By Adam J. Pearson
Introduction – Why We Don’t Meditate
From talking to many people about their experiences and observing my own mind’s hilariously nonsensical responses, I’ve noticed two interesting facts:
- Almost everyone agrees that meditation is physically, psychologically, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally good for us.
- And most of us decide not to practice it.
If you’re like me, reading these two sentences makes you laugh out loud. You may recognize that you totally know that meditation could positively transform your life and yet still decide not to do it anyway. The mind’s reasons for not meditating are many. Here are some classics:
- “Meditation sounds religious, and I’m not religious.”
- “I don’t have time to meditate. I’m too busy.”
- “I’d love to meditate, but there’s this good TV show on. And there’s another good one after that. And another…”
- “I don’t know how to do it right.”
- “Meditation is boring.”
- “Meditation is for hippies. And I ain’t no hippy.”
- “I don’t have a meditation cushion.”
- “I don’t have a meditation teacher.”
- “I’d love to meditate, but I’m not flexible enough to bend my legs into a twisted pretzel.”
- Or “I’m too spiritual / too enlightened for meditation.” (LOL!)
I’m not judging anyone here. I’ve had some of these thoughts myself. Okay, I’ve had all of these thoughts myself. One thing that they have in common is that they are all expressions of resistance to meditating. Something in us just does not want to meditate, and this part of us is unconsciously shutting down, pushing against, and diverting off the part of us that consciously does want to. What a puzzling situation. Thankfully, there’s a key that unlocks it in a very practical way.
As it turns out, the key lies in a simple form of meditation that can be practised at nearly any time: while sitting on the bus, while lying in bed, or even while walking around, washing dishes, or doing laundry. And since it has no religious content, it can be practised without interfering with your beliefs or lack thereof. I’d like to share this simple, but powerful practice with you today. Welcome to the world of Resistance-Releasing Meditation (RRM).
What is Resistance?
Surprisingly, the key to this perplexing situation has its roots in the resistance to meditation itself. Our everyday experience makes it quite clear that resistance to meditation isn’t the only kind of resistance we find within us. As we go about our daily lives, we find all kinds of resistance in our bodies, in our thoughts, and in our emotions. And all of these forms of resistance seem to create obstacles to achieving or stabilizing inner peace.
Resistance is a word that is used in many different ways in different contexts. Police officers talk about suspects “resisting” arrest, or trying to avoid or attack. Weight trainers talk about using muscular resistance, in which we give our muscles more physical ‘resistance’ to work against so they can grow stronger. Psychotherapists also use the term to refer to psychological resistance or resistance in the mind. In his article “Resistance” from About Psychotherapy, Dr. Bennett Pologe (2014) defines this kind of resistance as “what we do to protect ourselves from awareness of that which we fear will overwhelm us.” And he adds that “it does not happen consciously.“
All of these uses of resistance suggest an element of avoidance, pushing away, or even attack. For our purposes with RRM, I’ll define resistance in the following way:
Resistance is a usually unconscious inner movement of pushing away or trying to change or escape that expresses itself as tension in the body, aversion in our feelings, and attack in our thoughts.
This definition recognizes three kinds of unconscious resistance that we can observe within the body-mind:
- Body resistance – or bodily resistance, that is, resistance in the body (e.g. tension, clenching, muscle stiffening, our hands forming fists and our feet scrunching up unconsciously, our body language closing off and tightening up, etc.).
- Feeling resistance – or emotional resistance, that is, resistance in our feelings (e.g. hatred, shame, fear, anxiety, anger, dislike, aversion, disturbance, upset, disgust, etc.).
- Thinking resistance – or cognitive resistance, that is, resistance in our thoughts (e.g. thoughts of how we want to change the present moment, obsessive thoughts about reliving, regretting, and suffering over the past, holding on to blaming others and ourselves, obsessive catastrophizing or worrying over the future, etc.).
When resistance is presence in the body, in our feelings, or in our thoughts, we do not feel at peace. We have a sense that something is not quite right, that something is off, or that we are uncomfortable. And when we have this sense, we are not aware of inner peace. We feel disrupted, disturbed, and upset.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to cultivate inner peace throughout the day, not just while sitting on a cushion. And if resistance is blocking the awareness of inner peace, then I want a cultivating inner peace that works with the resistance directly rather than simply trying to avoid or ignore it. This is the purpose of Resistance-Releasing Meditation (RRM).
Working Against Resistance Versus Working With Resistance
We know that body resistance, feeling resistance, and thought resistance are blocking our awareness of inner peace, so what do we do about it? What I’ve found in my own experience is that trying to work against resistance never works. “Working against resistance” means trying to overcome resistance using… more resistance. The simple truth is that resisting resistance only gives birth to additional resistance. It’s like trying to change my thoughts about trying to change my thoughts. Or trying to relax my tense lower back by tensing it up further. “What we resist, persists,” says a wise proverb. Thankfully, there is another way. We can work with rather than against resistance.
