Insights From Resistance

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We all have preferences. We all have things we dislike or show resistance toward. These feelings of resentment and resistance toward people, places, situations, etc. can be so overwhelmingly powerful that it is hard to think about them or analyze the root of the issue. Instead of challenging these feelings, usually we just feed them. We look for reasons to confirm our feelings and opinions, excluding any information that may challenge them or provide an alternative perspective. Most of us are more likely to react than reconsider. Even the idea of questioning these deep seated ideas can cause more resistance to bubble up.

In an effort to take life (and myself) less seriously, I’ve been trying to practice more curiosity throughout my day. One of the things I’ve been most curious about is why I react with anger so often. For most of my life, it didn’t seem like a question worth asking. Of course I’m angry, I’d tell myself. This is unacceptable. How could they say that? Who could be that stupid!? Etc. Etc. I directed all my questions passive aggressively outward, never even considering that I might be the problem, that my reaction was the thing that needed to change, not the world around me. Even if I do still begrudgingly think someone else is in the wrong, the fact is, the only thing I can control is me. (Well theoretically anyway.)

When I started to question why certain actions or comments even make me angry, I was surprised to realize that most of the time, I had no idea. For instance, the other day my friend was making comments that made me think she wasn’t very good with money or understanding loans/debt. I immediately felt this spark of anger inside me and couldn’t stop that aggressive edge from creeping into my voice. I always feel so ashamed of myself after having these tense conversations. The people I’m talking to must be so confused and irritated by my irrational behavior. Why on earth do I care how my friend chooses to spend her money? It’s none of my business and doesn’t effect me at all. Maybe I’m just jealous that other people don’t worry about spending money or taking on debt like I do. Maybe I feel threatened or worried they’ll think I’m the stupid one who never uses the money I have to make big purchases or improvements to my life.

I don’t usually ever come to a decision about exactly why a lot of things make me angry. But to be honest, the reason doesn’t necessarily matter. Just the intention to be curious about my emotional response to things is enough to diffuse the rage inside me. Curiosity comes with a sense of openness, while anger, stress, sadness are more closed states. Both cannot exist within you in the same moment. It can be difficult initially to make that mental switch from closed to open, but once you do you can feel a noticeable difference. Not to mention, the more you practice flipping this switch, the easier it becomes.

Let’s practice a little exercise together, just so you know how it feels to be in a state of resistance. Imagine one or more opinions or beliefs you hold very strongly. Then just imagine trying to purposely challenge those very beliefs/opinions. Try imagining ways you could be wrong or misguided. Try to think of some good qualities or points of the opposite perspective. Quite difficult isn’t it? As someone who is very opinionated and stubborn, even this simple thought exercise makes outrage and fierce resistance start to rise up within me. I can feel my chest tightening, I can feel that closing sensation in my heart space. I immediately notice thoughts crowding my awareness trying to defend rather than challenge my beliefs. What a reaction to something so simple and harmless! I find it truly fascinating that this is so difficult for me. It is an amazing opportunity for insight into my own biases.

I think there is a lot to learn from our own resistance. It always brings to mind the saying, “would you rather be right, or be happy?” Once my sister said to me that she’d actually rather be right! I was shocked. That is the power of resistance. You can become so resistant to different ideas or circumstances and at the same time, so attached to that resistance, that you’d rather give up your happiness than alter your perspective. That is why it is so important to work on cultivating our curiosity as often as we can.

As you move through your day today, pretend you are a scientist or a researcher observing this human being called the “self.” When you catch yourself getting caught up in anger or your resistance to things, just think, “how interesting,” make a note of it, let it go, and move on. Life is so much more enjoyable when we remind ourselves that it doesn’t have to be so serious all the time. None of us really know why we’re here, where we came from, or where we’re going. All we can do is try to enjoy where we are right now. And the only way we can do that is by staying curious, staying open to all the new information and experiences this life has to offer. Let’s make a game out of it. Let’s see who can waste the least amount of time on petty irritation and useless resistance. Let’s see who can be the most curious, the most open. The game starts now!

Breathe Into It

One of the first things you tend to learn when getting into yoga philosophy is that resistance to unpleasant feelings, situations, or emotions only leads to more intense, prolonged suffering. In fact, it could be said that all of the suffering we experience stems from our aversion to certain things. Life is about perspective primarily. So if we can teach ourselves to see everything through the eyes of loving kindness, there is no where for suffering to take root.

This principle of non-resistance can be seen in the mind, but also in the physical body. I have always been someone who detests the cold and avoids it at all costs. Unfortunately for me, I also happen to live in the northern part of the country where winters can be pretty intense. I read the other day that when you brace yourself against the cold and try to resist it, you are actually only making yourself feel colder! When we tense up our bodies, our blood vessels are constricted. Therefore less blood is able to flow to our extremities, making us colder. If we can breathe deeply and relax our bodies, we won’t be as uncomfortable with low temperatures.

