In the Pali texts, Gotama teaches that one cause of our suffering is our inability to allow and accept our experience the way it is. Because we so desperately want conditions to be the way we want them, despite the realization (or perhaps because of it) that we can’t really control our circumstances in any given moment, when things go wrong, we resist.
Often, that resistance takes the form of a hardening, of a stiffening of our body and mind against the things we dread. As our emotions are flooded with irritation and anxiety, the body responds: the knot in the gut, the clench in the jaw, the clutching of hands into fists, the tightness in the face and scalp that might even give us a headache. The thing we fear may not even happen, but we are already causing ourselves pain. And on a more subtle physical level, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are amping up our nervous system for the struggle we are imagining, adding to the stress of resistance.
As the jingo goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” so that the more we resist, the more our brain and body prepare themselves for future resistance, and the more easily we are triggered for a stress reaction the next time trouble appears to loom. Any particular stressor – resistance to going to the gym, dreading the unpleasant conversation, nerves about a presentation you have to give – may be trivial in the big picture. But our reaction to them all adds up to a life of continual struggle, of constant suffering and exhaustion.
How do we let go of resistance? Kristen Neff and Chris Germer, the creators of Mindful Self-Compassion, advise us to be kind to ourselves. Rather than being mindlessly trapped in the endless stress cycle, we can learn to be aware of how resistance is manifesting in the body and use that recognition as an invitation to enter mindfully into our experience. When we are aware that we are resisting, we can intentionally soften the body, and soothe ourselves with a gentle touch, a recognition that resistance is what humans do and that it’s not our fault, and a kind wish that we could be free of suffering. This might enable us to let go of our resistance and accept that whatever is, that’s the way it is now, and help us bear our circumstances without adding the suffering of struggling against it.
All this must also take place in the context of self-protection, an important component of self-compassion. In some instances – when we’re being abused, when we see wrongdoing – resistance is the best way to take care of ourselves. Mindfulness will help us recognize when we must struggle to protect ourselves and others, and when we are heedlessly and uselessly causing suffering for ourselves.
As Neff and Germer write:
[W]e can’t just throw self-compassion at ourselves as a way to make the pain go away. If we do, we’re engaging in a hidden form of resistance that will ultimately just make things worse. However, if we can fully accept that things are painful, and be kind to ourselves because they’re painful, we can be with the pain with greater ease. We need mindfulness to ensure that self-compassion isn’t used in the service of resistance, and we need self-compassion to feel safe and secure enough to mindfully open to difficult experiences. Together they form a beautiful dance.
I hope you’ll join us this Sunday evening, June 9, at 6 pm Pacific, 7 Mountain, 8 Central and 9 Eastern as we practice letting go. Practice Circle is the SBA’s online meditation and discussion community. We meet via video conference on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Practice Circle is free to attend, and everyone is welcome. Just click this link on Sunday evening to attend.