How Setbacks Can Breed Resilience

On Relationships, Episode One: Exploring the relationship between mindfulness and happiness, accepting a certain amount of emotional "roughage" in our diet may be the key to thriving.

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Episode One of the On Relationships podcast with Elaine Smookler, relationships columnist of Mindful magazine, and Stephany Tlalka, Deputy Editor, Mindful Digital, explores the relationship between mindfulness and happiness. Do you input mindfulness on one end (through meditation and mindfulness practices) and then happiness comes out the other? Why can’t we just make that feeling of well-being happen for us when we want it to?

Through our chat, we’ll also get to know Elaine a bit more. She tends to face things with a sense of humor, even when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Armed with laughter, and a lot of resilience, she’s gained a great deal of knowledge about what makes her happy, and what drives her, particularly in moments of uncertainty, discomfort—and even in pain.

ST: Elaine, you’ve been practicing mindfulness for over 20 years and you’re on the faculty at the Centre for Mindfulness in Toronto, but you were also in the broadcasting business for awhile. You were working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and you were about to move up in the industry. But then, something happened. Uncertainty struck.

ES: They were grooming me for a national radio show and I got down—it was between me and one other person and they flew me to Calgary to be the host of this national radio show and I got there and I just felt—and this is how I am—I’ve never been driven by success, I’m driven only by my heart and energy. And my heart and my energy said, literally like Elaine I know, ego, I thought this is what you wanted, you said you wanted to host your own show, every night for an hour. It was a big deal. But when I got there, I was like…this is not it, I can’t be here. I can’t do this. Even though I had no idea what I was going to go to, I had to let it go. And it was such an interesting experience, it was like, this is not where I belong. I can’t do this.

ST: Even though what you had next was complete uncertainty and probably a lot of fear tied to that, you still felt—

ES: What I had next was living with my parents for a year who I hadn’t lived with for 20 years with no job, with no money, with no prospects, with no clue who I was. I’d left Vancouver, I’d just come back to Toronto still not sure what I was going to do. They (the CBC) flew me to Calgary, and it was going to be like “Here’s your next big thing” and there was my parent’s rec room, or my Dad’s office in the condo, actually, where I was going to sleep on the futon, bed-chesterfield, and there was a national radio show every single night, and I was like…I can’t. I can’t do what’s not right for me. But it was a powerful life moment for me because it was one of those “meeting my ego” moments where I went “Oh, so something in me is bigger than my ego? Who knew. I thought my ego was the biggest part of me!”

It was going to be like “Here’s your next big thing” and there was my parent’s rec room.

ST: So your ego met your heart?

ES: Yeah, my ego met my heart and…I had an amazing, amazing life in Vancouver, I was a known personality there, I did lots of amazing things, and thought this is the biggest life will ever get for me and life has gotten 10 times more amazing since hanging in there with myself and continuing to just follow my inner guide, which said “Don’t worry what it looks like.” Stop paying attention to what it looks like. You’re not going to know anything by what something looks like. You’re going to just have to go with the energy. You’ll know who you should be with, you’ll know who you should be working with. You’ll know what it is when you get there and that’s what it’s been—I just take one step, one step, one step, it’s so amazing, stuff just—every single day of my life is like a TV show. Every day. It has a TV show storyline, beginning-middle-end quality. It’s really amazing, really fun.

I thought this is the biggest life will ever get for me and life has gotten 10 times more amazing since hanging in there with myself.

ST: But when you say that, it doesn’t feel like, happy-go-lucky, I’m reading The Secret as I’m listening to you talk kind of thing, where every day is like picking flowers and putting them in a basket and giving it to a small child kind of thing. There’s a different kind of quality, there’s a substantial quality to that. 

ES: Well as an example, yesterday as I was on set and one of the topics that I talked about for the filming that we just did was the notion of happiness, you know, everybody wants to pursue happiness, and one of the things that I realized is first of all, it is very challenging for us to know what makes us happy and the notion of happiness is a very complicated idea so we may see that somebody has a fancy car or a nice house or a great body or whatever and think, “That’s what I want,” but if you don’t investigate it, you may not, you may discover, that’s not what I want, and getting that is not going to make me happy—but then it’s even more confusing. So it takes awhile to know, well, what would make me happy, really?

For me, one of the things I discovered is I accept a certain amount of pain as part of happiness, and I think of it as “roughage”—like, in your diet. So you would not want a smooth diet of only smooth food, unless you have a colon problem.

I accept a certain amount of pain as part of happiness, and I think of it as “roughage.”

