“Most of us have two lives: the life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands resistance.” – Steven Pressfield
To resist is human nature.
I have an exercise routine I’ve developed over the last 25 years. It started with a set of them I found in the book The Life We are Given by George Leonard and Michael Murphy. I was looking for a basic set of exercises that would keep me limber and my muscles toned for daily living. I wanted a routine I could do for the rest of my life. Over time, I’ve added a lot of repetitions to some of them and added a few more exercises for muscles that weren’t getting worked. I’ve also added a couple from physical therapy for a sore shoulder. The whole set has gotten longer and longer, now taking over an hour.
I value doing this set but I also experience resistance to doing it after I do my morning meditation. For years I did the whole set daily. But spending two and a half hours every morning doing both, from about 4:30 to 7:00am, takes up a lot of time, especially if I want to go for a bike ride or a walk too. Now I’m doing it several times a week. Not only do I resist doing the exercises, I dislike parts of the set, like strengthening my arms with weights. But still, I keep pushing through the resistance and doing the whole set for the health benefits.
I have the opposite problem with taking a shower in the morning. I resist taking the time for a shower in the morning but as soon as I get in and enjoy the feeling of the warm water on my skin, I don’t want the shower to end. The next challenge is resisting turning the water off and shivering as I begin to dry off.
The place many people struggle with resistance is in social situations. One of the hardest social situations to encounter in many UU congregations is our coffee hour after the Sunday service. Even our members who’ve been here many years and know most members of the congregation can be intimidated by the crowd and the awkwardness of approaching new people.
Part of that social anxiety can come from a commitment to not offend people. Many of us have become aware of the dangers of saying something unconsciously that carries with it social stigma. Today, there is greater anxiety about using the wrong pronoun and mis-gendering someone. It isn’t socially acceptable to reach out and touch someone’s hair without permission. Telling someone who has a PhD that they are articulate could potentially be offensive to them. In each case, the intention might be harmless or complementary but the impact on the other person might be negative. This can complicate social interactions and make them riskier when encountering someone you don’t know.
Yet resisting speaking to someone because of that anxiety can be offensive to that person too! Eckard Tolle points out that “Inner resistance to whatever arises in the present moment pulls you back into unconsciousness.”
On the other hand, so often resistance is framed heroically to fight evil and oppression. Do what is right and resist doing what is wrong. Stop injustice in the world. Stand up, fight back goes the chant at protest rallies. As The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
That makes sense for resisting the cruelty and unfairness of the world. That may not be a good strategy for our inner processes of resistance. Bell hooks reminds us:
“It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist – the potential victim within that we must rescue – otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.”
My spiritual practice when I experience inner resistance to pause and attend to it. How does my body experience that resistance? Is it a tightness of fear and a defensiveness? Is it hot and agitated wanting to objectify the other? Are shame and guilt operating in a way that closes my heart? The feeling tone of the body can help me assess what is going on and that can help me more consciously and deliberately choose a response.
Staying in my cerebral cortex analyzing who is right and who is wrong may not be the best strategy. The feeling tone of the moment has much more information about what is being inwardly activated. My goal when I experience resistance is relationship protection, repair and healing. If my resistance comes from not wanting to feel the harm I may have caused, on purpose or otherwise, I’ll want to dismantle that energy. If it is an experience of witnessing oppression and fearing getting involved, I’ll want to challenge myself to speak up, offer support and disrupt the harm being attempted. In Susan Sontag’s words:
“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.”
So when considering resistance this month, remember Eckard Tolle’s observation that “Inner resistance to whatever arises in the present moment pulls you back into unconsciousness.” Those are the moment old harmful, self-protective patterns can arise. Let the body alert you to this process so you may choose a more wholesome response rather than just mindlessly react.