This also works with other types of pain or discomfort. The breath is such a powerful thing, if we can only learn to utilize it. I often notice when I am in some type of physical pain whether it be a stomach ache, a sore throat, or just muscle cramps, I desperately try to avoid and disassociate from that area of my body. Sometimes as a kid I would even visualize boxing that body part off from the rest of me. Needless to say that type of response has never worked for me. Despite my best efforts I am unable to ignore my body’s painful cries.

The other night as I was struggling to fall asleep due to such a pain, I decided to try embracing that pain instead of attempting to push it away. I turned to focusing on my breath. I imagined sending the swirling, healing oxygen to that painful part of my body with every inhale. As I exhaled, I relaxed and accepted the unpleasant sensations. This didn’t make the pain go away, but after a few moments I felt much better. Today I am struggling with a very upset stomach from overeating yesterday. Stomach pain has always been one of the hardest problems for me to deal with ever since I was little. I’ve felt tense and uncomfortable all morning. Nothing I’ve tried seems to have helped. However, as I sit here writing this, I’ve been trying to also take slow, deep breaths down into my belly. I can definitely still feel some discomfort, but it’s much less pronounced than earlier.

Just like with most meditative practices, the hardest part is staying focused. Even after years of practicing yoga and meditation it can be hard for me to take deep breaths as I move through a normal day. In fact, a lot of the time I find that my breath is exceptionally shallow or that I’m holding it! It can definitely be frustrating when it feels like despite your best efforts you aren’t making much progress. The good thing is each breath is another opportunity to practice. Breathwork is something we are able to work on anywhere no matter who we’re with or what we’re doing. Not to mention it’s free! It can even be quite fun once you start to notice the connection your breath has on your body and mind.

I find it really helps me to attach an image or an emotion to my breath to help me concentrate. Recently I’ve started to imagine each sip of air as a delicious food, drink, or even a drug that I get to consume. I look forward to every inhale and exhale. I savor the way it feels as it moves through my body. Sometimes I’ll also picture all of the wonderful things my body will be able to do with so much fresh oxygen. I imagine it providing me with energy and happy feelings. I imagine my body using it to perform all of it’s vital functions: building new cells, cleansing toxins, healing me, etc. Just thinking about it makes me so grateful for this body I have been blessed with. It inspires me to breathe deeply as a gift to this body. Inhale – I love you, body. Exhale – thank you, body.

The next time you are feeling upset or you’re in pain, whatever it may be that you find yourself resisting, try to honor that feeling rather than running from it. Perhaps it will even turn out to be a gift. It is easy to go through life without growing or changing when things are going well. However, pain and discomfort are necessary signals that we can learn so much from. For instance, my stomach hurting this morning is a reminder to take better care of my body. It is my body asking me for love, kindness, and respect. Instead of being frustrated and upset with my body for not behaving the way I want it to, I am going to listen to it’s urgent request. I am going to use this unpleasant morning to push me to do better for myself today and from now on. It all begins with the breath.

So just breathe

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Working with Resistance

Once again, my yoga class this morning has inspired my writing topic for the day. In my yoga teacher training we learned about something called PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation.) Essentially this is just using your muscles to resist or push against whatever stretch you are in for a few moments before relaxing the muscles, allowing you to sink and relax even deeper into the pose. It is similar to the idea of clenching different muscles before releasing them to relax more fully and release stress. It is a fascinating and useful technique to be sure.

One of the beautiful things about yoga is that we can take what we learn on the mat out into the rest of our lives. So what can we take with us from PNF? Well it draws our attention to the idea of working with resistance. A lot of the things we do in yoga class can be looked at as metaphors for how to live our lives with more ease. For the most part, people don’t like resistance. We don’t want to have our plans altered or interrupted. We don’t want disagreements or dissent. We just want everything to run smoothly in exactly the way that we want it to. We can even start to feel cheated or hopeless when things don’t go our way.

Using PNF in yoga not only allows our bodies to become more flexible and go deeper into difficult postures, it reminds us that we can use resistance in our everyday lives to our own advantage as well. We just have to be patient and use what life gives us rather than trying to reject it or avoid it. The other day at work my friends and I were discussing the idea of having bad memories changed or erased like in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Although it is undoubtedly an interesting, tempting concept, none of us were convinced actually going through with such a procedure would be a good idea or something we would choose for ourselves. Thought experiments like this help us to reflect on the ways in which we can actually be grateful for all of the hardships we have experienced in our lives. In the moment, a lot of the things that happen to us seem unfair, unbearable even, but later on we come to realize that those same events have allowed us to become who we are today. Perhaps they made us stronger, wiser, more resilient, or even led us down a new path we wouldn’t have taken otherwise.

