This is an article about psychological resistance to change.
Here are some lovely synonyms for the word at hand; opposition, defiance, struggle, protection, refusal, blocking, combat, contention, friction, holding, impedance, obstruction, rebuff, shield, protecting.
There are of course many more. Which one grabs you?
There is positive and negative resistance, and plenty of somethings in between. But who determines the terms upon which such a psychological force is cast? If it’s you, then you may have a small problem on your hands. That is if you are interested in transformation and change.
I returned to England in July and spent a quality afternoon speaking to the co-host of the imperfect Buddha podcast: my buddy Mr Stuart Baldwin. We had one of our usual conversations, the sort I only really have with him, which are generally humorous, profound, silly, utopian, pragmatic, layered with nonsense and creative wonder, full of disregard for the status quo, curious about prevalent currents, and accompanied by few bad words for Shambhala and complaints about the neo-liberal state of the world. I mentioned that I was thinking about writing a few pieces here at the post-traditional Buddhism blog related to the coaching work I do. Stuart thought this was a good idea so here it is. It’s actually something that I have wanted to do for a while but have always found something far more interesting to do, which is to say, I have resisted it. The time has changed, however, and although I may not produce a whole series of these, I do think this one is important and it can be understood in part as a message to myself and to past and present clients, for resistance is one of the greatest enemies I know of to bringing about meaningful change to one’s life. As coaching is primarily about making change happen, I think you might agree that this topic is rather significant.
To start off, I want to share an anecdote or two. The first one concerns my personal experience of having been involved in a great variety of spiritual activities and practices since I was very young. One thing I came to notice over the years was that people, no matter the tradition or practice, would reach a certain point in which pleasure and comfort would switch over to perceived pain and discomfort. The pain or discomfort may not have actually been that real in terms of an objective characteristic of the practice at hand, but was rather a psychological handbrake that was being pulled on, and more often than not, it happened all of a sudden and seemingly out of the blue. Interesting discourse would usually ensue: Justification, reinterpretation, denial and so on. A yarn would be spun excusing the behaviour or ushering away what might have been a critical moment. With time, I came to understand that these were various manifestations of psychological resistance to change and unwanted experience. Over the years I came to suspect that resistance was perhaps the most successful psychological trap in stopping people from carrying out change or seeing into the nature of their own patterns of deception and delusion.
The second observation I’ve made over the years relates to the first and it concerns teachability. Within many of the Buddhist traditions, there are rich stories of teachers and disciples struggling to find each other. The emphasis is generally placed on the difficulty of finding a good teacher, a realised teacher, a truly enlightened-authentic-lineage-wow teacher: The story of Naropa being a rather excellent example, and rather hyperbolic, to say the least. But, every so often, one comes across a story that illustrates the opposite, of how difficult it can be for a teacher to find a decent student, someone teachable. The fact is that teachers and students need each other and this applies as much to the world of meditation and Buddhism as it does to standard pedagogical environments such as schools and universities. Any teachers reading this will no doubt concur.
Two fundamentally useful questions for folks approaching any kind of change work, whether short-term, or a lifetime’s dedication to a path, concern these two facets: patterns of resistance and teachability. The ability to navigate resistance is key to one’s ability to move beyond habitual patterns and for this to be possible; one must be teachable or capable of becoming so. Much of the accommodation side of contemporary Buddhism can be understood as a shared resistance to following the trail of resistance to deeper planes of change, challenge and insight.
