What You Resist, Persists. What You Accept, Transforms You.
You’ve probably heard it before– the notion that life isn’t about what happens to you, but rather about how you respond to it. It’s been my favourite motto for over a decade now, and it’s given me a sense of agency over the circumstances of my life. For a long time though, “how you respond to it” signified for me a choice in how I would attempt to turn away from, move beyond, or resist my current circumstances. It was a way of asking myself “which way will I try this time to make this unpleasant circumstance go away?” While those experiences of resistance, in and of themselves, taught me a lot about the less-than-helpful ways that we tend to respond to life, I soon also learned about the helpful and simple (though not always easy) ways that exist too.
And that is what I share with you below.
If you’ve ever found yourself curious about the true influence that you have over the degree of joy, ease, and peace in your life, then this one’s for you.
IF YOU RESIST IT, IT WILL GO AWAY?
The story of King Sisyphus from Greek Mythology goes like this: Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to Hades (the term for ‘Hell’ used by the Greeks). The eternal punishment? He had to roll an incredibly large, heavy boulder up a hill. When it got to the top, guess what? It would roll down again… Over and over again, Sisyphus efforted to get the boulder up the very top of the hill, after which it would repeatedly roll back down.
The teaching contained within this myth (and Joko Beck describes this exceptionally well) is that all that’s really happening is that Sisyphus is rolling a boulder up a hill and then watching it roll back down. In essence, if we look just at what we are doing in the moment, moment by moment, then pushing the boulder up the hill and watching it roll back down are really the same thing. There is no inherent difference. One is not inherently bad and the other inherently good. But… bring into that our personal interpretation… And all of a sudden, we are seeing that, no matter what he does, Sisyphus can’t get the rock to stay at the top of the hill. Our interpretation, then, is to judge that his task is extremely unpleasant and hard. And so Hades is not found in pushing the rock, but in how we think about it, and how we create ideas of good and bad, and of hope and disappointment in response to everything we experience.
We don’t know if the boulder will stay atop the hill each time. Perhaps it will; perhaps it won’t. Neither action is good or bad in and of itself. So the heaviness and the burden, then, come not from the boulder itself but from our thinking that life is a struggle, that the circumstances of our life are wrong, that what is happening shouldn’t be happening and that life should be other than it is. This isn’t a new revelation– in fact, the sentiment that our struggle is the product of unpleasant circumstances multiplied by how much we resist them (Struggle = Circumstance * Resistance) has been professed for many decades, including by Carl Jung who alluded to it when he said, “You will always become the thing you fight the most” and by Eckhart Tolle, when he very poignantly expressed that “Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists”.
THE MANY FORMS OF RESISTANCE
We are all– in some way, shape, or form throughout our daily lives– trying to escape a reality that we don’t prefer.
Two predominant ways in which we do so, as you saw above, are by 1) judging our reality, and 2) arguing with our reality. We may notice the sun setting and then think to ourselves, “I don’t like sunsets”, judging our experience as bad or unpleasant as an attempt to escape it and be somewhere else. Or we may attempt to argue with our reality by thinking “I wish the sun wasn’t setting. My day would be better if the sun didn’t set. My day is done. It’s no longer any good. Every day is like this. Every day this sun-setting thing happens. Why does the sun always set when all I want is for there to be sunshine all of the time?”
The sun is setting… it’s happening… And you are arguing with the fact that it’s happening.
The same goes for anything in life… When you are arguing with reality– whether that reality is conflict in your relationship, a ticket on your car’s windshield, feelings for someone you “shouldn’t” have feelings for– it is like repeatedly throwing a tennis ball at a cement wall, expecting it to cause some sort of indentation, but that’s just not what happens when a ball hits cement. Nothing happens except that maybe your wrist starts hurting and you grow increasingly frustrated. Reality changing just isn’t what happens when you yell about it or wish it wasn’t so. Nothing happens except that maybe your head and heart start hurting and you grow increasingly exhausted.
Resisting reality comes in the form of judging it and arguing with it, and also very matter of factly in the form of avoiding it. How do we attempt to avoid reality? Well, some of us drink or smoke in order to escape the present-day reality that is our life. Others of us shop. Many of us eat.
It doesn’t end there. In trying to resist it, we also often spread the woes of our reality, asking or even coercing other people into helping us carry our heavy boulders through the personal and professional relationships we maintain throughout our life.
It’s clear that as a species, we’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding reality. If we want to get better at authentic living, truthful connection, and genuine happiness, then it would behoove us to begin to open up to another way of meeting this thing called reality.
ACCEPT AND BE WITH WHAT’S REAL
Fast forward King Sisyphus’ experience to decades, centuries, perhaps thousands of years later… If he is still unhappily pushing the boulder up the hill, what would it help him to do?
Wouldn’t you agree that it might very well help him to accept that pushing the rock is his current reality and to give up hope that this moment of his life will be different than what it is?
Panache Desai, for one, says, “Accept what life has served to you and you will naturally move into more.” I’d agree. To be okay with life as it is– that is the only solution to the “pushing the rock up the hill” phenomenon of resistance that we steadily find ourselves in. That is the real practice of happiness. It’s not so much about getting life to feel good all of the time (which is a very valid goal for life that many humans share) but to be present with whatever rocks and boulders happen to be there, and to be consciously aware of how we are responding to that present life experience that we’ve been given. Because that’s where our choice lies– in how we respond to each and every moment and circumstance of our lives. While acceptance may sound like “giving in” and looks like complacency, it’s far from it. Rather, it’s a willingness to be with life as it is in this moment, knowing that anything but that leads to unnecessary suffering (like that of our human condition).
What’s your current boulder? Is it your partner? Does something they’re doing not make you feel good? Do you find yourself thinking that they need to change? “If only s/he’d change”, you might find yourself saying, “I would feel so much better”.
When we notice that the sun is setting, when we notice our partner doing something we don’t prefer, when we notice a ticket on our car’s windshield, when we notice we have feelings for someone that we wish weren’t there– acceptance is saying “Yep, the sun is setting right now. That’s what’s happening” or “It’s true, my partner is doing that annoying thing again” or “There is a parking ticket on my windshield. That’s what’s happening” or “I have feelings for this person. Yep, those feelings are definitely happening…”
In improv, a skit progresses with a “Yes, and” where one person aligns with and redirects their partner’s energy and words instead of blocking them. It is the same in life. It’s when we notice our experience, and practice awareness of our response to that very experience that we transform. Accepting our present reality (including, oftentimes, our resistance to acceptance) frees us up to be more of our real, authentic self, and to respond– in the moment– to what our current life circumstances need. As Pema Chodron so beautifully says, “Let difficulty transform you and it will. In my experience, we just need help in learning how not to run away.”
WHEN YOU ARE WILLING TO DO OR HAVE WHAT YOU ARE RESISTING, THEN YOU WILL HAVE THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE NOT TO.
The more life we live, the more we see that life isn’t all peaches and sunshine, and it isn’t meant to be. If you practice yoga or dance, it’s likely you will have heard the phrase “come down to come up” referring to arm or other bodily movements. The same is also true of life. Oftentimes, we must come down before we come up. Yet we’ve been socialized to believe that all of that is bad– that anything but good is bad, that anything but happy is sad. But anything but happy doesn’t need to be sadness. It needn’t be frustration and it needn’t be struggle. It can, with practice, be acceptance, willingness, contentment, and joy.