ST: You wouldn’t accept a diet of sports cars. 

ES: A diet, even just dietarily, a diet of food that is only processed, so in other words the notion of happiness being a car that looks like this or a career that looks like this, money, a great body, a great spouse, or a handsome or beautiful spouse, is to me like processed food. It’s a processed idea of happiness. Whereas my experience is, just like with food, you need roughage in your diet to keep it healthy. A smooth diet of only smooth food is what lead kings to gout. It has many health issues. But when you integrate roughage, as it were, into your diet, then you’re healthy. So I’ve had a lot of painful experiences that I treasure as part of what’s made me human and compassionate and connected and awake and vibrant and technicolor and if I hadn’t of had those experiences, I don’t know who I would have been. I would have certainly not been someone who had any insight.

The Best Medicine

I’ve also been through cancer. Which was amazing [laughs].

ST: Not everyone, obviously, would describe that as an amazing experience. 

ES: So here’s an experience that happened: I’m on the gurney, about to go in for my surgery for cancer, and the orderly comes over and it’s all very automatic pilot. They have their clipboard and he goes: “So, ah, do you know what you’re in for?” Because they ask you that all the time to make sure that they’ve got the right patient going in for the right surgery. (They just want to make sure they haven’t somehow weirdly done…they’re about to do surgery on you and “No, that’s for so and so over there and you’re about to take my leg off and it’s not gangrenous at all.”)

So the orderly doesn’t even look up at me, he’s just looking at his clipboard and says “Do you know what you’re here for?” and I went: “Yup, breast lift and tummy tuck.”

And he puts his clipboard down and his face went ash and he went, “Really? You know what? I’ll be right back.” And I said: “KIDDING” And he went: “WOW. We don’t get a lot of people joking around as they’re about to head into for surgery.” I said, “It beats the alternative.” I’d rather—and on the surgery table too, I asked for a moment alone with my uterus (I had uterine cancer). And I reminded my surgeon: “Remember you told me you were going to save it and I’m going to make a backpack out of it.” And she said: “More like a change purse.” And I said, “Okay, you’re the doctor, what do I know.”

ST: So you asked for a moment alone with your uterus. Was this after the surgery?

ES: No. I’m on the table. They’ve wheeled me in and it’s the moment when all the surgeons are around you. They’re about to put you under. Normally, you’re not interacting, you’re a hunk of meat on the table and they’re talking to each other. But I’m there, still awake going, “Hey, do you know my friend Brian?” And I see my surgeon: “Hey, how ya doin’?” I’m chatting with them, just before they put me under, they like, okay, we’ve had enough of you, lady. I’m like: “Just reminding you, save that uterus for me! Reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Then the next day after surgery, I got up and I was feeling pretty good right after surgery so I made my own bed. The person who comes in to do your laundry—not the nurse—they walked in and saw me making my bed and she said, “What are you doing?!” and I said, “I was feeling pretty good. I felt like getting up.” She said, “I’ve never seen someone make their own bed.”

The other thing was—I don’t know why I’m picking on this particular thing—so they come in and they explain to you, you’ve had abdominal surgery so me and my roommate they say okay if you cough you want take a pillow and put it over your abdomen because you’ve just had yourself ripped open and you want to protect that from opening up again and they said so if you cough or you’re sobbing or anything—whatever it is that’s heavy. And my roommate and I, she was a lot older than me and me just being totally outrageous, I was making her laugh so hard, I said, “They forgot to tell us what to do if you’re laughing so hard!” So we both has these pillows on our stomach as we’re laughing laughing laughing so hysterically after our surgery.

When I first found out I was sharing a room with this person who was gray-haired, I was young, she was from a small town, I was from Toronto, I felt really like Oh God, I can’t believe I have to be with this person. I felt a lot of judgement and I was about to go for surgery before we met right then it was sort of awkward like “Oh, so you’re going to be my college roommate? Well, that’s not who I would have chosen.” And as it turned out when we came back having gone through that experience together—she went, I went, but we had the same surgery for the same reasons—it was so bonding, and that laugher, I just became my most outrageous self, we were laughing so, so hard we bonded, it was magical that we were together we became really, really close.

We were laughing so much that the nurses came to us and said would you mind going around to the other patients and cheering them up because you’re so funny and you guys are having such a fun time we really see how other people would benefit from that. So I just started to go room to room with people and one of the things about abdominal surgery is they won’t let you home until you fart.  So I just kept going around to around to all the rooms saying to everybody: “Have you farted? Have you farted? Because you know you’re not getting out of here until you’ve farted.” And people are like: “Uhhhh, I’ve just had surgery.” And you’re like: “Yeah, but have you farted yet because you’re in here until you fart.”

