by Sally Kempton
Giselle liked the way meditation made her feel. Problem was, she told me, she just couldn’t get herself to sit regularly. She’d been on several meditation retreats. She had set up a little space just for sitting. But she kept resisting a daily practice. As we talked, she revealed that she was experiencing resistance in other areas of her life, too. She planned to start graduate school but couldn’t get herself to choose her courses. Her boyfriend wanted them to move in together, but when she thought about it, she felt trapped.
I asked her to spend a couple of minutes summoning up the feeling of resistance. “It feels kind of irritable,” she said, “like a kid saying, ‘You can’t make me.’ It’s as if something great is waiting to come to me, but I just keep pushing it away. I can’t open myself up to the promise, but I can’t quite let go of it either.”
Giselle was expressing one of the most puzzling paradoxes of the human organism—the way we resist not only life’s difficulties but also life’s potential sweetness. I notice it in students and certainly in myself: the subtle tendency to hold back from anything that changes the balance in our lives. We don’t just resist something unpleasant, like working with a difficult health issue or recognizing the need to leave a job. We often have a strange resistance to, say, getting a massage or opening fully to a friend or lover, or, especially, allowing an emerging state of inner expansion—even when we sense that we’re cutting ourselves off from something great.
Of course, resistance is sometimes appropriate; if you didn’t have the ability to say no, to resist or filter some of what comes at you, you’d be overwhelmed. The body’s immune system is built precisely for this purpose: to resist invaders in the form of bugs and bacteria. Your psychological immune system is also built to keep out intruders. By the time you’ve grown up, it usually consists of a series of energetic boundaries and gateways that you’ve built to keep out hostile energies, potentially toxic situations, and exploitative relationships. If you did not have that network of resistances, you’d be vulnerable to every form of suggestion, subtle or obvious.
The problem, as Giselle discovered, happens when the psychological immune system doesn’t know when or how to let down its boundaries. Then resistance stops being a useful filtering device and becomes a wall, a kind of armor. Sometimes the habit of resisting is so deeply ingrained that you can’t tell whether your inner “no” is a legitimate warning or just obstructive.
So you can live for years with a tendency to resistance that reveals itself in insidious ways: as an inclination to slide away from intimacy; a habit of avoiding difficult emotions by sleeping or watching TV; or simply the onset of restlessness, anxiety, or boredom that keeps you from resting in the present moment. Then, when you truly want to make a change, the wall of resistance can seem impenetrable.
This is an arena where yoga and meditation are of tremendous help. In my meditation practice, I’ve learned how to work with my own resistance to change, my tendency to hold back from moving deeper into any form of closeness, including closeness with myself. I’ve taken a hard look at my resistance to (read: fear of!) losing control and even accepting love.
And as I’ve developed the ability to meet resistance in meditation, I’ve found the same ability transferring to my broader life. When I learned how to make good on my commitment to sit and meditate regularly, I overcame a lifelong tendency to procrastinate and gave up the comfortable habit of picking up a novel or going to lunch rather than working on an overdue report. As I developed a willingness to stay present with difficult emotions when they surfaced during practice, I found it infinitely easier to deal with those emotions during my daily life.
Developing an awareness of your resistance style is the first step in working with it. And identifying some of the subtler forms of resistance can help you move through barriers that you may not have recognized as being of your own making. As you read the following scenarios, see which form is showing up in your life.
The Avoidance Factor
Of course, the most basic form of resistance is the kind that simply keeps you from doing what you intend to do. You totally planned to practice before dinner. But you remember a phone call you meant to make. You answer one more email. Then you notice the mess on the coffee table and automatically begin to straighten it up. Pretty soon, your free half hour is over and it’s time for your dinner date. Since this level of resistance effectively cuts you off from practice, you need some basic strategies for facing into it, for persuading yourself to just sit on your cushion or unfurl your mat.
You might try to entice yourself by thinking of the benefits you’ll experience (“I’ll feel calmer and happier!”) or by persuading yourself to live according to your priorities (“Life is short. A sense of peace beats a clean house any day!”).
For Giselle, I suggested a Pavlovian method—she would promise herself a treat if she’d sit for 10 minutes with full presence and no expectations. After a few weeks of sitting through her initial resistance, she found that she had developed a habit of sitting and that her body itself was telling her it was time to meditate, just the way it told her when she needed to eat. Yes, after a while she was even able to discontinue the treat!
The Distraction Defense
You might think that getting yourself to practice is as good as winning the battle against resistance, but unfortunately that’s just not so. Myriad forms of resistance come up for all of us, in the midst of practice itself.