Overcoming Resistance

The thing about starting a meditation practice is resistance. The thing about continuing a meditation practice is resistance. The thing about meditating is letting go of resistance. Most of what the brain does is inhibitory; it keeps us from doing things. That’s why a chicken with its head cut off runs around everywhere – it’s lost its inhibitory brain function/ its resistance. Most of the essential functions of our body are reflexive. That is, they don’t take much decision making. We find ourselves doing these things before we have time to really think about them, like drawing your hand away from a hot surface, or jumping when we are startled. It’s the brain’s inhibition that can keep us from doing these things. These inhibitions are typically learned, that is we acquire these inhibitions during our lifetime; because they serve us in some way. Responding to pain is an example of how our brains can inhibit our consciousness. In the heat of a battle, during a fight-or-flight situation is not the time to complain or be bothered by a wound or injury. At a moment when your survival seems to depend upon winning the battle, stopping to tend to a wound is typically “not on your mind”. That is because our learned inhibitory mechanisms are able to suppress the pain and focus on our survival at the moment. Indeed a characteristic of the fight-or-flight response, a.k.a. the Stress Response, is that long term survival functions are put on hold, in favor of short-term survival. Blood flow is drawn from the organs to the muscles. Hormonal processes shift away from making babies and rebuilding bones, and focus on fueling the heart and other muscles with oxygen. The same is true whether we are suppressing a physical or emotional wound. We are able to suppress our consciousness of the wound and the associated pain; until such time that it is safe. Once we feel safe, our system shifts from the Stress Response to the Relaxation Response. They key to opening the consciousness to relieving pain is feeling safe. It may be because we are breathing more deeply and calmly, but the overall feeling is safety. Once we are safe, then we begin to release our inhibitions, and open to the experience of the pain that has been inflicted upon us. So don’t be surprised when you start to meditate, that as the consciousness opens, these suppressed experiences that have not completely healed may begin to arise. Indeed in one of my research projects with my graduate student, Thomas Nassif and others at the VA Medical Center, patients with chronic pain reported that when they first started to meditate, the experience of the pain was greater – because they became more aware of it. After their awareness increased, the actual severity of the pain then began to decrease. Once we have experienced pain and ignored it or suppressed it, it becomes a habit to do so. But as long as it is an unhealed wound, it will continue to fester, either leading to chronic physical pain or impairing our emotional functioning. Meditation is an opportunity to release and heal our pains. But sometimes these pains will move through our consciousness as they heal. Just as you might stretch to release the tension in the back of your hamstrings, in so doing you become aware of the tension, and may even experience this tension as pain. In reality, you know that you are releasing the tension, and that when you are done there will be less of it; and your other leg may actually remind you that it would like you to do the same for it. If we respond to this tension by stopping the stretch, we will keep the tension there in our hamstrings. However, if we breathe deeply as we stretch, and remind ourselves to let go of the tension, our legs will feel better when we are done. The same is true in our meditation practice. As we open our consciousness and let go of inhibitory blocks and other cognitive processing activities, as we remind ourselves that we are safe by breathing deeply and calmly, emotional and physical pains that we have resisted or suppressed may begin to arise. If we respond by stopping the practice, we will keep the pain suppressed from our consciousness, where it does not have access to the coordinating activities of the brain that facilitate healing and restore functions essential for long-term survival. Understanding the expectation that past wounds, along with the resistance – or inhibitory processes- that allowed us to function at the time of the wounding in spite of the pain- will arise when we sit in meditation, allows us to continue the practice, knowing that it is working as it should. Remember, when we practice meditation, it is not about what we find, but that we look. That we open our consciousness in a curious state of awareness, and keep going. The tool that we can use to guide us through this process, no matter what arises, is to keep breathing. By focusing your awareness on the breath, it will self-regulate to a steady, even flow. Or you can intentionally make an effort to breathe deeply and fully, but that is not usually necessary. Resistance is that action that pulls us away from our practice. It may be the very first moment when we flinch and say, “Oh I can’t meditate”. Or it may be the feeling of frustration after a meditation session when the brain keeps wandering off to its familiar busyness. It may even appear as falling asleep whenever you sit to meditate. In all of the cases, the practice involves the following three steps: 1.) Notice the experience, 2.) Accept it with compassion, and 3.) Focus on the breath. The breath reminds the brain that you are safe, and dissolves the resistance. As the resistance dissolves and you continue breathing, the practice literally rewires the brain, potentially changing your perspective, experience and consciousness. Meditation is about meeting your resistance, smiling, and exhaling.

Debbie Norris

Debbie Norris

Deborah Norris, Ph.D. is author of In the Flow: Bridging the Science and Practice of Mindfulness, and Editor-in-Chief of MindBodyJournal.com. Dr. Norris is Founder of The Mindfulness Center™, based in Washington, D.C. She is Psychologist-in-Residence and Director of the Psychobiology of Healing Program at American University, and past professor at Georgetown University Medical School. Renowned for her online meditation teacher programs, The Science of Mindful Awareness (SOMA), Dr. Norris is an internationally recognized speaker and educator on mindfulness, yoga, and integrative mind-body therapies. A health scientist with over 40 years of experience ranging from traditional medical and psychotherapeutic practices to integrative therapies and lifestyle practices, she teaches and conducts research in mindfulness, behavioral medicine and other holistic approaches to happiness and well-being.

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