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