Looking back, it can be easy to see how some of my worst life experiences were worth the pain I went through. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept the difficulties I face in my present. I’m trying to remember that PNF perspective though. Even if at first it seems like I’m being held back or led away from where I want to be, it may actually be the opposite. I’m trying to stay strong in the face of adversity and trust that one day I will be grateful for even these painful times. I’m even trying to be grateful for them right now, even though I don’t yet know what they may lead to down the road. All I can do is keep moving forward and have faith that I’ll get to where I want to be one day, despite (or even because of) the struggles along the way.

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A Life with No Resistance

I have been thinking a lot lately about how I create my own suffering. I have been so fortunate in this life. I really have not ever experienced any true suffering. I have always had food, water, shelter, family, and friends to support me. I got a free education all the way through college. I have been healthy and so have my loved ones for the most part. I have basically wanted for nothing in my life. And I am truly grateful for that.

I so often lose sight of all of that though. Somehow I still manage to find reasons to suffer. The mind seems to always be looking for problems, for ways to fix things. Even when changing the situation is useless or even impossible. Internally we rise up against so many little aspects of our day. We wrestle with our own discomfort and rejection of reality. In the end nothing is as bad as our resistance makes it seem.

I read a metaphor that sums this idea up perfectly. Imagine a leaf landing on the still mirror-like surface of a pond. It is going to create ripples. Maybe we don’t like these ripples. Maybe we were staring at the reflections in the water. So we try to remove the disturbance, resist it. But in the process of trying to get rid of the leaf’s ripples, we end up creating even more disturbance in the water. Now it will take even longer to return to stillness.

There will be things that come along in life that are truly unpleasant, but even those problems are best accepted and allowed to pass through you. The brain seems to think the best way of preparing for the future is to “protect” ourselves from anything we dislike and lock ourselves away, closing off our heart. But in reality all of these small, daily, disturbances are gifts. They are opportunities to practice releasing, allowing, letting go. I want to use these minor moments as training to learn to live each moment with more ease and less resistance.

I try to think of this practice as a game. After all, I have always taken life too seriously. But this game is more challenging than I thought. I find myself getting easily frustrated with myself. After years of building up a strong tendency to resist every moment, it is incredibly difficult to learn to release and let things pass through you instead.

My mind is quite crafty and persuasive when it wants to be. It throws out endless reasons why we must resist. It jumps from one thought to the next, stirring up my fears and anxieties, encouraging me to close my heart, to seal myself off, to “protect” myself. But what I’m really trying to protect myself from is my own internal dialogue. What happens if I decide not to defend against it? It cannot hurt me. All it can do is talk and rustle around inside my head. I don’t have to let it touch me or let my heart close because of what it says.

So far, I don’t think I’ve been very successful at this game of releasing and allowing. But I am not going to give up. I am going to keep trying until my heart is perpetually open. Even though I am already impatient to achieve peace within myself, I know that this is the work of a life time. I’ll have to be patient and gentle with myself as I continue along on this new journey.

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Do We Know What Will Make Us Happy?

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I remember reading once that when put to the test, what we think will make us happy usually doesn’t end up actually making us all that happier when we get it. I’ve noticed this in my own life, especially recently thanks to this pandemic. One of the things I’m always longing for is more free time. I’ve always wished that I didn’t have to work so I could spend my days any way I choose, with no obligations or responsibilities. Yet after just a short time “working from home” (I don’t find myself having much actual work), I was even less happy than I was when I was waking up early and spending eight full hours every weekday at my job.

Now this could be just because I have an exceptionally amazing job with coworkers that I consider dear friends, but even when I lost the job I hated and got to spend a summer on unemployment, I was miserable. Back then I attributed it to having to fret about finding another job, but now I think it was more than just that. What I always imagined would make me happy, even what I thought I needed in order to be calm and happy, turned out to be completely wrong.

Why is that? It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around it for very long. After a few weeks back in the office full time, I was already back to daydreaming about having more free-time. Even though I just saw that it would do me no good! I’d just spend it being anxious and depressed rather than doing all the productive things I’d pictured myself doing with it. It could have something to do with another interesting tidbit from Time Warped, the time perception book I’ve mentioned.

Apparently we often put things off or make plans we can’t ultimately follow through with because for some reason we imagine ourselves having more time in the future. Yet if we imagined ourselves moving up the date to tomorrow or next week, we’d find our plans ridiculous and out of the question. I definitely think this mindset contributes to my procrastination. It does often seem like things will be easier in the future. I’ll have more time. I’ll be in a better place mentally. I’ll have fixed all the problems I’m struggling with by then. Etc, etc. Humans always have a tendency to be over-optimistic about the future. I always though I was the exception to that rule, given I fear the end of society is just on the horizon. But when it comes to smaller things in my personal life, I fall into the same flawed thinking.

