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.
A common type of on-the-mat resistance is distraction: the tendency to put your practice on automatic pilot. You’re in the asana, sure, but your mind is somewhere else—on the music, on your upcoming trip to Mexico. You’ve forgotten to breathe or you’re breathing mechanically, maybe going for the look of the pose rather than truly bringing your full attention into your body. Giving in to distraction is even easier in meditation, which is why so much basic meditation instruction is all about reminding you to keep bringing your mind back to the breath.
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön gives a one-word instruction for working with this level of resistance: Remind yourself to stay. It’s really the bottom line because the ordinary mind, like an untrained puppy, will always try to dart away from stillness, from sinking inward, from being present. It will always tend to flow into habitual mental grooves, like emotional reactivity, reverie, or restlessness, pure and simple.
The performance-oriented part of you might jump up and take ownership of an inner experience ("Wow! My mind is really quiet!" or "Is that a luminous glow I see?") or start beating itself up for falling prey to distraction. The simplest way to counteract this is to remind yourself to stay present. Remembering to focus on feeling the kinesthetic or energetic sensations of meditation has always helped me move through distraction, whether I do it by feeling the touch of the breath, exploring the sensations within spaciousness, or being present to the energetic vibration of a mantra held in my mind.
Too Good for Your Own Good
A particularly deceptive variety of resistance can be found in what is called the Type A personality syndrome, embodied by my friend Tina. She’s someone who took her commitment to meditation very seriously: For several years, she’d doggedly sit for an hour a day. But during all that time, she rarely let herself relax enough to enter into the sweet stillness of the practice. She was too concerned with sticking to the technique, sitting the full hour, being a "good" meditator.
No doubt even that mechanical practice had some effect on her inner state. Yet for her—as is the case for so many Type A yogis and meditators—the doggedness she brought to her routine seemed to effectively wall her off from experiencing the inner feeling state that is the true essence of any practice. It’s ironic that meditation itself can be carried out in a way that nurtures resistance to being present. But this is probably why so many practitioners report that they feel a release or a feeling of real inwardness only at the end of a meditation session, when the bell has rung and they can relax and stop trying.
The best remedy for perfectionist meditators is a relaxed form of sitting—what some teachers call open presence. Rather than put yourself in a perfect posture, you just sit down. Rather than think, "I’m going to meditate now," you allow yourself to simply be present with your experience in the moment. That is, you leave the mind open, perhaps using the breath as an anchor but not requiring yourself to cling to that anchor. You keep bringing yourself back to the feelings in your body, to the sensations of the breath, to the play of thoughts. You let yourself be there, feeling whatever you’re feeling, without trying to change your state in any way. If you practice like this for several weeks, you should be able to come back to your "normal" practice with much more ease.
Sitting Past Your Edge
After a while, you will have trained yourself to stay present for long enough to feel a certain amount of quiet and presence. At this point, you’re ready to meet another, deeper form of resistance: the resistance to sitting past your edge.
Maybe you have gotten to a point where the mind starts to melt into itself. The spacious ground beyond the mind starts to open. There’s an expansion of awareness, an illumination or an opening into velvety darkness or emptiness. At such a moment, something inside you goes, "OK, that’s enough!" (It happens in asana practice and also in psychotherapy, when you come to a level of awareness deeper than you normally reach).
Part of this is pure conditioning: those deep-seated beliefs that success, love, meaningful work, social justice, and whatever else you value come from outer-directed effort and that inwardness is somehow a waste of time. More often, however, the resistance stems from fear—fear of your emotions, fear of the unknown, and, finally, fear of your own essence, your own grandeur.
If you find yourself resisting deep experiences of stillness and inwardness, you may be afraid of encountering the hidden memories or emotional dragons that can turn up if you look too closely at yourself. There’s no question that as you journey along the road to pure spaciousness, you will pass through zones of feeling that you normally shove beneath your awareness. But if you’re willing to summon the courage to take that journey, you’ll usually find that the dragons are nothing but blocked energy and that when you look at them, they’ll start to melt away.
When I first began going on retreats, I’d often come out of meditations feeling intensely sad or irritable. It was disconcerting, and I’d wonder why a practice that was supposed to make me peaceful seemed to stir up anger or guilt or inadequacy. So, I’d use mantra repetition to try to overpower the negative feelings with positive ones. Eventually I began to experiment with facing into my own feelings. That was when I discovered that meditation can create the framework for liberating these feeling states. I learned how to let myself be fully present with whatever was coming up, to let the breath and, later, my connection to the heart center serve as an anchor. As I held intense feelings, I’d start to feel a sense of presence, and the agitation or sadness would be released. The negative emotions would dissolve and often didn’t come back.
At some point, though, you will come up against what I believe to be the core fear behind resistance to practice: the ego’s natural distrust of your own Essence. On some level, you know that under the layers of opinions, the personal history, the anger and grief, the talents and disappointments, is a big spaciousness. As soon as you recognize that there is something essential about that spaciousness, or that the presence you experience in meditation is more deeply "you" than your historical identity, that experience asks you to act from truth in your daily life. Perhaps that means acknowledging your responsibility to others or accepting that some of your priorities are not serving your authentic Self. Perhaps the sense of your own spaciousness simply feels too wide open to be comfortable.
The way to work with this deep resistance is little by little. First, recognize that these experiences of spaciousness are just that: experiences. No matter how deep you go, you’ll come back to your "normal" waking state. So let yourself test the waters of your own consciousness. Take yourself up to your edge and just past it. Each incremental act of moving past resistance to inwardness will give you a glimpse of what you actually are. Each time a veil lifts away, you get a bit more access to the brilliance and power at your heart.
Respect your Resistance
One of the first things I discussed with Giselle was the importance of respecting her resistance. You must maintain a subtle balance in working through your resistant tendencies. It’s important not to back down in the face of strong resistance, but trying to force your way through it really doesn’t work, either.
So along with asking Giselle to sit for 10 minutes a day, I
suggested she try an inner dialogue exercise to help her get to know her own resistant energy. (See What Are You Resisting?) Over the next few weeks, she spent a few minutes every day "listening" to her resistance, acknowledging the layers of feeling inside it, learning to discern the difference between the beliefs and opinions that were basically old baggage and the feelings that needed to be heard. At the end of the process, she not only had a steady meditation practice but was also able to commit herself to graduate school and admit to her boyfriend that she wasn’t ready to move in together.
Resistance almost always has something useful to tell you. When you’re resistant to asana practice, it could be that your body is telling you to take a day off. Sometimes resistance is showing you that your practice has become routine and that you need to do something to rejuvenate it. Sometimes resistance masks fear, an unwillingness to move deeper or to engage a block, a reluctance to explore an unexamined belief.
Remember that the more you hear what resistance is telling you, the more easily you can work with it. You learn when to put your foot down and get onto the mat. You start to recognize when you’re glancing off into distraction. You experiment with staying inside the asana, the breath, the meditation posture, until you feel shifts—and then you try staying a little longer to get to know the new level that’s opened up.
Little by little, as you work with the continuing resistance that keeps your practice shallow, you find a new depth that’s present in more and more moments of the day. To move past resistance in your practice is to free yourself in ways you have never anticipated.