Because I teach language full-time, as well as coach individuals and groups, I have a nose for resistance as I see it in myself firstly, secondly I see in the teens and young adults that refuse to take on the appropriate degree of responsibility for the phase of their life and the decisions they need to make, and in the clients that can and don’t stay and disappear because it’s easier to do so than be honest with themselves and with me. I see it in those who remain in dysfunctional dynamics, because it’s what they know, and because it’s better to be comfortable with the devil you know than take a risk. I see it in Buddhist circles, whether in person, or online, when folks grasp at the certainties of their beliefs, or the familiarity of their practice, or refuse an opportunity for insight that may destabilise the comfort or role they’ve grown to like just a little too much. As humans we have this choice. We can say no. For many years I thought this was not possible. All you needed was to present the challenge differently, find the right resources, get the right support, but no, this is wrong. I was wrong and at the time holding onto to a utopian ideal that was incompatible with my flawed, imperfect fellow humans.
Resistance is human. Our species resists as a natural function of its own survival. The physical organism resists and our psychology does so as a consequence. We resist as collectives too of course. We share in collective patterns of resistance to change and hold onto shared ideas and identities. Xenophobia is perhaps one of the more interesting collective forms of resistance that we experience for it reminds us of how much we hate uncertainty and ambiguity. The great other haunts us. Our relationship with the other in whatever form it takes, and the unknown as the greatest mythological manifestation of the unknown other, plays constant companion to our journey through all areas of our lives. It’s a real mess folks and Buddhists are in there too.
But what about this teachability business? I’m beginning to suspect that it’s very easy to take learning for granted. With the Internet we have such easy access to such a wide range of knowledge with the click of a button. We can find the perfect justification for whatever we wish to believe or think about ourselves and of the world too. Just think about the flat earth loons! What’s more, with such an ease of access to infinite data, the role of mystery and expertise has been destabilised. We can all be experts on anything by spending a few moments on Wikipedia, and we can all kid ourselves into thinking that we don’t need an expert (or anyone if we’re really intelligently dumb) from outside to tell us what to think or do. With such easy access to information, it may be a doddle to become complacent with regards to meaningful learning and what in Buddhism is typically defined as insight.
Typically we use the idiom of depth to convey the difference between meaningful experience and learning from that which is superficial; it’s opposite. I’ve been reluctant of late to reuse trite terminology that is so often part of the unreflective idiom of ideologically functioning social spaces, but the depth/shallowness split will have to do here. There is a great difference between valuable learning, and the accumulation of information. Insight is transformational, data collection merely bolsters or shields us from what matters. The depth of insight is directly related to the destabilisation of our internal or collective status quo. It does not need to be traumatic, but for powerful change to take place, for deep change to take place, disruption must occur and it does tend to end up being accompanied by some degree of trauma. We all understandably resist this and there’s no way of avoiding the fact that the resistance is primarily in service to self preservation.
In defining resistance, I am primarily concerned with its psychological form towards learning and change. I am not talking about taking up arms against an enemy or protesting Trump; both appropriate actions in the right context!
A good place to start the grapple with resistance is Freud.
“We have long observed that every neurosis has the result, and therefore probably the purpose, of forcing the patient out of real life, of alienating him from actuality”
Isn’t that interesting? Do any of you, dear readers, believe that you are devoid of all neuroses? Are you even familiar with your own neurotic tendencies? Does your relationship with Buddhism or meditation have a neurotic edge? Well, if it acts to reify certain states of being, or if it functions as a means to stabilise a certain sense or experience of self, which can be done through feeling and emotion, and the quality of perception, as much as any more obvious form of asserting or solidifying a sense of self, then it serves, at least in part, the function of managing neurosis. I’m going to suggest that everyone experiences neurotic behaviour, awakened or not, and that if Freud’s right, then that neurotic behaviour actually alienates you from the immediacy and the reality of the conditions of your existence, or to sound a little bit less dramatic, the characteristics and qualities of the immediacy of the everyday world you inhabit.
I would even suggest that just like everybody else, you have likely and unwittingly repressed the critical capacity to perceive and analyse your own neuroses. In fact, there is no one that has ever been capable of spotting all of them. And yes, I’m going to include Gautama, Jesus, Padmasambhava, and any other holy, mythological figure you can think up or worship.
