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Smita Malhotra, M.D. Headshot

The 5 Characteristics of Incredibly Resilient People

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I remember the day I found out that my aunt had cancer. Although she was the most positive person I had ever met, I still worried about how she would handle such an overwhelming diagnosis.

Looking back, now that her cancer is in remission, she continues to be the most positive person I know. But even more than that, she is what I call an elegant spirit.

Cancer, in my aunt's world, was a small valley hidden amongst the many glorious peaks of her life. While she may have had some moments of despair as we all do when we find ourselves alone in our thoughts, unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel, she never showed this to the world outside.

She never complained. During her treatment, she continued to go to work and share her passion. She turned long days of chemotherapy in the hospital into a party with her friends where they would share stories, laugh and play cards.

Life threw her an arrow, and she, an archer herself, caught this arrow and created her bow. She knew that she could not control the fact that this arrow had come to her, but her bow could hold it stable. Instead of defeating her, the arrow ultimately strengthened her.

As a physician, I have met many such elegant spirits. Their resilience is awe-inspiring. They have the ability to handle even the most devastating diagnosis.

How then, do people cultivate such strength? And how can we do that for ourselves?

Here are five things resilient people have in common:

1) They practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the art of paying attention to your life on purpose. Mindful people monitor the thoughts that come through them. However, instead of reacting to their negative thoughts, they observe them like a storm that is passing through.

Furthermore, they pay attention to what is right in their lives. They give it strength and value, thereby turning up the volume on the beauty that surrounds them.

They understand their role in the universal flow of life. They realize that they are a part of a divine cycle of life and death.

And in this understanding, they remain like the eye at the center of a tornado.

The world will continue to change around them. But at the center of this tornado, is their mind, where there is tranquility and calm.

2) They don't compare themselves to others

They don't spend their time feeling sorry for themselves. They realize that every soul has a different journey and therefore it is pointless to compare the path of your life with someone else.

They are continually trying to be the new and improved version of themselves. And as long as they are better than they were yesterday, they know they are on the right path.

They are their own measuring stick of success.

3) They understand that after every big setback is an even bigger transformation

I remember in medical school when part of our rotation was to learn how to deliver bad news to patients, I shadowed a physician who informed a young 40-year-old woman that she had stage four breast cancer.

Immediately, without missing a beat, this woman said, "I know one thing. After every big setback is an even bigger transformation."

Resilient people understand this. They see difficulties as stepping stones to a transformation.

4) They find humor in everything

Laughter, in its very highest form, is a spiritual practice. It connects us to the part of our soul that heals. When we laugh with others, we gain a sense of interconnectedness and belonging.

Laughter may help lower our blood pressure and increase our vascular blood flow. It can do wonders for our health.

Resilient people look for reasons to laugh. They find humor in the mundane. They understand that paying attention to the ordinary is what makes life extraordinary.

5) They do not try to control their lives

Gary Zukav wrote about elegant spirits like this:

The journey of a hawk depends on both the hawk and the wind. The wind is your life. It is all the things that happen from the time you are born and the time you go home. Elegant spirits don't know what will come up next, the same way that hawks don't know which way the wind will blow next.

This doesn't bother them, because they don't try to control their lives any more than hawks try to control the wind.

Resilient people do not try to control their lives. They surrender to the flow of the wind. They adjust their sails and ride the next wave of their life.

People that have overcome hardships, tremendous obstacles or disease often feel that life goes from black and white in the before to many beautiful colors in the after. The have turned up the volume of beauty in their lives. They practice mindfulness. They stop comparing themselves to others. They find humor in everything.

And they know that they have been transformed.

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