Building Your Capacity to Navigate Difficulty

A 16-minute mindfulness practice from Rich Fernandez on honing our capacity to shift, take perspective, and be in wise relationship with our difficulties.

Honing our capacity to shift, to take perspective, in some ways, to subtract ourselves from our experiences helps us be in wise relationship with our difficulties.

Hello, I’m Rich, and I run a non-profit called the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI). We focus on offering mindfulness and emotional intelligence tools to communities and organizations around the world. I’m so happy to be joining you this week. This is our fourth module on the theme of living with meaning, purpose and resilience. 

Resilience, simply defined, is being able to bounce back from adversity. It’s our ability to meet the challenges that arise, bounce back, find our footing, and navigate effectively. It’s not about stopping all challenges in life because that would be impossible. Stress and difficulties arise in our lives all the time. It’s a question of how we meet those challenges, how we navigate through them and work with them. 

So I’d like to offer some tools and a meditation around this. And again, this is part of a larger series on defining meaning, purpose, and, now, resilience. I like to offer resilience as the last piece because in the course of this journey to being our best, to living with purpose and meaning, we will encounter difficulties. We all do. We’re human. So I’m certain that, without a doubt, every single one of you will experience failure. I have. 

In fact, I can say I’ve experienced failure quite continuously throughout my life. Now, what’s really important here are the words we use and the way we think about failure. I said just now that you will experience failure. I didn’t say you are a failure. I didn’t define it that way. And that’s really the critical pivot point of resilience: doing what’s called moving from an existential trait to an experiential state around the experience of difficulties. 

So if that seems abstract, let me explain a bit further. Often when we meet challenges it’s very easy to fall into a narrative about guess who? About yourself. And very often, when we experience failure or adversity, that narrative can be negative. Those stories we tell ourselves can be as simple as, “I’m a failure,” “I’m unworthy,” “I’m inadequate,” “I’m incompetent—what’s wrong with me?” It’s a lot of self-criticism, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. 

Outsmarting Our Negativity Bias

In fact, our brains are actually wired for something called the negativity bias. It’s an evolutionary phenomenon whereby we attune to danger and threats and negative stimuli in our environment much more than positive ones. Some research says it’s roughly a rate of 3 to 1 that we pay more attention to the negative than the positive. And that is then magnified when we experience challenges and difficulties. It’s really important, then, to be aware and to work counter to that negativity bias. 

That’s where this shift from existential trait to experiential state helps. It’s something I do a lot, so let me give you an example from my own experience. As you know, I run a non-profit, and there have been periods where we’re not meeting our key performance indicators, our core metrics, for example. In those instances, as the leader of this organization, I’ve found myself at times asking, “What’s wrong with you, Rich? This quarter was terrible.” And I feel inadequate and begin doubting my abilities. It’s almost as though I’m categorizing myself in this trait-like fashion as if I’m not competent. When in reality, our organization simply experienced a difficult quarter: there were difficult conditions in the market and the ecosystem in which we work. And as a leader I faced challenges around how to right the ship, how to pivot and consider different solutions with my team. 

I remember there was a moment where I thought, “I’m just a failure. I’m failing at this quarter.” Then I actually paused and thought about it: We experienced the failure. I experienced a setback and a shortcoming. I experienced a failure. I had the experience of failure. That’s it. And that’s very different from framing things as, “I am a failure.”

Tap into the Liberating Shift

So that’s the critical shift. It’s what we at Search Inside Yourself like to call the liberating shift—from existential to experiential. And I want to invite you to join in a meditation on that liberating shift today because for me, that’s the key factor in resilience: the shifting from existential to experiential. 