So what do I see when I coach or teach people, whether individuals or groups, or in myself for that matter? Here is an incomplete list of some of the most common forms of resistance I have seen over the last decade, with some common phrases that may betray their presence.
- Resistance as capture within the known: I’ve always done it this way. This is how it is. It’s always…It’s never…
- Resistance as capture within what is comfortable: I’m fine as I am. I like being this way. It feels good just to…
- Resistance as an assertion of selfhood: this is who I am. I know myself. Screw you.
- Resistance as rebellion against external authority: I’m going to do what I want to do. Fuck him. Fuck her. Fuck it.
- Resistance as intellectual cynicism: I don’t believe that’s possible, or that you know better than I do. I know for a fact that x-philosopher said… I have a PHD, don’t you know?? The truth is…
- Resistance as assertion of self-authority: I know what I need to do. I don’t need advice.
- Resistance to uncomfortable feelings, states, thoughts – identity: That’s too much. No thank you. Fuck this. Fuck you.
- Resistance to change and the unknown: usually seen in giving up too easily. I could never… I will never… Absolutely not! No!!
All of these forms of resistance are as shitty as they are potentially entertaining but the last one is perhaps the most disappointing. There seems to be little upside to such psychological stiffness and it goes counter to the constant in survival: flexibility. Change isn’t always positive, or necessarily explicitly goal orientated. Much change is simply demanded of us by the circumstances of our existence and our capacity to move with change is directly related to the degree of psychological suffering we can potentially tolerate.
I’m too smart for all this
The more intelligent the individual, the more sophisticated the resistance in play, and the better the excuses, which brings us back to the issue of teachability.
Imagine that we can be taught by anything if we are capable of a certain flavour of humility: Not just other humans! One shamanic ideal is found in this premise. The world is constantly teaching us; are we capable of learning from it? This doesn’t need to be translated into some mystical, pan-psychic, or neo-Gaian theory; rather it could be simply appreciated as an optimal mode for relating to the world on a good day. I am in relationship to the phenomenal world constantly. It’s where the action is at. My capacity to relate to the circumstances and forms of this world that I move within are related to my ability to embrace the unknown and be in open, engaged relationship with whatever emerges. What potential lies in the world today for learning and for seeing more clearly the truths of my (and our) existence? Seems a rather fine question to me.
So where does Resistance come from? Well, Freud would probably say that it emerges in part from the desire to achieve maximum satisfaction with minimum pain, and the ongoing conflict between the different parts of our psychological make-up. To understand the former characteristic to any significant degree, you would need to apply it as broadly as possible to the rich tapestry of you, and then, hopefully, us. We are also talking about psychological pain here, which isn’t just the really painful stuff like the loss of a loved one, but includes simple nagging discomfort, mild anxiety, recurrent irritation, habitual impatience, dependency on positive or familiar states such as lightness, intensity, stress, pain, low-grade pleasure, and so on, basically the comfort of the familiar.
You can go back to the list above of different forms of resistance and apply each to yourself if you fancy finding our more about your own dysfunctional habits. Here’s another fine Q: Where do I personally find comfort within each of those forms of resistance? How do they play out in my relationship to folks in my life? Hint: we usually need others to get really, rightly neurotic.
The opposite of the resistant subject is not a wholly non-resistant subject for such a being has likely never existed, or survived for long. Rather, resistance is a form of powerful communication that governs our ability to change or not, and to be teachable or not. Resistance is par for the course in a lived life and needs to be navigated, rather than wished away, or hidden behind an ideological story. It is rare, if not impossible that anyone has successfully navigated resistance consistently throughout their life without input from fellow humans. We are too limited to do it on our own, which I find quite beautiful. It is also a fine middle finger to neoliberalism. We do actually need each other and if we’re lucky enough, we may meet enough people capable of pointing to our resistance and recognising it for what it actually is. If we’re even luckier, we may actually hear what they are saying, experience the new, unexpected flavour of disruption as this happens, take stock and open to the possibility of change. This is a rare treasure of the sort that Tibetan Buddhism speaks of.
