“Happiness can only exist in acceptance.”
– George Orwell
I get angry a lot. Well…I wouldn’t call it anger exactly. It’s more like a consistent, low-level irritation. I feel it while driving, while doing customer service at work, while waiting in line for pretty much anything. Sometimes this irritation grows into real anger. Other times it just kind of stays there, humming beneath the surface, waiting for something to tip it over the edge.
I recently wrote a post on mindfulness meditation and how the only thing it requires is that you become aware of the present moment. I’ve started to put this awareness into practice, especially during times when I’m feeling irritated. Part of what that entails is looking closely at what’s causing my irritation in the first place. Initially, the answer seems obvious. It’s the slow driver in front of me or the rude customer I’m dealing with. But when I look deeper at these situations, I can start to see that it isn’t the driver or the customer that’s causing my irritation, it’s my resistance to the present moment.
Resistance: The Root of Our Suffering
Life can be full of unpleasantness. This is an undeniable fact. Every day we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, dealing with events and emotions that we would rather not experience. Unfortunately, most of us have a tendency to make those already unpleasant circumstances even worse by adding resistance into the mix.
Resistance is simply the refusal to accept what is happening in the present moment. Some have argued that it is the root of all our suffering. I first heard that assertion when I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. The book is about becoming present to the moment, and it goes into detail about the different ways that we resist the present. Feelings like anger, boredom, anxiety; these are all symptoms of our resistance to what IS.
This means that resistance is so entrenched in our daily lives that we usually don’t even realize we’re resisting.
Let’s take a very common example: waking up in the morning. If you’re anything like me, getting up (especially on weekdays) is rarely a pleasant experience. As soon as the alarm goes off you’re faced with uncomfortable feelings like disorientation and sleepiness. They can make actually getting out of bed a terrible challenge.
But what is it about those feelings that makes them intrinsically bad? Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What this really means is that it’s purely our judgment of something that determines its effect on us, and resistance pretty much always takes the form of a negative judgement. You feel tired and you tell yourself, “This is bad.” You’re stuck in traffic and you think, “Why do there have to be so many damn cars on the road?” From there, emotional and physical forms of resistance start to set in. You clench your jaw and fists. Your breathing becomes more constricted. Before you know it, you’re lost in a tailspin of negativity.
Eckhart Tolle wasn’t the first person to realize how much of our pain is actually caused by resistance. This lesson can be seen in religions and philosophies such as Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, and Christianity. It’s based on the wisdom that life is constantly changing and mostly outside of our control.
Lao Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who created the Tao Te Ching, wrote, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” If we can really understand that life will change with or without our consent, this “letting things flow” becomes a lot easier.
The Buddha said, “The root of suffering is attachment.” While he used attachment instead of resistance, his message was the same. Resistance is really a form of attachment: an attachment to how we want things to be. We cling to a fictional image of how we think the world should be, and when reality conflicts with that image we suffer.
The irony of resistance is that it’s, at best, ineffective at creating positive changes. Let’s go back to the example of waking up feeling tired and disoriented. In that situation, no amount of internal resisting – and this includes complaining as well – will make those feelings go away. All resistance will do is add some serious grumpiness on top of them.
This applies to any situation that you might judge as negative, like doing an overnight shift at work or being stuck in traffic. While the natural tendency is to get frustrated, no amount of complaining to coworkers or cursing at other drivers will change your situation. But it might very well lead to high blood pressure or a car accident.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “what you resists, persists.” I’ve found this to be especially true when it comes to uncomfortable emotions. When dealing with feelings like anger, what usually causes me the most suffering isn’t the anger itself, but my resistance to the fact that I’m angry. In my head I judge being angry as “negative,” and I want it to stop. But this just feeds the anger, making it last much longer than it probably would have had I not resisted it.
In this sense resistance is like adding fuel to a fire. It takes whatever you’re feeling and amplifies it.
The opposite of resistance is acceptance. That seems like a simple concept, but practicing it is truly a challenge. There are a couple of reasons so many of us might struggle with acceptance.
