Research

Resilience through Sports Psychology, Heartbreak, and Mindfulness

Three books related to resilience.

I’ve been interested in resilience since 2016. I wanted to learn more about how people recover from setbacks and major changes in identity.

I started by thinking about athletes recovering from major losses, enduring injury, or facing retirement. This was partly fueled by my own participation in athletics (competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu last year, coping with chronic aches) and as a spectator (the mental or psychological preparation or fallout in Rhonda Rousey’s loss to Holly Holm, Rose Namajuna’s self-management which helped her dethrone Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Megan Rapinoe’s sense of self-driven purpose).


Jim Afremow, The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive.

Jim Afremow, PhD, The Champion’s Mind (2013)

[Find on IndieBound.]

I highly recommend this book for anyone who plays sports and wants to be more mentally prepared for competition. Practical, helpful tips for having the most conducive attitude in practice, in competition, in the face of loss, etc.


Competitive athletes face winning and losing on a regular basis. But loss is inevitable in everyone’s lives. We will all face grief. When you love, you can also lose your love.


Cover of Guy Winch, How to Fix a Broken Heart

Guy Winch, PhD, How to Fix a Broken Heart (2018)

This is a great little book written by a NYC therapist based on 20 years of treating clients. The focus is on heartbreak following the loss of romantic love, and heartbreak following the loss of a pet. Dr. Winch is keen to challenge social assumptions that provide accommodations for physical pain but not psychological pain, especially around these heartbreaks, which can be deemed insignificant compared to divorce or loss of an immediate (human) family member.

“We have been dealing with broken hearts for millennia and yet most of us know only two healing agents: social support and time.”

He explains: if other people deem our loss insignificant, they’ll withdraw social support, leaving us with only time,

“a variable over which we have no control, which is why heartbreak makes us feel so helpless.”

Dr. Winch describes several client stories of heartbreak and the unhelpful behaviors they engaged in. I found much of this very relatable.

He explains how love is neurologically like addiction, how heartbreak activates the same parts of the brain as a drug withdrawal. He goes over strategies informed by cognitive behavioral therapy, for things like moving towards closure and increasing self-compassion.

The book is published by TED Talks and is eminently readable. (I read most of it on two long subway rides.) Highly recommended.


What if resilience is a matter of preparation? What if you could train your brain to withstand setbacks—and the emotions and beliefs that follow—by becoming more mindful?

Like any job, my day job can entail stressors like shifting priorities, unexpected changes, long hours, and challenging personalities. Different tolerances and coping strategies are on full display (including myself, of course). I noticed that my co-worker D doesn’t let his feathers get ruffled. He doesn’t seem to get frustrated, upset, or impatient. I asked him about it, and he said, “A lot of meditation and prayer.” He keeps in mind a bigger picture and doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

This month, I gave myself a mini-mantra and suggestion: “Be Kind. Unwind.” I just wanted to give myself space and permission to feel and acknowledge my feelings (there are A LOT of them this month) instead of rushing from thing to thing—task to task, distraction to scrolly-scrolly to ruminations. In practice, I am trying to be more mindful.


Cover for Christophe Andre, Looking at Mindfulness: 25 Paintings to Change the Way you Live. International Bestseller. Illustrated with a painting by Caspar David Fredrick of the back of a man at a mountain summit looking over a cloud cover below him.

Christophe André, PhD, Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-five Ways to Live in the Moment Through Art (2016)

[Published by Penguin Random House]

André is a psychiatrist and meditation practitioner who runs meditation groups for hospital patients. This is a beautiful book that uses old European paintings as inspirations for discourses on mindfulness.

“When we cling to our painful thoughts by ruminating on them, we solidify them. We ruminate on our ills and turn them into monsters. Rumination is the solidification of our mind’s chatter. Without meaning to, we turn an ordinary reaction into suffering.”

This next quote seems especially well-suited for striving New Yorkers. Or competitive athletes. Or artists who feel disempowered by the art world.

“We should go on making choices and pursuing goals, but without merging them, without obsessively clinging to success or perfection… We must do our best, in awareness and presence, but without seeing our effort, which depends on us, as less important than the final result, which does not depend on us alone…. We must stop thinking of our lives in terms of victories and defeats, seeing them instead in terms of the experiences that make us who we are.”

