“Campers Adapt!” – The Importance of Cognitive Flexibility

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“We make plans and God laughs.”  This is a saying I’m very familiar with.  Perhaps you are too.

Last week we talked about the importance of setting SMART goals and planning with clear intentions.  When faced with adversity – such as managing home, work, and school during the COVID pandemic – a mindful planning approach is vital.

We stand the best chance of experiencing less stress and more success when we are keenly aware of WHAT we’re doing, WHY we’re doing it, and HOW to realistically proceed.

We’re not just winging it.  We have a plan that’s based on our values and what matters most.

For the school year, we can remind ourselves that we don’t just want our children to get good grades.  Our higher intentions might be to help them develop good work habits such as patience and persistence, or to get along with others and be happy, or to feel secure in themselves even when circumstances are changing all around them.  Or perhaps simply to survive the year without so many meltdowns or blow-ups – theirs or ours!

Intentional attention to these details reminds us what’s important, and to not sweat the little stuff so much.  When we remember these intentions, it helps us be able to enjoy the journey more, not just worry about reaching the destination.

And yet, no matter how SMARTly or intentionally we prepare, let’s face it, things change.  We can’t perfectly predict what lies ahead, and we can’t control everything around us.  So inevitably, our plans will need some adjusting.  Inevitably, we’ll need to make some course corrections.

If we try to adhere to some rigid expectations – to some fixed notion of this is the only way, the one RIGHT way to get where we’re going – then we’re setting ourselves up for far more suffering than is necessary.  And we’re setting our children up for that same undue stress.

So what will help us adapt to the adversity of changing conditions?  How can we handle when things don’t go the way we’re expecting, or wanting, them to go?

“Campers adapt!”

This was a battle cry I heard often as a kid – especially on backpacking trips with my favorite uncle up in the north woods of New England.  It was a lesson I learned to apply when facing many challenges in my life.  And it served me well again on a recent backpacking trip in those same mountains.

“The best laid plans of mice and men do oft go astray.” – John Steinbeck

For example, I carefully planned my route based in part on how far I could go before needing to refill my water supply.  There are limited options on this section of the Appalachian Trail – especially in late July.  I thought I had it all under control until the day I arrived at a mountain spring (marked on the map) that turned out to be bone dry.  Not good since my water supply was nearly gone, and I was sweating heavily under 90 degree heat.  What to do?

Likewise, at the end of the fourth day of a planned 5-day hike, I arrived at the designated camping area, which was situated on an unusually steep slope.  I was exhausted after a particularly challenging day and ready to settle in peacefully for my last night in the woods.  God must’ve been having a good laugh about this one, because the lean-to shelter was completely full with a large group of hikers and the few viable tent sites were already taken.  There was no room at the inn.  And the sun was hanging low on the horizon.  What do do?

I could rant and rave all I wanted to, but that wouldn’t change my predicament.  I could worry and stress out all I wanted to, but that wouldn’t fill my water bottles or miraculously produce a safe place to sleep.  I could curse how unfair this was, or how stupid I was, but this would just add layers of suffering to my plight.

Let me just say, I did in fact start down each of these mental pathways – out of old bad habits and fear.  Fortunately, each time I started to spin out like that, this other habit, a healthier and more helpful one, arose from within.  I heard a laughing, loving voice remind me, “Campers adapt!”

And so I did.

In the first situation, I went another half day without water, conserving energy as much as I could, adjusting my pace, and adjusting my route to seek out an alternative water source.  In the second, I made a calculated risk to move on.  I descended down steep ravines along cascading waterfalls for another two and half-hours, hiking safely out of the woods (and into my waiting car) just as the last hint of daylight dissolved on the valley floor.

Cultivating Flexibility

More important than these practical details of what I did, is the attitude with which I did them.  It was how I chose to be in these situations that made them not only bearable, but actually fairly rewarding.

Yes, what doesn’t kill us can, in fact, make us stronger.

The key ingredient embedded in the “Campers adapt!” mantra is cognitive and emotional flexibility.  And the foundation for that flexibility is mindfulness.  Present-moment awareness and acceptance.

What made it easier to get through those “unexpected curve ball” moments in the mountains is the same thing that can help us get through the unforeseen trials we’ll face throughout this pandemic.

It’s being able to accept that things have changed, and I can change with them.  It’s acknowledging both what I was expecting to happen (or wanting to happen) and what is actually happening, equally with grace.

It’s zooming out to keep the larger perspective, our higher intentions, in mind – rather than getting locked in with tunnel vision about the immediate situation not being to our liking.

Research shows that this larger, more flexible perspective-taking helps us brainstorm and problem-solve more effectively.  It also helps us feel less stressed and helpless.  It helps us to both feel and act more empowered.

It would be crazy-making to remain rigid in our plans or beliefs about what should happen, when reality is clearly telling us a different story about what is happening.

The mountain I was on, and the towering trees all around me, served as gentle reminders that we can be strong and solid, with deep roots and bedrock values that hold us steady through the winds of change.  Yet we also have branches reaching outward into the world that are flexible enough to bend, not break, even under the harshest of cold winds and rains.

Solid core, flexible surface.  Rooted in what matters most – to be safe, healthy, happy – empowers us to adapt to changing circumstances, to adjust to the details of the moment, without completely losing our minds!

A “Campers adapt!” attitude helps us make course corrections when our current plan is not working, without catastrophizing or complaining so much.  It’s learning to laugh with God, rather than feeling like the Universe is conspiring against us.

Cognitive flexibility helps us to not only see clearly what is here now, but also to make peace with what is here now.  When we can accept the ever-changing circumstances of our lives with equanimity, we can adapt to adversity with more ease and less disease.

“Campers adapt!” is a mindfulness-based motto with a can-do spirit.  And it’s one that can serve us well wherever we go, whether on the trail or at home or school.