I also brought all my own food with me to the hospital because, as I said to all the other patients, I went around from room to room, “The hospital is run by angels, but the kitchen is run by Satan. Don’t eat the food here!” It was a different era of hospitals too, now they have more healthy food.

Pain as a Resource for Resilience

The other story about pain which was really powerful was I can remember the first surgery I had lying—it was the year before, I had gallbladder surgery and I was lying alone at this point in the operating room, it was really cold and you just had a sheet on you and there was no one in the room but me so it was kind of like out of that movie Coma, I had this real feeling of I wonder if I’m going to wake up ever.

I had this powerful, powerful experience that was quite transformative where I saw that I was just a hunk of meat. That for all intents and purposes, I was really just—and for these people coming in, I was just a hunk of meat. In terms of—I was a performer, a personality, I had stuff written about me, and so suddenly I was none of those things, I was just a hunk of meat, and I would never have thought that that could be so beneficial. But it allowed me to let go of a whole bunch of ideas about myself that I thought were beneficial but were actually holding me in a certain identity. And as soon as I recognized that I, at some level, was just a hunk of meat, it was incredibly freeing. It was counterintuitive, it was not what I expected. And part B of that was then I have the gallbladder surgery and, like most humans, I don’t like pain and in fact I’d even call myself allergic to pain. (And as I like to tell people my doctor tells me to avoid pain at all costs.) So I have the surgery, and I can remember before some hit of morphine kicked in really lying in that bed and feeling where they had done surgery on me and it really really hurt, and I remember so vividly feeling ecstatic because I had had no connection to my body in my life, and suddenly pain brought me to a feeling that I had a body and I actually felt so thrilled I thought who knew you could make friends with pain but I’m really excited to feel this hurts because. I always felt sort of numb from the neck down and even though it wasn’t a pleasant awakening, at that moment, any awakening was a pleasant awakening, so just feeling any sensation in my body.

Now as a teacher I teach the body scan as one of the practices and it was probably the practice of all of them that I absolutely hated the most. Every time body scan came up as a possibility, I was like, no, no—I’d leave the room if I could. So it took me years, and only because I was teaching it that I had to tether myself to that practice because I didn’t really want to connect to my body. Now when I do the body scan I feel so electric. I can feel how it makes every part of me come alive. And it just made me so interested in how experience changes: you think oh no, this is how things are, I could never handle something like that. Just like cancer. How many people say, “I hope I never have to go through cancer” as though that could be the worst thing that could happen. And then you get cancer and then you go through it and then you go: “Oh actually, it’s not the worst thing, and I’m still alive and it sounds like a scary word but it’s just a thing.” Or people, because of my eyesight, I’ve been losing my eyesight from retinitis pigmentosa and people say to me, “I can’t imagine anything more horrible than losing my eyesight.” I think, “Oh, thank you!”

ST: Well you’d think that every aspect of your everyday life would change enormously and you would resist that, I think that’s what people are probably thinking—that resistance to change.

ES: Sure but what I say in my classes to my students is: You guys, by a show of hands, how many of you here—because I don’t know you, I don’t want to make assumptions—how many of you here are able to control every aspect of your lives, every aspect? But I said remember raise your hands high because I don’t see very well. Of course, there’s no hands up. They’d laugh because I’d say, “Can you raise your hands a little higher?” And there’s no hands up. And I’d say, “Oh, well that’s interesting, so nobody here can control every aspect of your life. Well, then I guess mindfulness is not about control.” We’re not here to control anything, it would be crap if I told you that you could, that is dishonest, that has nothing to do with what mindfulness is, forget about control. It’s not about mind control, it’s not about thought control. It’s when life is dealing us this myriad of experiences, some pleasant, some painful, difficult, wonderful, how can you stand in your life exactly exactly as it is and play with the elements if I dare say, literally play with the elements, exactly as they are.

When life is dealing us this myriad of experiences, some pleasant, some painful, how can you stand in your life exactly exactly as it is and play with the elements exactly as they are? That’s where your mindfulness practice comes in.