Firstly, our egos don’t want us to accept things the way they are. Ego is a term with a lot of different interpretations, but for the sake of this post I’m going to define it as the thinking mind. It’s the voice in our heads that judges each moment. It’s always stuck in the past or the future, never in the present moment. Any resistance we feel is because of our identification with our egos (minds).
Eckhart Tolle explains it best:
“The pain that you create now is always some form of non acceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment. On the emotional level, it is some form of negativity. The intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment, and this in turn depends on how strongly you are identified with your mind.”
The second reason is a little less esoteric. It seems as though the idea of acceptance may have negative connotations, especially in American society. We live in a culture that encourages blasting through obstacles in order to get the results we want. We are a society of problem solvers. So when a situation or feeling that isn’t agreeable comes our way, the natural instinct is to fight back. Unfortunately, this usually creates more problems than solutions.
What it really comes down to is a misinterpretation of what acceptance means.
Accepting the present moment means understanding that you can’t control what’s already in front of you. Whether you’re stuck in traffic or just simply in a bad mood, those are your current circumstances and mentally resisting them won’t change that.
However, accepting doesn’t mean you can’t respond to what’s in front of you or take action to improve things. But taking action is not synonymous with resistance. In fact, the only way to take truly effective action is to fully accept your circumstances. Any kind of resistance you have, such as anger or complaining mentally, will only hinder your attempts at taking action. It’s like the Serenity Prayer says, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
So let’s say you’re faced with a rude customer at work. No matter how much you resist the situation internally (by getting angry or impatient), it won’t change the fact that that customer is in front of you. Instead, that resistance might lead you to start arguing with the customer, making the situation even worse. At the very least it puts you in a worse mood than before. But if you simply accept the present moment, you can then put all your focus on changing the situation in a positive way.
This is all easy to talk about, but much harder to put into action. So here are a couple reminders that help me whenever I notice myself resisting the present moment.
1) Awareness is Key
“The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” – Nathaniel Branden
Before we can begin to solve any kind of problem in our lives, we must become aware the problem even exists. This is especially true when it comes to learning how to accept the present moment. It’s so easy to fall into negative moods and thought patterns without even realizing it. And for many of us, that negativity is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that it feels normal.
Getting out of this negative cycle requires us to start paying attention to our thoughts and emotions. Practices like mindfulness meditation (check out my last post) are extremely helpful for this. But I’ve found that, just by setting the intention each day to observe my mind, my awareness increases tenfold.
Of course, being aware of something doesn’t mean it will automatically change. But that awareness creates the internal space that will allow us to eventually make changes.
Whenever you find yourself in a bad mood, take a mental step back and look at what exactly you’re feeling and why. There’s no need to judge or try to change anything. If you can manage to just be aware of what’s going on inside you, it will make a world of difference in your life.
2) “What You Resist, Persists”
I’ve found that keeping this old adage in mind keeps me from getting consumed by resistance. I see it almost as leveraging resistance against itself. I know that the best way to get something to change is to first accept it. It comes down to choosing the long term over the short term. By accepting an unpleasant situation in the short term, it is more likely to change in the long term.
One situation where I’ve applied this quite a bit is when I’m having trouble falling asleep. My instinctual reaction is to get increasingly frustrated as the night goes on. This usually only results in me not being able to fall asleep for even longer. But when I remind myself that what I resist will only persist, I can make the conscious decision to just relax into the moment.
Instead of mentally bemoaning my inability to fall asleep, I embrace it fully. I say to myself, “Okay, I guess I’m not falling asleep tonight.” Then maybe I close my eyes and focus on my breath for a while. Or I use that time to review my day or mull over a problem I’ve been dealing with. More often than not, I’ll end up falling asleep shortly after.
Of course, sometimes I don’t. In that case the same advice still applies. I constantly remind myself that resisting will only add emotional turmoil on top of whatever physical pain I might feel from lack of sleep.
Whenever you become aware of your inner resistance to something, just remind yourself that resisting it will only make things worse.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Eckhart Tolle. I think it perfectly sums up the futility of resistance and the benefits that come from acceptance.
“Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”