Resistance is Fertile

If things happened the way you wanted them to, you’d likely be less stressed and have an easier life. Traffic would be light, the weather would be delightful, family members would be attentive to your needs, colleagues would complement your work, strangers wouldn’t threaten you, and lab results would affirm your good health.

While these nice-to-experience events do take place, they are transient, always changing, and largely outside of our control. When all is said and done, this life of ours is full of surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant.

It is natural to seek pleasant experiences and to avoid unpleasant ones. Related to this is the effort we make to hang onto these pleasant experiences and push away unpleasant ones. Because of the fact that everything changes – including the pleasant and unpleasant – this hanging on and pushing away inevitably meets resistance. During these moments what we are resisting is, well, reality.

To live a mindful life is to appreciate this deep truth and remain present for the unfolding of your life and all it entails. This means noticing and embracing the continual arising and passing away of events, both pleasant and unpleasant. Even popular culture has recognized it with songs like the Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Thousands of years of mindfulness practices across a great many spiritual, religious, and contemplative disciplines, along with a growing body of scientific research, offers strong support that this approach offers much relief from suffering and is a path for an ever expanding sense of fulfillment and joy in life.


Mindfulness offers this insight: It is not so much what happens to us in life as is it how we relate to what happens that influences our general sense of well-being. We all know people who seem to have everything and are miserable and those with next to nothing who are quite happy. So what is it that draws the line between misery and happiness if not the circumstances in which we find ourselves?

As a rule, most of us have a preference for the way things should be. When reality does not meet our expectations, a tension arises between what we wanted and what we got.
It is like the tension in a rope that develops during a game of tug of war. The tugging can take the form of complaining, denying, escaping, and fighting. It consumes energy, time, can lead to confusion and sap us of strength. But unlike a tug of war that involves two sides, when we resist reality, there is only one person tugging – us. And, as is obvious when cast in this way, the resistance is futile.

A second mindfulness insight, and the object of this month’s Mindfulness in Motion column, is that while resistance may be futile, it is always fertile. Accordingly, each time you become aware that you are resisting something, an opportunity arises to practice mindfulness. Simply being aware of this dynamic can be fertile ground for responding more optimally to difficult and challenging situations.

Below is a step by step discussion of why resistance is fertile. It is also a reminder of how mindfulness practices can lead to a bountiful harvest of the fields you till every day.
Resistance is neither good nor bad. It is a matter-of-fact expression of how we relate to an event.
Resistance is not arbitrary. We resist things for a reason.
Resistance is idiosyncratic. Not everyone resists the same events or resists in the same way. Resistance says something about who we are.
Resistance sets in motion a tension (most notably felt in the body) that we seek to resolve -- by doing something about it.
When the event is one over which we have mastery, such that we meet the resistance with wisdom and compassion, the tension dissipates quickly. [As an example, you come across two people arguing. You sense that they are suffering and are able to offer words of compassion and wisdom that ease their suffering. They stop fighting, the tension subsides, and there is no cause for resistance.]
When mastery is lacking and we are not fully prepared to meet the resistance, the tension builds and creates discomfort. [As an example, you come across two people arguing. Their arguing makes you uncomfortable and you try to get them to stop. Because you are caught in your own suffering you lack the skillful means of easing anyone’s suffering. This is most of us, much of the time, to one degree or another.]
This mounting tension can be resolved in two ways: self-soothing and/or mindfulness.
Mindfulness is often discussed as a practice to help reduce resistance. Resistance is seen as an obstacle to achieving one’s objectives, whether it be happiness, stress reduction, greater compassion, or anything else one desires but finds challenging to attain. But the moment something is regarded as an obstacle, another level of resistance emerges. Wise and compassionate teachers have long recognized that resistance is also a stepping stone to mindfulness.

By keeping in mind the fertile quality of resistance, you may find you meet your next challenging encounter with an open heart and gratitude. You may come to see the tension as a force you can join. You may find the duality between what you want and what you have to be a delusion. When you see that you are the only one in the tug-of-war and drop both sides of the rope, you can harness that energy instead to more deeply touch the truth, freeing the breath to attend to the only reality you can ever truly know – namely, your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.

And to know reality is to be free.

Wishing you all the best,

Scott Rogers
Director, Institute for Mindfulness Studies