I’m also the facilitator for the mindfulness project at the Sick Kids Hospital. So when I go to Sick Kids Hospital, I say to them—I could never say to you, “Practice mindfulness and all your worries will go away.” I say: “Hey kids! Turn that frown upside down!” [laughs] It just shows me over and over mindfulness practice is in no way a way to escape from our lives or pad the difficult in a way or push it away and so increasingly I just feel—my mindfulness practice just lets me wade into the midst of difficulty because for me that’s where the most interesting stuff is and get very, very curious about how to—almost like a video game, it really is more like that. It’s like life has become a video game where I’m in it going “Oh! Okay. They’re coming for me. Okay, there’s the sharks, there’s the things that eat you. Okay, you better hide behind the—okay, you gotta do this.” And you’re constantly moving, just like in a video game. And even though there’s a seriousness to the video game, you can be very competitive, you can be very into it. You’re playing for reals, but underneath that playing for reals and that competitive “I’m going to win” is the recognition that it’s play. And I’m also a clown, and Patricia Rockman who also writes for, is my clown partner, she’s a physician in the area of mental health, so our clown pieces have been about emotional difficulties. We did a show called “Bondage,” a birth-to-death show where she gives birth to me in the first piece and I die in the last piece and we have life events in between including she plays my elderly mother and I play a middle-aged women trying to get out on my first date in probably 20 years. She doesn’t want to let me go because she’s afraid, so she makes me catheterize her and cut her gigantic disgusting horrible toenails because we had all these wild prosthetics made. But it was really about ambivalence, fear, attachment, all of the emotional pain of life—when we try so desperately to hold on to things that you can’t hold on to. Like, can you keep your baby a baby forever? However cute your baby is, however amazing it is, your baby is going to grow up. You cannot put it in plastic and keep it as a baby. People we love die. We die. Things are changing. Even if you’ve had the most incredibly healthy, vibrant life, aging will get you. Or you have a bad day or you or you feel hormonally off or you ate something that made you not feel quite good or you didn’t drink enough water or your blood sugar is low or your spouse or friend just said something that you interpreted correctly or incorrectly.

ST: You’re obviously a very resilient person. What advice do you have in those moments when someone is triggered, when you’re just exhausted, you’ve hit a wall and maybe you don’t want to play that “game” anymore—you were talking about how you can play life like a video game, you can dig into those difficulties and as a resilient person, you kind of thrive there. What do you do when you hit a wall?

ES: So many different things, there’s for sure no one answer. I can give you a bunch of different things that I do.

Resilience 101: What to Do When You’ve Hit a Wall

1. Acknowledge how you feel, then give yourself some space.

For me, mindfulness is more about the “and then what?”

Sometimes I scream and I’m horrible anyways—so for me, mindfulness is more about the “and then what?” I would say, generally speaking, I’m a very passionate person, I’m a very fiery person, I’m a person who rides the waves of strong emotions constantly, so I still notice I have lots of reactivity even after 20 years of practicing—I have close to 10,000 hours of practice under me.

I still have lots of reactivity under me but what I notice is the wave comes up and then right away there’s a moment of pause where I’m able through my practice that little bit of space that I’ve cultivated to be able to stop and just check in with myself and go “Okay, I can feel you really want to push your partner down a set of stairs right now, but the ramifications—so let me just check in with myself, like what would the ramifications of that be if I did that.” I’m able to stand back and really just very quickly ask myself—not intellectually but just a felt sense, a visceral knowing of: Is that going to take me where I want to go? If it is, you’re on your way down buddy, because I wouldn’t hesitate! I wouldn’t hesitate for a second! [laughs] But I’m able to stop and play the tape for myself really quickly of noticing: Okay, so I’ve pushed him down a set of stairs, and I really love him, so then I’d probably feel really terrible, and then maybe I’d actually physically hurt him. Or maybe we’d have a problem in our marriage and I really love being married to him so it’s not that I don’t want him or our marriage or any of that, and so in that moment, I’m able to say to him: “I’m really sorry, and I’m hungry and I’m freaking out right now,” or “I’ve got a big project and I’m really stressed and please don’t take this personally I know that was really sharp of me and I’m asking that you not take this on.” So that’s one thing I do.

I still notice I have lots of reactivity even after 20 years of practicing mindfulness. What I notice is the wave comes up and then right away there’s a moment of pause where I’m able through my practice that little bit of space that I’ve cultivated to be able to stop and just check in with myself.

2. If you’re thoughts are racing, come back to your body. 

I do practice what I preach a lot so I’ll do the practices. Depending on the situation, I will stop, feel my feet making contact with the ground so move into my felt-sense brain network from my default brain network in neuroscience terms. I will shift into a different brain network by just coming into my body, out of the storyline, and feel my body, take some breaths.