This is also about not being defined by your last project or bad review or win or loss. It’s about not tying your self-worth to an external indicator.

One question I keep coming back to in my work is “How do we keep our heart open?” To not become numb, scarred, hardened, or detached from the innumerable scary and traumatizing things in life. André writes,

“It’s true that access to these worlds of the present moment is made easier by external gifts [such as nature, beauty, etc.]… But it also requires a decision on our part to open ourselves up as often as we can to being touched, contacted, and struck by life. This is an act of deliberate awareness.”


 

I borrowed some of these books from Queens Library. I resolved to use the library more this summer, after “The People’s Guide to the Queens International” (my collaborative project partly situated at Queens Library branches) and probably the Marie Kondo effect. The more I use the library, the more it becomes habitual and convenient. Just yesterday, I used the bookmobile near my subway stop for the first time. I also like the enforced timeline of a loan—it motivates me to read.

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Works

Points of Reference: Good Grief, Fruit and Other Things, Archive as Action

Socially-engaged artworks and events that reveal relationships and faith in humanity.

Claire Titleman: Good Grief Workshop
Mast on Fig, LA

Next Saturday: May 25, 2019

Once, during grad school, I installed my art in a corridor, and an artist named Emily Mast visited, saw it, emailed me, and now I’ve been aware of her goings-on for over 10 years. I try to reach out and email artists whose work I like, sometimes they’re responsive, sometimes they’re not, but I try. She’s opened a space in LA and this upcoming workshop sounds amazing.

Mast on Fig is ever so pleased to announce its second “Intimate Experience” by Claire Titleman! Intimate Experiences are performative experiments (concerts, classes, demos, meals, conversations, workshops, readings, meditations, etc.) for 15 people or less that will take place on a weekly basis over the course of this summer.

Claire Titleman
Good Grief Workshop
Saturday, May 25th  6-8 PM
Mast on Fig
4030 N Figueroa St LA 90065
RSVP here
Limit: 10 people
$10 suggested donation

What would happen if we passed down the legacies of our loved ones — not just to our family but to strangers? Good Grief will be a space for communal grieving, an opportunity to celebrate those who passed with people they never knew. Share something of them, whether it’s concrete or ephemeral, rational or absurd. Play us or teach us a song they loved, read a letter they wrote, do show and tell with an object you inherited, bring in a food they made for you, including its recipe. Mimic their laugh, teach us how to move our hips the way their hips moved when they walked. In this way, instead of creating a legacy that goes in a straight line, we scatter it out into the universe.

The last line is such a beautiful, wonderful gesture. To me this kind of relationship-building, experience-making, trust, and reciprocity are the essence of social practice. If your story can live indelibly in the minds and hearts of nine other people, art objects and documentation are immaterial.

Grief and loss are inevitable in life. And yet death is taboo in our culture, which makes grief feel all the more isolating. You don’t want to “burden” anyone with your sadness. (This is a double-edged sword of positivity.) I love this idea of sharing a joyful memory with strangers you trust because they share grief in common with you.


Lenka Clayton & Jon Rubin: Fruit and Other Things
Carnegie International, Pittsburg

[Last Fall/Winter]

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see this project in person, only online. It’s a beautiful concept that resonates with me regardless. Here’s the premise:

10,632 paintings rejected by the Carnegie International are painted, exhibited and then given away, in alphabetical order

fruitandotherthings.com

First of all, what an achievement to sum up a large social-practice-and-object project in one simple sentence. Learn more on their project website.

Watch this two-minute video to hear from the artists about their motivations.

For me, the best social practice projects have an elegance, as if the solution to how to develop this project was the most logical solution (yet only the artists would even think to do it). Fruit and Other Things has this sense of elegance, consideration, and completion.

There’s care, craftsmanship, uncovering history, a gesture of acknowledgment and kindness to other artists who faced rejection, generosity, ambitious scale, and distribution (the artworks living in the world). (Not to mention one of my faves, hand-lettering.)

I also like the exhibition design, with the poster board on a pallet (progress towards the 10k posters done made physical), worktables, and the open-top frames on the wall that allow easy change-outs of the artworks. It makes the process of the project self-evident and accessible.

