The famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, once said that what we resist tends to persist. This was not an entirely new concept, but one that has been known for centuries. It is a key concept in mindfulness practice, and one that lies at the heart of most mental health problems, as well as the general problems of daily life. But what is resistance? Quite simply, resistance is a stance of wanting things to be different from what they really are. We don’t like something and we want to change it. We humans have developed a number of strategies to resist our experience.
Attempting to control our experience
Pretending that something is not there (denial)
Covering up a problem
Seeking a quick fix
The experience of anxiety, and how we often react to it, is a great illustration of how this concept unfolds. Anxiety is simply a natural product of our brain, and is actually meant to be adaptive. Because we are uncomfortable with feeling anxious, when these feelings arise, we attempt to get rid of them. One common strategy is to deny that we are feeling anxious by distracting ourselves with our phones, television, or keeping busy. We might also turn to substances such as alcohol, or use of medications. The problem with these strategies is that we can not actually make anxiety go away, as it is a natural part of our existence. When we focus on strategies to make it go away, we are fighting against our very nature. We have only succeeded in covering it up for a moment. It will come back, as it naturally does, and when it does we will be less equipped to deal with it because we have told ourselves that we can not tolerate it. This is how anxiety disorders are born.
This problem of resistance, and how it can lead to greater problems, is summed up with the following formula:
Pain + Resistance = Suffering
The idea here is that pain is an inevitable part of life. It comes in all forms from physical pain, emotional pain, and even the pain that comes with changes and aging. Pain can also represent anything that we don’t like. When we add resistance to the pain, we create more suffering for ourselves. We tense up, we become less aware of what is really happening. This key concept is central to the Buddhist understanding of how suffering is generated. It is also right in line with the opening quote from Carl Jung.
So, with this in mind, what is the solution? Acceptance. We need to stop and look at what is there without immediately trying to change it. This will involve temporary discomfort, as we are choosing to be with something that we do not like, be it physical pain, sorrow, or the end of a relationship. Acceptance is very powerful in the above case of anxiety, in that when we choose to look at and be with the experience of anxiety, we tell ourselves that we can handle it. We tell ourselves that we can allow it to be there. This is tremendously helpful, as our tendency to disallow these feelings is exactly what creates anxiety disorders.
When we practice mindfulness, much of what we are practicing is acceptance. Instead of running from task to task in an attempt to get to the next place or the next success, we sit and observe what is happening. We say yes to all of experience, not just to experience as we would like it to be. If we practice doing this, we become more free from our own negative habits. We become more flexible, and we can bend (instead of break) with the storms of life.