We often get caught up in thinking about what’s not working or what needs improving in our lives, especially when we face difficulties. This piece invites us to look within for hidden treasures and discover the amazing gifts we already have.
Who can we become when we are at our most vulnerable? How do we face the capricious nature of life and rise above it anyway? These are the questions that fascinate me.
Mavis Lindgren, at age 62, suffered four bouts of pneumonia in one year, yet she became a champion marathoner by age 70, never having run before in her life. Mattie Stepanek became a published poet, an honorary fireman, a karate competitor, and the national spokesperson for the Muscular Dystrophy Association at age 12, despite being a quadriplegic and having lost three brothers to muscular dystrophy. Life took them both by surprise and yet both transformed themselves into thriving human beings. How does this happen?
We all seek an answer, a key that can enable us to find health, joy, and meaning, and then somehow find a way to sustain those qualities. I believe that is why we come to a place like Kripalu—not simply to learn a technique but to find the path to a richer life. We wish to be alive and fulfilled and, through our energy and wellness, to bring something that thrums to the world, like Mattie’s poetry, like Mavis’ capacity to run.
There are many paths to transformation. I offer an understanding from the world of mind-body medicine and positive psychology that can provide an underpinning for any transformative act you choose, whether eating better foods, living a more generous life, or getting on the yoga mat every day.
I’ve seen this work, both in my own life and with guests at Kripalu. Many have come here in moments of great stress and left reinvigorated, having uncovered a new knowledge about themselves that provides hope. This knowledge has to do with signature strengths, and it requires nothing but a shift in how you see yourself and how you apply that new seeing to your daily life.
Signature strengths refer to those strengths that are organic to us. We all have capabilities that enable us to move through life from a place of health. Mavis exhibits tenacity; Mattie had an irrepressible spirit. We all know someone who we can firmly say is generous, or compassionate, or courageous, or loyal, or is an appreciator of beauty. Each of these is a strength, and each of us possesses core sustaining strengths that are an important foundation to healthy change. We just have to remember them and actually use them, either when we seek positive change or when life slings javelins our way.
Here is what I mean:
Take a breath or two; then take a moment to choose one or two words from the list of strengths below that ring true to you about yourself. If you have a strength that isn’t listed here, write it down. This list is but a sampling of the wondrous capacities we have as human beings. If you find it difficult, keep breathing.
- Emotional intelligence
Those who are resilient and can sustain healthy transformations are those who lean on their strengths in moments of stress. We choose our actions and ways of being based upon the capacities that can move us forward. This does not mean that we are not vulnerable. In fact, under stress, we are often raw and exposed. What it means is that we do not waste time punishing ourselves for who we are not, or ruminating about the gifts we don’t have. We take the moment of rawness as an opportunity to use the strengths we do have, while being open to what the moment has to teach us about growth. Author Anne Lamott once wrote that her mind was like a bad neighborhood she tried not to go into alone, and that is something many of us can relate to. We are talented at judging ourselves, which brings us nowhere except to a darker place, a bad neighborhood. Yet, if we put our attention toward our strengths, we find ourselves in a new land, one that actually helps us move forward.
How can we apply the knowledge of our strengths?
- You’ve identified your strengths.
- A difficult moment comes. Perhaps a diagnosis. Perhaps the loss of a job. Perhaps a new opportunity that requires great change.
- You center yourself and take out your list. Choose one of your strengths. Just one.
- You apply that strength to your daily life for the next week, even if you only do it for a moment.
An example from my own life: One of my core strengths is compassion and, a few winters ago, as our income suddenly became severely reduced, the bills began to pile and tension in our home mounted. I took out my list, chose one of my gifts—compassion—and spent the next seven days practicing it. One day, I called a former colleague who had lost her mother and just listened to her grieve. The next day, I wrote a note to my teenage daughter, who I knew was deeply worried. The third day, I visited a local shelter and offered my help. The fourth day, I let a mom with screaming children go ahead of me in line at the supermarket. The fifth day, I spent 10 minutes meditating on self-compassion. The sixth day, I wrote a note to a woman I had read about in our local paper who had just lost an infant son. The seventh day, I took time in the morning to review my acts of compassion and see what had happened. What did I notice? I had more energy, calmness, and clarity about what needed to be done next to help our family get through our crisis.
What had changed externally? Nothing. We were still in difficult straits. What had changed internally? Everything. I had come home to myself in a positive way. I had reminded myself of who I was and what I had to bring to the world—no matter what the world was bringing to me. I had remembered that I had more than one strength to bring to bear, and I had taken charge of the one thing I actually do have control over: myself in the present moment. There is no other locus of change; we have ourselves in the present moment to enact the change we seek.
Mavis leaned on her sense of perseverance and the joy she found in running. She put on the shoes every day to train, regardless of her circumstances. Mattie focused on his natural optimism, and he brought that quality to his life every day, even when in pain. Who can we become when life pulls the rug out under us? Our fullest selves, gifted with qualities that enable us to rise. We simply must remember what they are and choose to go toward them.