Plus, there’s the democratization of collecting, with the collectors being asked to register on their project website and send in a photo. (This is something I have asked people to do in past projects, with less success. What do audience member-participants owe? To whom do they owe it? What is the nature of the transaction? What does their fulfillment or failure to fulfill their obligation say? What is a reasonable rate of fulfillment: 15% 50%? What do artists receive? How does participants’ completion of the feedback loop support the completion of the project? What do participants receive? How does it enhance their investment in the project or their aesthetic experience of participation?)

Last, I just want to acknowledge how many people are involved in this project. The artists are supported by a large team. All these people ought to be paid for their labor. This type and scale of social practice project requires tons of institutional support. The artists are giving away the artworks for free, and the aesthetic gestures are  conceptual and relational, it may be tempting to think that social practice can happen on shoestring budgets. But actually this is a site-specific commission and live performance which also requires ongoing administration. So congrats to the artists but also to the curators and Carnegie International team for this vision and investment.


Calcagno Cullen, Amanda Curreri and Lindsey Whittle: Archive as Action
Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Through June 16, 2019

This exhibition makes me happy because:

  1. Amanda Curreri is a grad school classmate who’s one of the smartest people I know and her relational actions have a high degree of open-ended-ness and exploration that I find very risky and admirable. She is attempting to do nothing short of re-writing social relations and experiences of power.
  2. Calcagno Cullen is a like-minded colleague from the Bay Area alternative art scene who founded Wave Pool in Cincy, which does super interesting things in community-facing art.
  3. It’s an exhibition of socially-engaged art and all the artists are women.
  4. Though I can’t visit, I got a sense of the exhibition from Sarah Rose Sharp’s “The Potential of Participatory Museum Exhibits” on Hyperallergic (May 14, 2019) to learn more about what viewers experience (H/T Nyeema Morgan). The artists’ practices seem to cover a spectrum of participatory art, with objects to be manipulated, objects as interfaces that collect contributions (artist-as-gatherer?), and objects as props for shared physical experience in real time.

We can all be World-Makers

I am so grateful to know artists who are world-makers. They saw that certain spaces, practices, and institutions didn’t exist in the world, and they decided to create those them. It takes blood, sweat, tears, and huge amounts of guts. Emily Mast doesn’t have to host events in her studio open to the public. Cal Cullen didn’t have to create and run Wave Pool as a different model of a gallery. Before social practice became a legitimized field, Jon Rubin and Harrell Fletcher were doing projects in the CCA library that almost seemed like extended practical jokes. Now they’ve gone on to found programs and nurture future generations of social practice artists. Ryan Pierce wanted artists to experience a different relationship to nature and collaboration found in your typical residency, so he co-founded Signal Fire, which is now celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

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Community

Susan O’Malley and Tiny Beautiful Things

In advance of Sunday’s public celebration of the life of Susan O’Malley, I offer those who are reeling from loss a book recommendation, which Susan presciently shared with me.  

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed. // Source: CherylStrayed.com

Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here.

—Cheryl Strayed

 

Susan was reading Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar when we roomed together on an art trip to Poland. She spoke glowingly about it, and highly recommended it to me. This was in early September 2012. Later that month, one of the worst things that have happened in my life, one which I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, happened.

In grief, my heart felt beaten and bloodied, like it was cleaving itself from my chest. My universe had been permanently re-arranged, and I walked around in a state of shock for months. I wasn’t sure of anything: why I do anything, what the point was. I wondered how to avoid subjecting loved ones to what I’d been through when my own time came. The hurt of life—and death—seemed inescapable.

Strayed is no stranger to the loss of a parent, and those indescribable, intensely personal, most idiosyncratic emotional experiences categorized as grief. She wrote candidly and forcefully about it in Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild. Strayed somehow found the words and the strength to acknowledge the brutality of such loss. Her honesty also lets in cracks of light: unfathomably, imperfectly, we go on. We might be total fucking messes, but we also have to try, even if we fail, to forgive and love ourselves.

On my way home from three of the worst weeks of my life, I sent Susan a message from the airport. I had to thank her for her recommendation. My mourning felt isolating, but Strayed’s words offered moments of familiarity and acceptance. Maybe it can do the same for you, and thereby join the multitude of ways in which Susan’s wisdom lives on.

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