To be alive is to experience resistance – and those of us with a practice of mindfulness come to know it intimately. Resistance, within the realm of mindfulness, has been defined as any way in which we’re not embracing the present moment. Meditation teacher James Baraz called it “a flavor of wanting”, a subtle aversion, a battle with reality, and part of the human package. According to psychotherapist Bill Morgan, author of The Meditator’s Dilemma, the opposite of resistance is “an unbroken flow of reality, without fixating” or “non-obstruction”.
We’re wired to resist what is unwanted or unpleasant because in general, it is adaptive for our survival. Brain imaging studies show that the right side of the prefrontal region is active when we’re trying to avoid something and when we’re experiencing unpleasant emotions. The left prefrontal region is more active when we’re taking an approach stance to experience, and activity in this area of the brain is related to resilience. The lived experience of resistance may include:
- Body sensations like muscle tension, restlessness, sleepiness, and pain
- Emotions or feelings such as anger, annoyance, impatience, fear, and anxiety
- Thoughts like wishing, wanting/not-wanting, judging, “shoulding”, doubting, denying, and disowning
- Actions/Urges such as grasping, clinging, pushing away or struggling, striving, fixing, distracting, daydreaming, returning to anchor, falling asleep, and safety behaviors
Resistance can be a skillful response to a harmful or overwhelming situation. We may resist in order to protect our safety, take needed rest, empower ourselves in a power down situation, ready ourselves for eventual engagement, or support healthy intentions and values. Resistance, when recognized and met with compassion, can clue us in to habits that no longer serve and needs that aren’t being met. Just like resistance exercises at the gym can make us stronger, we can build the muscles of acceptance through recognizing and wisely responding to inner resistance.
Sea captains understand the power of resistance. They make use of something called a floating anchor, which acts like a stabilizer that holds the bow of the boat toward inclement weather and prevents it from being carried away by a storm. If large waves repeatedly hit the side of the boat, they can throw it off course or cause it to capsize. By slowing and stabilizing the boat through resistance, the parachute-like floating anchor allows it to meet waves head on or at a slight angle, maintaining stability and integrity – and even saving lives.
But, when it comes to experiential avoidance (attempts to avoid our own thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences), Psychologist Carl Jung said, “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size”. A rigid habit of resistance can trade long term wellbeing for temporary relief – and the short term rewards can make this habit self-reinforcing. When we consistently fall back on resistance, we can miss important information. We never get the chance to find out how things might play out. We may be less present in our lives and unavailable for unexpected opportunities for joy.
Resistance may limit our capacity for experiencing and expressing compassion for self and others. In addition, what we avoid in the mind often shows up in the body in the form of health compromising, painful, or functionally impairing symptoms. Finally, resistance might be a mechanism in addiction. The equation resistance + desire = craving has been proposed to show how resisting the way things are and desiring some other experience, can lead to increasingly intense and urgent longings that we attempt to soothe in ways that ultimately compound our suffering.
Working with Resistance
We can put out the welcome mat out for resistance when it inevitably arises, adopting attitudes of patience, acceptance, trust, letting go, and beginner’s mind and utilizing resources and strategies such as opening and closing, titration, pendulation, and anchoring in sensory awareness for expanding our window of presence. We might live by the rule of thumb, “To get what you want, want what you get” by embracing resistance as it arises, asking ourselves:
- What is this resistance trying to tell me?
- Is there an unmet need here?
- Is there something I’m afraid of?
- Does what I’m resisting really belong to me?
In his book Mindfulness in Psychotherapy, Elisha Goldstein offers the mnemonic K.N.O.W Your Resistance to help us meet this experience mindfully:
- Know resistance is inevitable and relentless—it’s not personal.
- Notice it in your day as a way of disentangling from it. The moment you’re aware it, you’re mindful and have created a little space between yourself and the resistance.
- Open to the experience of it, how does it feel in your body? Get intimate with it so you can recognize the sensations of it, the thoughts surrounding it and behaviors it defaults you to that lead you away from your intention.
- Welcome it – mindfulness is awareness and opens us up to discerning what is best for us in the moment. Let the resistance be an object of mindfulness. Resistance is a state of conflict, and may also include fear. These are forms of pain. Notice this pain and regard it kindly.
There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
– Danna Faulds, Allow