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On Skillful Coping

Recently I was watching an interview with Hubert Dreyfus, a contemporary philosopher. In one of his monologue answers he began speaking about all that it takes to be a human being. The way are bodies naturally pick up the gestalt of what’s happening. Trusting our bodies to move to the appropriate distance to be able to see and understand the object or situation we are dealing with as though viewing a painting or sculpture in a gallery. He called this action “Skillful Coping”, a term Heidegger originally came up with. Dreyfus was speaking of this concept in a particular way, but his words got me thinking about how “Skillful Coping” is important to everyday living. I have always considered terms like coping mechanisms to be related to some sort of trauma recovery, but really we are coping all of the time, skillfully or not.

I recently did a talk for a group of health professionals who are on the front lines of support with people who are dealing with severe crisis, brain chemistry issues, and trauma. The goal for my presentation was to give some simple tools for staying resourced throughout their long days with clients and patients. When I began to break it down and open up the conversation for these folks it was very clear that often times before even walking through the door to their treatment rooms these therapists, social workers, and doctors were already spent. Why? Because life is handing us challenges all day, every day.

In the very best of circumstances, when we are healthy, our children are healthy, we have enough to eat, and there is a roof over our heads, life is challenging and complicated. However, add in a sick parent, or worse a sick child, an injured or depressed spouse, the loss of a loved one, or financial stress and coping becomes damage control.

I had the amazing opportunity recently to meet a woman who on a Monday was “let go” of her position with her company after 25 years, and escorted to her car out of the building because of “budget cuts”. Two days later on a Wednesday she was told she had a tumor in her mandible that would need to be biopsied and removed. The catch was the procedure would happen very close to a facial nerve that would leave her lower lip paralyzed for life if it was damaged, the other catch of course, was whatever the biopsy would report.

Needless to say when I spoke with her an hour after hearing this news she was slightly rattled. When I use the word “slightly”, I mean, there was the obvious part of her flooded with cortisol, some shock and fear, but underneath was this amazing stillness. Skillful coping in action.

A couple of days later I saw her again and she reported having a hard time sleeping, but enjoying a cup of tea in the wee hours of the night, she talked about who she was in this new moment in time of so much change and where she was attached to her identity in the position that she had given her life’s work to. She gave me statistics of the rate of success for her upcoming biopsy and removal of her lesion. But also, she reported she was taking long walks in the mountains around her home and that her garden had begun to come alive in a new way. I watched her in action rearranging herself around this situation to get the very best view.

Before she left that day she asked if I would mind if she spruced up my patio garden in front of my office with some clippings from her garden. I marveled at her generosity in such a moment in her life. Mine was one of the many gardens around town that got love from this woman who knew how to channel her fear, powerlessness, and worry into not only skillful coping but a way to brighten another person’s life. I think this might be mastery.

This woman was in a very specific moment of intensity in her life, but I speculate this way of living and coping did not start with this moment. I believe that through her many years she has practiced walking through intense moments and being of service at all times. This was something she’s been practicing in the mundane so when the rubber met the road, and the road thrashed her about, she danced through the wreckage beautifully.

We all, every single one of us humans, are dealing with so much every day. Many of us, so much more than others. Sometimes it feels amazing and we feel connected, and sometimes it’s just plain overwhelming and devastating. On those days when the latter is present our choices make a difference. Where we position ourselves to view what is happening matters. Whether we zoom our lens out or move closer in to get a better look takes wisdom and skill.

It takes great courage and tremendous energy to interrupt a pattern of fear, by creating an action that is contrary to it. It takes a system reset in our minds to create actions that are in service not to overwhelm, but to creating trust, calm, and goodwill. It takes practiceto take the action of orienting ourselves for the optimal view of the situation.

So much of the time I have to override my brain’s computer to not sit down and space out on a screen or device, but rather call a friend, go for a bike ride with my daughter or be of service. Taking that flash of a moment to respond as opposed to react. Guiding myself to slow down and breathe, to place my hand on my heart, or feel my feet on the ground, is the heart of skillful coping and mindfulness practice. In these small moments I prepare myself for the big moments. In practicing small moment to moment skillful coping I train my nervous system and my mind (if I’m lucky) to be as amazing as the woman who in her BIG crisis moment is skillfully coping, while brightening up the gardens of others.

*Hubert Dreyfus Interview

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