What if we could integrate working with resistance into a form of meditation that could be practiced anywhere, whether sitting (at home, on the bus, in the break room, or anywhere else for that matter), lying down, or even while walking or going about our daily activities? What if we could release our resistance in the present moment, here and now, and open up a space for peace to be revealed in its absence? What if practising consciously releasing resistance could help us truly relax into the now and be present? There is a simple way of doing this that I have found to work. I call it Resistance-Releasing Meditation (RRM).
What is Resistance-Releasing Meditation (RRM)?
Resistance-Releasing Meditation (RRM) is a form of mindfulness meditation that focuses specifically on observing and consciously releasing resistance in our body, feelings, and thoughts. Social worker Dr. Brene Brown repeatedly notes in her talks and writings that a key principle of social work is that we need to “lean into discomfort.” When we feel uncomfortable, the last thing we tend to want to do is lean in to the feeling. We usually want to try to escape, repress, push away, or avoid it as soon as possible. Unfortunately, none of these strategies work. They are all examples of working against resistance, or resisting resistance. Resistance-Releasing Meditation (RRM) on the other hand, is a very gentle way of leaning into discomfort in the body, in our feelings, and in our thoughts that allows the resistance to relax and be released from us.
In the absence of resistance, there is peace. Therefore, releasing resistance in the present moment immediately reveals peace. For this reason, I describe RRM as a way of getting an immediate taste of inner peace here and now. This taste of peace may be fleeting at first. One reason for this is that resistance tends to come in different flavours. Todd Van Denburg and Donald J Kiesler (2002) point out that we experience two key types of resistance: state-resistance (temporary resistance that arises once in a while and subsides) and trait-resistance (deep-seated resistance that is so long lasting it can seem to be a ‘trait’ of our personality).
As psychotherapists know well, trait-resistance in particular can linger for years. If you are involved in a process of psychotherapy, psychiatry, or psychology, by all means feel free to continue with it. RRM is designed as a universal practice for everybody, whether you are seeing a therapist or not. If you are, however, RRM can complement therapy nicely.
RRM works with what we are experiencing here and now in the present moment and its fruits are immediate. The more you can integrate RRM into your daily life, the more frequent your ‘tastes of peace,’ relaxation, and presence will be. RRM is designed to be a practice we can do at almost any time whenever we have a moment to sit, to lie down, or are engaged in a simple task (e.g. walking, doing dishes, etc.). In this way, it is very easy to integrate into daily life.
How to Practice Resistance-Releasing Meditation (RRM)
The basic practice of RRM consists of scanning the body, feelings, and thoughts for resistance. When you find resistance, notice it, allow it to fully be present, and then gently release, relax, or surrender it. Love is the opposite of resistance; therefore, another way to release the resistance, if you find this way helpful, is to gently meet it with love instead of judgment, which has an embracing/relaxing quality that undoes the resistance from within. Finally, practice centering your attention on the incoming and outgoing breath while gently checking in with your body sensations, feelings, and thoughts for resistance.
Let’s break these steps down in greater detail:
Step 1. Prepare to practice:
- If you are sitting, sit up straight with your spine aligned with your neck as if a string were pulling it up in a line. Rest your hands in a comfortable meditation mudra (hand position). My two favourites are the Full-Moon Mudra:
And the Two-Worlds Mudra:
- If you are lying down, lie on your back with your head against a pillow, your arms gently at your sides, and, if possible, another pillow under your knees to take the pressure off of your lower back.
- If you are walking or involved in a simple task (e.g. washing dishes), center your attention in your breath and focus on the action you are doing.
Step 2. Scan the Body for Resistance:
- Gently rest your attention on your incoming and outgoing breath. Allow your breathing to relax naturally. Feel the breath gradually filling your lungs and gradually being exhaled.
- Begin to gradually scan through the whole body looking for any form of body resistance (tension, stiffness, or clenching up). When you find resistance, gradually allow the tension to release, relax, or surrender.
- Begin with the head. Become aware of your eyes and the muscles in your face. Allow the muscles in the brow and arrow the eyes to relax. Allow the cheeks and jaw to relax. Feel into your neck and notice if there is tension there. Gently allow it to relax.
- Feel into your shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, and hands, very slowly. Try to feel the aliveness that’s there, which may feel like tingling or warmth. Again, if you find tension, gradually allow it to release and relax.
- Feel into your torso, back, and belly. Allow the muscles to soften up and release their tension and hold. Remember to feel your breath gently and naturally coming in and going out.
- Feel into your hips, glutes, and genital region. Feel your upper legs, then your lower legs, and finally your feet. Gently allow any tension you find to release, surrender, and relax.