Before we get started, though, I want to encourage you to really inhabit the perspective of experiencing something. Nothing more—it’s just an experience. Take emotions or feelings, for example: they are actually physiological processes in the body. They come; they arise; we feel them; and then they go. So it’s actually a process that plays out in our bodies. When we’re triggered and have difficult experiences and feel difficult emotions, those are also just physiological processes. They’re not facts. They’re not sentences or indictments. And they’re certainly not traits. Again, we know from physiological science that emotion is a process. So the encouragement for this practice, if difficult emotion arises—whether it’s stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, whatever it might be—is to see it arise and to see it as a process, not as a trait. 

Let’s now try a meditation that allows us to experience this firsthand. 

Building Your Capacity to Navigate Difficulty

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Building Your Capacity to Navigate Difficulty

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1. I invite you to sit in a way that is alert but relaxed at the same time—whatever that means for you. Close your eyes, if you’d like. Or just soften the visual field by gazing downward. Take a moment as we begin to collect our attention. 

 2. Now, bring awareness to your body—the felt experience of your body wherever you find yourself. Bring firm but gentle attention to your breath; the in breaths and the out breaths. Just collect your attention for a moment here, taking a minute to arrive, with your mind and your heart and your body all in this moment, whatever this means to you. 

3. Now I’d like to invite you, just as you are, to this meditation on resilience. I invite you to consider a difficult situation or person—nothing traumatic—just something that was difficult for you, or a person who was difficult for you, perhaps over the past week or another period of time. Calling this situation or person to mind, and noting what feeling or emotion arises when you reflect on this. What sensations are you feeling in your body as you consider this situation or person? It could be something like: I am experiencing stress. Or, with regard to a person: I am experiencing anger or frustration. Whatever it is you’re experiencing, just noting it: “I am experiencing ….” 

4. Now just as you are, note how different that is from saying “I am stressed” or “I am frustrated.” Instead, “I am experiencing” emphasizes the process. And emotion is a process. It is a state you are aware of. Name it to know it. And note how it may change as you name it and take note. With this we’re taking that small step back to gain perspective on the experience of difficulty. I encourage you to take the “I” out of it. Instead: “There is the experience of frustration. Because who is the “I”? Just bringing a kind, loving awareness to “There is the experience of stress; there is the experience of frustration in the body.”

5. Notice how that feels to adopt that broader perspective. This is the liberating shift between I am stressed or frustrated to there is the experience of stress or frustration currently in my body. Whatever that emotion is for you, bring this quality of awareness—the experience of—and fill in the blank. Just see how that feels in the body. And then whatever arises next for you: experiences and emotions are rising and moving and changing in the body frequently.

6. As we wrap up this meditation on resilience, take a few last breaths at your own pace, reconnecting with your breathing. And when you’re ready, open your eyes and rejoin. 

It’s really important to bring this capacity to shift into our lives. We all have the capability to expand our perspective, and even subtract ourselves from the equation. Stress is real; difficult emotions are real. I don’t suggest we suppress or deny or push any of that away, but I am suggesting that we be in wise relationship with them, as one of my teachers Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say. So, wise relationship with our difficulties is that liberating shift that will affect resilience. 

I hope this has been useful for you. This concludes the four-module series of meditations for living with meaning, purpose and resilience. I’d like to end with a poem that brings all of this together. It really brings the idea of attuning to what’s alive within you and standing in that place with strength and resilience. I’ve written this poem myself. It’s called

“The Quiet Invitation”
In the vividness of the journey from
Being to becoming,
Amidst the flickering dance between action and reflection, 
Alignment emerges, 
A close knowing, a path glowing faintly in the mists of imagination. 
Not so much chosen as revealed
Even as you stand blinking in fear or wonder. 
There comes the still, quiet voice at the center of things—that sweet, gentle calling that whispers This is true.
This is good
This is alive now
You are called an invitation to wholeness
In this everyday arc of your life. 

So, with that my friends. Thank you so much. I wish you all well. Take good care.


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About the author

Rich Fernandez

Rich Fernandez is the CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI). He was previously the director of executive education and people development at Google, where he was also one of the first SIY teachers. Rich previously co-founded Wisdom Labs and has also served in senior roles at eBay, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America.