Why What We Resist Persists
When asked how to hold a sword correctly, the actor Errol Flynn replied “in the same way you would hold a bird, not too tight and not too loose. If you hold it too tightly the bird dies, but if you hold too loosely it will fly away and you’re left with nothing.”
Swashbuckling skills aside, there’s a great deal of wisdom in Flynn’s reply, if we can understand how to apply it to other areas of our lives.
One of the mandatory conditions in our contract with life is that we must experience every emotion from ecstasy to despair whether we like it or not. When unwelcome emotions come calling, our first response is to pretend we’re not home, though such resistance usually proves futile, providing little more than a somber reminder that what we resist will persist, as anyone knows who has tried not to laugh out loud when in a somber or serious place.
Worry and anxiety trigger our natural desire to resist, though the effort required may increase our tension and anxiety. Paradoxically, once we stop trying to resist, things can often quickly improve, though this can be rather difficult to remember when we are caught squarely in the headlights of an oncoming 16-wheeler called worry or anxiety. Fortunately, we are not without options and have more resources than we may realize.
If resistance strengthens emotions it would seem logical to assume that accepting them might produce the opposite effect, in which case we may do well to stop resisting our anxieties and just be with them. Of course acceptance doesn’t mean giving in to worry and anxiety — it means changing our relationship with them by changing how we think and by being more mindful of their presence. This simple shift quickly empowers a strong sense of autonomy that comes from accepting we are human and as such must experience the full spectrum of emotions that come as a mandatory requirement in our contract with life.
There are two essential keys that will help us create this shift. First, we can remind ourselves why we worry about things in the first place, since we are all smart enough to know worrying never solves problems. We are all programmed to worry. It’s an essential aspect of who we are.
If you watch a wild rabbit you may notice 99% of it’s attention is taken up in looking not for food, but for potential danger which hardly seems an equitable distribution, yet animals in the wild, especially rabbits, are wired this way for a reason. Much like us, they are instinctively programmed to eat and stay alive though the two essentials are not equally driven. If a rabbit fails to find food today the worst case scenario is that it will go hungry though it can try again tomorrow but if it fails to notice potential predators, it won’t have a tomorrow.
Humans are also wired with primordial programs, one of which seems to be heavily biased in favor of avoiding pain which explains why so many of us have a tendency to worry, even when there’s nothing to worry about. Perhaps our anxieties are just one transient fragment of the universal energy which makes up the unique experience of life. If so, then resistance may be the most unnatural and futile strategy we could employ while acceptance of what is natural and healthy may provide us with a simple and effective key to change.
Acceptance often diminishes tightness and tensions associated with conflict and we may feel more relaxed as soon as we stop trying to stop this natural flow of our primordial instincts, empowering a centre of calm from which to introduce one of our most powerful and natural resources — mindfulness.
Mindfulness happens to us when our attention becomes exclusively present here in the now.
This sounds fairly obvious but in reality our attention is rarely directed at the current moment of our experience. Our mind works primarily on auto pilot, skipping from one internal video to another while we drive, eat, shower, or get dressed, almost entirely oblivious to the present moment. Our mind may be anywhere with anyone though in truth the only place we can ever truly exist is here and now since the illusion of our thoughts has no reality beyond our mind. We spend much of our time sleepwalking through the illusions of mindless thought, allowing our anxieties and worries to dominate in a mind that has forgotten its dreams are unreal.
The practice of mindfulness, on the other hand, provides an excellent resource against worry because it helps us to stay calm and understand the reality of the present moment rather than becoming seduced by the unreal images of catastrophic thought.
Mindfulness effortlessly breaks the illusion of catastrophic thinking by providing a mind state which allows us to gently hold the emotions we are feeling without creating the suffocating tensions that arise when we hold them too tightly. We don’t have to be experts in mindfulness — we need only cultivate a simple understanding of how less resistance and more acceptance of what in essence is a fundamental aspect of our being may provide an essential key to change.
The N.O.T.E. strategy offers a consistently effective mindfulness resource in times of worry:
The N.O.T.E. Strategy.
As you sense the early signs of arising anxiety or worry:
- Notice the physical location of the emotions your thoughts are creating in you now.
- Observe how you create this emotion. Is it a result of your inner voice, or an image?
- Take 5 deep breaths and try to exhale for twice as long as it takes to inhale.
- Explore your perceptual field by noticing what is happening externally. As you start to feel relaxed, ask yourself what thoughts will be most helpful to you now.
Gary Dooley is the author of “Change Your Life and Keep the Change,” a journey of personal development that shows how to create sustainable and effective change by reprogramming the automatic responses of the unconscious mind.