thoughts, emotions and experiences of our daily lives, is the foundation of unwavering stillness that is our awareness. If we can learn to sit mindfully, grounded in the same resolve and endurance as a mountain, no matter what the conditions on the surface landscape of our daily lives might be, we can adopt its strength as our strength.
Being Mode: Equanimity as Strength
A mountain is the quintessential symbol of endurance. The mountain rests in “being mode”– a calm, abiding presence withstanding the inevitability of change over time. A mountain knows at its core, of each experience, that “this too shall pass”. The mountain represents equanimity.Everyday life with illness is extremely unpredictable. Chronic illness exemplifies the saying “man plans, and God laughs.” Physical symptoms constantly fluctuate, which makes planning very difficult. Over time, forced periods of inactivity and rest due to flare-ups make it difficult to continue persevering at things – from friendships, to jobs, or projects. The stop-and-go nature of life with sickness makes it hard to accomplish things or to cultivate relationships, and the constant sense of uncertainty causes a pervasive feeling of powerlessness.The natural reaction to these changeable circumstances is to double down on “doing mode”. For example, you might stay up all night researching your illness, create a 40 item treatment plan, or drive yourself to “push through” tasks regardless of pain or exhaustion, in order to be more productive. “Pushing through” does require strength, but it is the fighting, warrior-type of strength we discussed earlier. This works in short bursts, and can sometimes be necessary, such as pushing through physical discomfort to attend a meaningful family event or to advocate for yourself with a dismissive doctor.But like clenching a handful of sand in a closed fist, these tactics don’t help you hold on to predictability or productivity for very long. We can needlessly expend our limited energy in a constant, exhausting battle to regain control of our day. But, as you likely know all too well, pushing through today usually only leads to a crash tomorrow. What might happen if we switched to approaching life’s challenges using the endurance and tenacity of “being mode” rather than engaging in the battle of “doing mode”?We can use the symbol of the mountain to represent what embodying equanimity as an inner strength could look like. When difficult experiences, thoughts or emotions arise, rather than always seeking to analyze and control these circumstances, we can rely on our inner awareness as a solid foundation – building on the enduring resolve and unwavering stillness of mindful presence to persevere through the storms of life. Releasing the need to control our life circumstances can feel like an enormous weight lifted from our shoulders. Instead, we allow circumstances to be like the weather on the mountain – ever-changing – even while the mountain endures as a still, rock-solid presence. In this way, cultivating equanimity allows us to build inner strength.
Strength in Flexibility
Like a tree, you have shown determination to survive, no matter how challenging the environment has been. You have endured, one day at a time. This inner strength comes from your core, which supports you like the trunk supports a tree.The tree has a powerful lesson about strength to teach us – because it is both strong and flexible. The trunk stands firm, yet the branches bend in the wind. If the wood of trees was unyielding, all trees would be brittle and snap in stormy weather. In fact, the trees that have adapted to survive hurricanes are the most flexible of all – picture a palm tree bending to withstand the onslaught of Category 5 hurricane strength winds one day – and then standing serenely under a tropical sun the next. Flexibility, and adaptability, in the face of adversity, increases resilience. No matter whether we face sunny days or storms, the tree teaches us to stay grounded in the present, to hold ourselves upright using our inner strength, and to be flexible in the face of the winds of change.
When I realized all of the strength I needed was already inside me, it changed how I approached the challenges of illness. Of course I feel anxious and worried; the feelings don’t disappear. But reminding myself to stop, breathe, and plant my feet in the present gives me hope that there is a path through whatever difficulties I face. I can deal with just.right.now. The stillness and stability of just being, of our awareness of each moment, is always there to count on, to ground yourself in. Endurance is made up of perseverance in moments, and days. I’ve gotten through every difficult minute, hour, day, and season I’ve ever faced, and so have you. I don’t know what the future holds, and I try to stay open to change. But I have an approach and a way to navigate what comes, and that is the strength of surviving. I know that now, and it makes all the difference.
to cope with You can find the mountain meditation in any Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, which is taught all over the world, in the book “Wherever You Go There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, or on the free, non-commercial site http://www.freemindfulness.org/download, under ‘Guided Imagery’.