Resistance Brings Persistence
The daily 'ups and downs' are just part of real life. However, sometimes we go through times more difficult than habitual. Have you ever experienced so much discomfort that you felt like you couldn't bear it? It might be some pain in your body, or dysphoric emotions such as anxiety, sadness, guilt, anger, etc.
Although nature gave us involuntary reactions, reflexes, which make our body move quickly and involuntarily to get away from pain—such as when we touch something too hot, so that we quickly remove our hand—it is not that simple to avoid physical or emotional pain when it is long-lasting. As with physical, emotional discomfort sometimes is so unpleasant that we naturally want it to disappear completely, and as soon as possible. This is when, trying to alleviate physical and emotional discomfort, our mind is prone to fall into similarly harmful traps, such as thinking too much about what bothers us—rumination—; or try to completely eliminate the unpleasant sensations, instead of paying attention to them, which further intensifies the discomfort—avoidance—; or react from the emotion of the moment instead of responding with lucid attention to the context —impulsive behavior—, and so on.
The non-acceptance of reality as it unfolds, usually leads to reinforcing the conditions that originated and maintain the problem itself and, therefore, the more we resist reality, the more our discomfort persists. For example, when we resist feeling anxious, we might become more anxious to feel anxious; or more angry for getting angry; or more sad by being sad once again. In the background to these harmful loops of dysphoric emotions there is an intolerant, demanding attitude towards what we actually feel. We don't want to feel the way we do, and for that reason we feel worse and worse.
So what should we do when the physical or emotional discomfort comes over, and we can't just get rid of it? In these difficult times, the practice of meditation or mindfulness can be our best ally. And by the way, let's remember that we don't need to be a Buddhist monk or a yogi to benefit from this practice.
What is Meditation?
The following is a clear, simple way to describe what is mindfulness meditation and its main purpose:
Meditation isn’t about becoming a dierent person, a new person, or even a better person. It’s about training in awareness and understanding how and why you think and feel the way you do, and getting a healthy sense of perspective in the process. It just so happens that when you do that, any changes you want to make in your life become that much more feasible. More than that, it shows you how to be okay with the way you are right now and how you feel. But put it to the test. Don’t simply believe it works because that’s what the scientists say. (Puddicombe, 2016)
Paying Attention to Understand
Meditation is not a way to escape from whatever bothers us—which would imply falling into the experiential avoidance trap, the root of countless emotional problems (Hayes, 2019). On the contrary, the meditation practice train our mind to develop a different relationship with discomfort. During meditation, we no longer pursue to escape from the experience—or modify it at all—instead we make room within the mind to observe, at ease, what is happening right here and now without judging.
Whatever the quality of your experience in a particular moment, what is most important is your awareness of it. Can you make room for awareness of what is unfolding, whether you like what is happening or not, whether it is pleasant or not? Can you rest in this awareness, even for one breath, or even one inbreath, before reacting to try to escape or make things different? Inhabiting awareness is the essence of mindfulness practice. (Kabat-Zinn, 2006)
As we pay attention to what is happening here and now—it doesn't matter whether the experience makes us feeling good or bad—we just stop escaping and reacting, and become ready to connect to the experience in a different, healthier way, that is, from our inner observer's perspective, which is calm and usually wiser than our reactive and quick-to-judge ego.
When we observe rather than judge, when we are wide-open to the experience as it shows up, without escaping or trying to change things, then we begin to cultivate a mind that is able to better understand what is happening and also the context, which reality is unfolding in. Reality itself usually has a sense much deeper than our judgments about it, and that sense only becomes perceptible for a peaceful mind that openly observes the experience as it unfolds. Actually, from the inner observer's perspective, we can attain a better understanding of why, where from, and what for, about what's happening, regardless we like it or not.
The meditation practice invites us to cultivate the habit to relate to our mental contents—thoughts and emotions—and external reality in a different, mindful way. What if, instead of resisting to feel or think of something disgusting, we just observe what happens... without judgment, with curiosity and openness to the experience? Paradoxically, as we resist less to internal or external experience, the discomfort associated to that resistance tends to decrease. Why? Because by nature reality changes. Everything passes, even emotional pain, unless we hold on to it mentally. The key is to train ourselves to observe, breathe, and let it go.
Exercise. Noticing something unpleasant
Let me invite you to try the following mindfulness exercise to work out the inner observer, and to relax the ego's compulsive tendency to avoid and resist whatever we dislike.
With your eyes open, please bring your attention to your breathing. Take a deep breath; hold it for a couple of seconds; and then exhale slowly. (Repeat it three or four times).
If you prefer, you can now close your eyes. Go back to breathing at your natural rate.
Observe an emotion, thought, memory or physical sensation that displeases or bothers you. Do not resist to it. Don't try to change anything. Just observe it; breathe and observe. Spend a few moments observing what is bothering you, while observing your breathing.
If thoughts cross on your mind, no problem; kindly return your attention to the breath while noticing what is bothering you.
Finally, remember that meditation is first and foremost a skill that you improve by practice. Try not to judge your performance during or after the exercise. Simply keep on practicing—and, in the process, you will gradually be able to enjoy its benefits, such as greater relaxation, an internal feeling of expansion and freedom from whatever you feel, think, and notice. By less resisting the experience as it shows up, you can make more room for healthier, wiser, less reactive decisions.
Hayes, Steven (2019). A Liberated Mind. How to Pivot Toward What Matters
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2006). Mindfulness for Begginers
Puddicombe, Andy (2016). Meditation & Mindfulness. 10 Minutes Can Make All the Difference