Not Resisting Resistance

The building where I used to run a meditation group was on the same street as a fire station. One could almost guarantee that sometime during the meditation a fire engine would come rushing past, sirens wailing. Not surprisingly, people would afterwards complain. "How could I meditate with that noise?"

How often have we felt something similar? There's an unspoken assumption that the mind can only become quiet if the world around is quiet. We imagine the ideal meditation setting to be somewhere far from the madding crowd—a retreat deep in a forest, a peaceful chapel, or perhaps the quiet of one's own bedroom. It is much harder for the mind to settle down in a noisy environment.

Or is it?

I suggested to the group that the next time a fire engine came blasting by they look within and explore whether the sound really was that disturbing? After the following meditation, a woman reported how the noise no longer seemed a problem. It was there, but it didn't disturb her. The disturbance, she realized, came not from the sound itself, but from her wishing it weren't there.

This was the essence of Buddha's realization 2,500 years ago. We all experience what he called dukkha, conventionally translated as "suffering." In Pali, the language of Buddha's time, dukkha is the negation of the word sukha, meaning "at ease." So dukkha might also be translated as not-at-ease, or discontent—an experience we all can relate to.

The root meanings of these words add further insight. Sukha stems from su (good)-kha (hole), and generally referred to a good axle hole in the wheel of a cart. The wheel was a great technological boon of the time, and whether or not it ran smoothly around its axle would have been a primary concern for both comfort and efficiency. Conversely, the root of dukkha is duh (bad)-kha (hole). There is resistance to the smooth running of the wheel, leading to friction and discomfort.

Similarly with the mind. When we accept things as they are, "go with the flow," there is ease—sukha. This is our natural state of mind—content and relaxed. Dukkha, suffering, arises when we resist our experience. Our natural state of ease becomes veiled by a self-created discontent.

Thus, as numerous teachers have pointed out, we can return to a more peaceful state of mind by letting go of our attachments as to how things ought to be, and accepting our experience as it is. Not wishing for something different, not creating unnecessary discontent.

Upon hearing this, people often ask: Does this mean I should accept injustice and cruelty, the homeless sleeping on the streets, or the recalcitrant attitude of my partner? Of course not. There are numerous situations that we should not tolerate, and each of us, in our own way, will be called to do what we can to improve things.

"Accepting our experience as it is," means just that; accepting our experience in the moment. If you're feeling frustrated, angry, or indignant, accept the feeling. Don't resist it, or wish it weren't there; but let it in, become interested in how it feels.

We can also explore the feeling of resistance itself. It can be quite subtle, and not easily noticed at first. I find it useful to simply pause and ask: "Is there any sense of resistance that I am not noticing?" Then gently wait. Some resentment or aversion towards my experience may become apparent, or sometimes a faint sense of tension or contraction in my being. Then, rather than focusing on the particular experience that I'm resisting, I turn my attention to the felt sense of the resistance itself, opening to this aspect of "what is."

Rather than my experience being divided into two parts—the actual experience in the moment, and my resistance to it—the feeling of resistance is now included as part of the present moment. As I allow the resistance in, it starts to soften and dissolve. Then I can be more open to whatever it is that I was resisting. I can allow it in, and begin to accept the experience as it is.

So when you find something seeming to disturb your inner peace—whether it be a friend's behavior, some politician on TV, or a passing fire engine—pause and notice what is happening inside. See if there is any sense of resistance to your experience. If so, open up to the experience of resisting. Be curious as to what is going on and how it feels.

By not resisting the resistance, but accepting it as part of "what is", you will probably discover that you can be at ease in situations where before you would have suffered.

Excerpted from book Seeds of Awakening