One useful form of practice is to seek out what it is that is resisted. This is an approach that has been experimented with by different spiritual paths and psychological trends. You can view some of the practices within Tantric Buddhism as an example: Tonglen being an exceptional one when done skilfully, meditating in graveyards another rather unconventional one. And meditation on death is a fantastic example of engaging with one of the most fundamental forms of psychological resistance that our species contends with: our inevitable absolute and complete ending.
To bring this back to coaching, I have had clients over the years that have surprised me. I’m very pleased about this because otherwise I would feel like a know-it-all, which is a burden I once held and a rather boring one. If you suffer from this affliction, I recommend getting rid of it ASAP.
I have had people that have come to me for help, who seemed utterly unprepared to undertake the sort of work that would be necessary to deal with the issues they brought to the relationship, and yet, they surprised me. Unexpected strengths were discovered. Unexpected resources were found. And the desire to know themselves and the world beyond what was familiar persisted enough for them to make real and lasting change. Others instead have seemed all too ready to go forwards and yet have fallen at the first hurdle, or found the most wonderful of excuses to stop once the going got tough. The truth is that these folks are the majority. Most people give up. It’s too difficult, no really; it is too difficult for most people to engage in long term, sustained change, especially the sort that disrupts the continuity of self. This is one reason why so few Buddhists live up to the challenges of what Buddhism presents. It’s obvious if you think about it.
We are such complex beings and the fallacy of instant gratification promised by the culture of immediacy that we are all immersed in has made it even more difficult for people to maintain the sort of psychological stamina and bravery that leads to worthwhile breakthrough. Being difficult is okay. It is not actually a sign that one shouldn’t move forward. It is not a sign that it cannot be done. It is just the case that it is difficult to make meaningful change to your psychological, emotional selves. It is difficult to establish new patterns of behaviour that significantly disrupt your sense of who you are and maintain them long enough to break from that strand of our past.
It’s perfectly possible to change and it can be done. In a Buddhist context, this can be coupled with some of the core insights of Buddhism that highlight possible forms of resistance; death (i.e. I may start and never finish), interdependence (i.e. others, or the world, or my job, or the environment may not allow me to change to the degree or in the manner that I wish to change), emptiness (i.e. I may discover that what I’m looking for doesn’t actually exist or is meaningless once I put in all the effort, or, the outcomes may be very different from what I expected to find). Al these are great reasons for not bothering, right?
Excuses come in all shapes and sizes…I should probably start a collection, for I find them rather fascinating.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not judging my fellow humans that stumble and fall. I have great sympathy for what it is that stops a person from pursuing the change they have been looking for. I get it. It can be really tough to face, not the easy problems and challenges, which are usually the most visible, but the ones that are hiding in the nooks and crannies of our inner psychological landscape. That pop up and say “Boo!” when we least expect it.
The first step I like to take when people get close to turning back from the edge is to invite them to come to know their own mechanisms of resistance. Some people are teachable enough to get this, others are not. Maybe it’s a matter of time, sometimes, however, that time appears to be a whole lifetime, and they’re dead before it’s possible.
Welcome to the human condition.
I’ll leave you with a final insight from Freud and a few more forms of resistance and the link to my coaching site: https://oconnellcoaching.com/
“It is hard for the ego to direct its attention to perceptions and ideas which it has up till now made a rule of avoiding, or to acknowledge as belonging to itself impulses that are the complete opposite of those which it knows as its own.”
P.S. Some more forms of psychological resistance to change in case you didn’t find yourself of the list above;
- staying with what is familiar and known
- unspoken mistrust towards those initiating or supporting the change
- reduced tolerance for ambiguity
- explicit or coded denial
- prioritization of what may be lost over the benefits that they change may bring
- poor morale
- attachment to the familiar