I also feel, even though I can be really cranky and sharp, I do know that causing pain to other people is never really anything as an end game for me, it’s never anything that makes me happy and lately especially I have been able to say to myself more and more earlier in the cycle of aggression “How often when I have—because I felt justified—I am going to give you a piece of my mind, I am going to whatever,” and I started to look back and said to myself has there ever, can I think of even one time when I thought afterwards “I am so glad I did that”? And always afterwards I feel so terrible and I’m like I’m so sorry I said that to that person, now that person feels terrible, where did that get me, did I gain—even from the most egotistical standpoint—did I really gain anything at all? Did I get one step up on the ladder by making that person feel worse? And for me personally, it’s always like, no.

3. Recognize there’s a lot of pain out there….

Definitely recognizing that there’s a lot of pain in the world is really helpful, coming back to the pain motif. I do really, really see how much pain people are in and how we don’t know what’s going on in somebody’s head. We don’t know why this person said this to us or gave us that look or… is it because they had gas or they really were giving me a dirty look. Did they just desperately have to pee as they walked by and I’m looking at them thinking, God, I can’t believe you’re such a

4. …and there’s a lot of kind people out there 

So I’m learning more and more that in weird way I’d have to say in spite of what the newspaper would tell us, my personal experience is that most people are really lovely, kind…given half a chance, most people want to help you. That might sound like—I’m sure lots of people could refute that, but my personal experience is, especially because I have my cane, so sometimes when I have my white cane out, there has never been one person that if I’ve said “Could you help me cross the street?” or “Could you help me do this?” no matter who I choose, nobody’s ever said no, I’m not going to help you.

I do feel that also people love helping people especially if it’s short term. You know, if you can just give a person a chance to do something kind for you, I see that people actually brighten up. If you’re not being aggressive about it but you’re just gentle and “Would you mind…” I see most people are so thrilled people love giving me their seats on public transportation. It took me a long time to accept it, and then I started to realize it takes two to tango. When that person offers you their seat, it’s good to say yes, because it’s not just about me saying, “No I’m stoic, it’s okay.” That’s actually not, strangely, it’s not beneficial to that other person. I can see they get something from feeling that they did something noble. It makes them feel happy that they had the thought to offer a person they felt could use their help something and I see it in them they’re just so, they’re happy too. I’ve never met anybody who I thought was not happy when they offered me a seat so if I accept it it’s kind of like learning how to let go of thinking: “No that’s okay! Yeah I’m okay!” rather than saying “Oh, thank you, that’s so nice of you, thank you very much.” And then I really feel like I’m using every opportunity in life to build a friendly society, a feeling where we humans are wanting to be of assistance to one another, wanting to recognize that we’re all in it together. New York subways are hilarious for that. So many times I’ve been like “Excuse me? Can you tell me where to get to so and so?” And 20 people will come over: “Okay, here’s how you—” [laughs]

ST: I thought it would be a live-and-let-die scenario where people would completely ignore you. 

ES: I know! It isn’t. At least I’ve never experienced that. People talk to me everywhere.

ST: You wouldn’t expect that. So in your case in a way, when someone offers you a seat, you feel the stoic need to say no, you’re giving up control in some ways. 

ES: Yeah, right and I see that if you want to live in a society where people are softer and kinder and gentler you have to be softer, kinder, and gentler and also allow people the opportunity to do the same thing it is again like neuroscience—you create a circuit in the brain and then you have to go over that same territory to strengthen that circuitry in the brain to create a new default in the brain. I think that you need to give people the opportunity to find ways to be kind and help one another. Just like with mindfulness practice we say to people you don’t necessarily want to start practicing 20 hours the first time you’ve ever done it so to have tiny little practice opportunities like holding a door open for somebody or a tiny act of kindness that just starts to build “Oh, I helped that person.”

One hilarious thing: I’m coming down the steps into the subway and a young woman, she’s with her friends, says, “Excuse me, can I help you?” and I tell her—because I now intentionally accept help from other people—I said, “Yes, thank you, that would be great.” So she helps me down, I’ve got my cane, and I hear her and her friends, who were one foot away from me say to her, “That is SO nice of you!” And what I want to say out loud—but I don’t—is: “Blind not deaf!” You know what I mean! But then I thought that would have put a sour note in a sense into that act of kindness that person gave, I would have maybe made them uncomfortable rather than laughing to myself that they were so excited to tell their friend as though I could not hear. That thing you just did for that blind woman! As if I was in a movie and I didn’t hear it or something. I just had to shut my mouth because I was going to say something, and then I was like, Elaine, you know what, let them celebrate that doing something kind for another person is a great act to celebrate.