- Return attention to the breath. Try to expand the lens of your attention to include the whole field of your body. Notice if any body parts have tensed up again. Gently bring your attention back to the tense areas and allow the resistance there to gently relax.
Step 3. Scan Your Feelings for Resistance:
- While remaining aware of the breath, gently become aware of your feelings.
- Look for resistant feelings, feelings of fear or attack against you, the meditation itself, situations in your life, or other people. For example, notice if you feel any hatred, superiority, inferiority, shame, fear, anxiety, anger, dislike, aversion, disturbance, upset, or disgust arising.
- Instead of letting the feeling sweep you away, remain grounded in the breath. Let the feeling arise without pushing it away or trying to hold onto it. Simply let it be.
- When you are ready, gently allow the feeling to release. Allow the feeling to gently be and relax. Surrender and forgive the attack feeling. Simply resting your conscious presence or attention on the feeling will gradually allow it to release. If it is helpful, meet the resistant feeling with love instead of judgment. This will undo the resistance from within.
- Remind yourself that you are just releasing this feeling for this moment only. We will take care of the future afterwards. For now, we are only focusing on the feeling in this present moment. We are noticing it, allowing it to arise, and gently releasing, relaxing, and forgiving the urge to attack.
Step 4. Scan Your Thoughts for Resistance:
- While remaining aware of the breath, gently become aware of your thoughts.
- Thoughts are like trains. You can let them carry you away or you can observe them passing like a conductor at a station watching the trains go by. Just for this moment, we will notice the thoughts arising and we will let them go by without getting swept away by them.
- Observe your mind for thoughts of resistance. These thoughts may be about the past, the present moment of the practice, or the future.
- For instance, you may notice thoughts of wanting to change the present moment; obsessive thoughts about reliving, regretting, and suffering over the past; holding on to blaming others and ourselves; or obsessive catastrophizing or worrying over the future, etc.
- Whenever you find a resistant thought, gently release and surrender it. Simply allow it to arise and pass away naturally without pushing it away or clinging to it. In the light of your conscious presence, it will fade away on its own without you having to do anything. If it is helpful, meet the resistant thought with love instead of judgment. This will undo the resistance from within.
Step 5. Rest your attention in the breath and expand your awareness to include all of the body, feelings, and thoughts:
- Finally, we will bring the three previous three steps together. Rest your attention once again on the breath. Gently allow yourself to become fully aware of the sensations throughout your body. Gently expand your awareness to include your feelings. Gently expand your attention again to include your thoughts.
- Become intensely present in your experience of the sensations in your body, feelings, and thoughts. Use your awareness of your breath to ground you in the present.
- As you remain grounded in your breath, be very alert. Be on the lookout for tension in the body, resistance in your thoughts, or aversion in your feelings. Whenever you find it, continue as before to gently release, relax, or surrender it, or if it is helpful, to meet it with love instead of judgment, which undoes the resistance from within.
- When you feel it is time to stop, gently allow yourself to become aware of your surroundings again. Then carry on with your day. This concludes the meditation.
To summarize, Resistance-Releasing Meditation (RRM) has five simple steps:
1. Prepare by getting into sitting or lying down position or centering in the moment of your action.
2. Scan your body for resistance; allow any you find to relax and release.
3. Scan your feelings for resistance: allow any you find to relax, release, and be surrendered. If it is helpful, meet the feeling with love instead of judgment.
4. Scan your thoughts for resistance; allow any you find to relax, release, and be surrendered. If it is helpful, meet the thought with love instead of judgment.
5. Rest attention on the breath and expand awareness to contain all of your body sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Continue to release any resistance you find.
How long should an RRM session last? An RRM session can be as long or as brief in duration as you like. 5 minutes is sufficient for a brief mini-session. 15-30 minutes or an entire hour are also excellent. I like to weave small periods of RRM into my day. For instance, you can do RRM while walking from one place to another, while doing the dishes, while sitting on the bus or subway, while on break at lunch, and while lying down in bed preparing to fall asleep. You can even do it while sitting on the toilet!
The point is that the more you practice it, the more it begins to gradually infuse the peacefulness, relaxation, and presence that it provides into your life. The more you do it throughout the day, the more you will begin to find yourself not doing meditation once in a while, but actually living in meditation. Your conscious presence will center you in your life and you will be less likely to simply live on auto-pilot, get swept away by fearful thoughts, emotionally react in a totally unconscious way, and find your body constantly tensed up and uncomfortable.
The practice of RRM is easy and simple and it goes to the heart of the resistance to meditation itself by focusing on releasing the resistance. I have found that RRM makes me feel tremendously peaceful, joyful, and relaxed. I hope you find it useful as well.
Note: The Cover Image of this article is “Swimming Pool” by the talented Janice Fried.