This may seem like depressing news, to find out you actually won’t have more free time or be happier in some imagined future where everything has gone your way. But there is a silver lining. We no longer have to feel like we’re waiting for something before we can be happy. Chances are we wouldn’t be happy when we reached that idyllic future anyway. It’s a useful lesson. We should just learn to enjoy where we are now. We can be happy where we are with what we already have.

Not only do we not need to wait for a distant future to find happiness, we also don’t need to be so afraid of things that may happen in the future either. We may overestimate how happy something will make us, but we also overestimate how detrimental something will be in our lives. Both lottery winners and holocaust survivors both end up pretty close to everyone else in the end when it comes to happiness and a sense of well-being. We will eventually adjust to anything, no matter how amazing or horrific.

With this knowledge we can learn to relax. We can ease into the life that unravels before us each moment. There is no need to become attached, try to avoid/resist, or get upset when something doesn’t go the way we think it should have gone. After all, what do we know? Once we give up our obsession with trying to control every little aspect of our lives, we may find that we are able to live with much more ease. Have faith that this universe is playing out exactly as it should be. Have faith in yourself, in your ability to handle whatever life presents you with. Let go of expectations. They always seems to let us down or prevent us from seeing life for the incredible, beautiful thing it really is.

I know that all the happiness I will ever find is already here inside of me. I’ve been struggling to arrange my world to my whims, when in the end I don’t even really know what will turn out to be best for me. So instead I will try to let go. I will try to take each day for what it is with curiosity and a grateful heart.

Resisting Stillness

Even though I have been practicing meditation every day for years now, there are still plenty of days when one of the most challenging things I do is those 15-30 minutes of stillness. My breath just won’t come naturally. My mind frantically tries to cling to racing thoughts. My anxiety will not be tamed. Today was one of those days.

When I have these difficult meditation days, I try to remember to take a step back and observe the mere fact that I’m struggling. I think, isn’t it interesting how much my mind is resisting this stillness? What is it so afraid of? Why does it try to prevent this deep peace it knows is waiting within?

We are so conditioned in our culture to see any time not spent working or producing something, planning something, is time wasted. We are being lazy, unproductive. Yet setting aside this quiet time to observe our breath, our minds, this existence, is quite possibly the most valuable thing we can do.

It is important to remind ourselves when we have these difficult days just how important our practice is. We need these few moments of stillness even more when sitting down and just breathing feels impossible. And even though your mind may continue racing through the whole meditation, you can’t stop fidgeting, or you can only bring yourself to sit for five minutes rather than thirty, thank yourself.

You have still given yourself a beautiful gift. Don’t dismay. Don’t allow these challenges to make you disregard all the progress you’ve made. An ebb and flow exists in all things, even your practice. Don’t let your “bad” days overshadow all the others. You’re doing just fine.

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Learning to Allow Discomfort

Setting aside time to just observe the mind is so valuable. I have found so many glimpses of inner wisdom and true peace through daily meditation. Today as I allowed my mind to follow my breath and concentrate on surrendering fully, relaxing each muscle, I noticed one of the many cycles I go through constantly inside my head.

I saw myself finding a moment of bliss, then losing it immediately in desperation as I turned my thoughts away from the present to the future. I saw fear begin to destroy that bliss and take me away from the moment. I not only feared the unknown, I feared the fear I was experiencing. I was so desperate to get away and escape from those thoughts and feelings.

It’s usually easy to distract the mind at this point in the cycle, but the beautiful thing about meditation is that there is no where to go. Instead we are forced to deal with these difficult sensations. I got to witness what happens if I just accept those thoughts and allow them to exist without resisting them. And sure enough you eventually come full circle, returning to that bliss, that deep well of stillness inside.

Now don’t don’t get me wrong, that wasn’t the moment I found Nirvana of Samadhi or anything like that. The cycle continued and continued as expected. The point is, there is an immense comfort is being able to witness that cycle. To know that it’s okay to feel afraid. Reminding yourself that running from that fear only holds you in that part of the cycle longer. It’s an extended interlude, like a skipping record.

By resisting, ironically we are holding on. The sooner we can let go of our perception of these thoughts and feelings as “bad” and “unacceptable” the sooner we can return to that bliss that we find preferable. By no means is this an easy thing to do, however. I of all people should know that. I basically spend every moment of every day running and hiding from myself.

Yet that doesn’t lessen the significance of those few moments of clarity I am occasionally able to find. While it may be hard to remember these profound realizations when we really need them, it is still a victory to have them at all. One day I hope I am able to more often take the role of that silent witness. To watch myself through patient, loving, curious, impartial eyes. Practice makes perfect. And I intend to keep practicing. I hope that you will too.