To resist and cling
“The Buddha taught that we suffer when we cling to or resist experience, when we want life different than it is.” — Tara Brach
What causes your stress?
Think about that for a moment. Why, exactly, do you or I feel tension, frustration or anger?
A few weeks ago, I had a particularly rough day. My kids were especially disagreeable, I spent a long time fighting with an SSIS integration and our project manager called me out for a mistake I’d made (admittedly, I did screw up).
Let’s pause to reflect on exactly why these events registered as stressful.
I don’t feel tense because my kids aren’t listening; I feel tense because they should listen.
I don’t feel frustrated because I spent four hours troubleshooting an app; I feel frustrated because it should work.
I don’t feel angry because my project manager was irate with me; I feel angry because she should see things from my perspective.
The common thread in all of these internal conflicts is obvious: something happened, but it should have happened differently.
Many of us are always reacting to the should’ve in our lives. For the most part, we think this way because it’s all we’ve ever known. It’s what our parents did when we were children and it’s what our friends and co-workers do now as adults. We react repeatedly, lashing out at people and things because they contradict our view of how things should be. (Often, neglecting to realize that this “should be” is merely a personal preference or habit, and not some sort of universal truth.)
The consequences of this way of living, however, are enormous. Michael Singer expressed this perfectly in the The Untethered Soul:
“It is not life’s events that are causing problems or stress. It is your resistance to life’s events that is causing this experience. Since the problem is caused by using your will to resist the reality of life passing through you, the solution is quite obvious — stop resisting.
Be willing to examine the process of resistance. In order to resist you first must decide that something is not the way you like it. Plenty of events make it right through you. Why did you decide to resist this one? Something inside of you must have a basis for deciding when to simply let things pass through and when to assert willpower to either push them away or cling to them.
There are a billion things that don’t bother you at all. You drive to work every day and you hardly notice the buildings and trees. The white lines on the road don’t stress you out at all. You see them, but they pass right through you. Don’t assume, however, it’s that way for everyone. Someone who paints street lines for a living could get very stressed-out if those white lines were not even. In fact, they could get so stressed-out that they refuse to drive down that road anymore.
It’s clear that not all of us resist the same things or have the same issues. This is because we don’t all have the same preconceived notions of how things should be or how much they should matter to us.
[The] personal events that take place in our lives leave impressions on our minds and hearts. Those impressions become the basis for asserting our will to either resist or cling. It’s no deeper than that. The events may have happened in your childhood or at various points throughout your life. Regardless of when they happened, they left impressions inside of you. Now, based on these past impressions, you are resisting the current events that are taking place. This creates inner tension, turmoil, struggle, and suffering.
Instead of seeing this and refusing to allow these past events to run your life, you buy into them. Believing they have real meaning, you put all your heart and soul into either resisting or clinging. But in truth, this entire process has no real meaning. It just destroys your life.
The alternative is to use life to let go of these impressions and the stress they create. In order to do this you have to become very conscious. You have to carefully watch the mental voice that tells you to resist something. It literally commands you: ‘I don’t like what he said. Fix it.’
It is actually possible to never have another problem for the rest of your life. This is because events are not problems; they’re just events. Your resistance to them is what causes the problem. But, again, don’t think that because you accept reality it means you don’t deal with things. You do deal with them. You just deal with them as events that are taking place on the planet Earth, and not as personal problems. You will be surprised to find that in most situations there’s nothing to deal with except for your own fears and desires. Fear and desire make everything seem so complicated.” — Michael Singer*
Word for word, I have been surprised to see how often this rings true in my own life. Of course, as a parent, I’m responsible for teaching my children to make wise choices; they “should” respond to these efforts. Software should work and supervisors should be kind to their employees. While it’s true that some problems are solved simply in our choosing to see them differently, other circumstances do call for a response.
The point is that we respond to these events as mere events, instead of personalizing the conflict and ensuring needless suffering for ourselves and others.
This sentiment is also expressed in the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
(This is a post about line 1; of course, it only helps if you’ve got line 3 down too.)
Resistance and clinging are two sides of the same coin. We can cling to the past (for example, when we refuse to accept aging as a natural part of life or to let go of an old relationship), to the future or even to the present. It is most often expressed as desire or rather, excessive desire. Tara Brach said this about clinging in Radical Acceptance:
“While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad — it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive. Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness. The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening. Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.
In teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha guided us to relate to desire without getting possessed by it and without resisting it. He was talking about every level of desire — for food and sex, for love and freedom. He was talking about all degrees of wanting, from small preferences to the most compelling cravings. [In] being aware of desire, we free ourselves from identifying with it.” — Tara Brach
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reflecting upon happy moments in our past or anticipating future good times. At some point, however, we cross a line where we cease to merely appreciate an experience and we begin to dwell in it.
I’ve begun to notice that I often talk about what we’re going to do later that day, particularly with my kids. I might say something like “Sienna, I can’t wait to get together with Uncle Joe later!” or “Ethan, are you looking forward to pizza night?” I might remark to my wife that I’m looking forward to our date night or to a friend that I can’t wait for the week to be over. Once again; there’s nothing wrong with anticipating future fun. But at what point do I cease to live in the present and enjoy the moment — the only moment each of us ever really possess?
One of my favorite quotes is worth repeating here:
“Most people treat the present moment as if it were an obstacle that they need to overcome. Since the present moment is Life itself, it is an insane way to live.” — Eckhart Tolle
Many of our conflicts can be expressed both in terms of resisting and clinging. For example, my wife and I love to travel together. For several years after we met, we’d fly somewhere fun at least a couple of times a year. When our kids entered the picture, I struggled with resenting (resisting) that we could no longer freely travel to Napa Valley or Europe or really just about anywhere with our other family and friends. In many ways, I clung to the memories of this “happier” time in our lives and so found it especially difficult to remain fully, joyfully engaged in the experience of parenting our babies together.
Resisting and clinging to ourselves
We resist the experience of some external events and we cling to others, but this concept of nonresistance or “nonreactive awareness” is also relevant to our experience of internal emotions like fear.
For reasons I still don’t fully understand, I’ve struggled off and on with anxiety — often in the form of excessive fear — for the past ten years. I have good months and bad months, but I tend to experience fear about some things which is well out of proportion to any real risk or danger. Taking reasonable precautions is one thing, but it’s impossible to fully control my external circumstances (particularly as they relate to my children) and it’s exhausting to try. And yet for years, that is exactly what I’d tried to do.
I’ve been working to recognize fearful thoughts for what they are and to avoid identifying with them. (Often, they’re simply thoughts which do not actually reflect reality.) I’ve also been learning to sit with them and allow them to be, as opposed to either pushing them away or reacting. This is difficult and it will continue to be a process, but when I’m able to do it, it’s also been very liberating.
“In the face of fear, letting go of what seems to be our lifeline is the last thing we want to do. We try to avoid the tiger’s mouth by accumulating possessions, by getting lost in our mental stories, by drinking three glasses of wine each evening. But to free ourselves from the trance of fear we must let go of the tree limb and fall into the fear, opening to the sensations and the wild play of feelings in our body. We must agree to feel what our mind tells us is ‘too much.’ We must agree to the pain of dying, to the inevitable loss of all that we hold dear.
Letting go into fear, accepting it, may seem counterintuitive. Yet because fear is an intrinsic part of being alive, resisting it means resisting life. The habit of avoidance seeps into every aspect of our life: It prevents us from loving well, from cherishing beauty within and around us, from being present to the moment. This is why Radical Acceptance of fear is right at the center of our spiritual awakening.” — Tara Brach
Learning to not resist and cling is difficult and a lifelong process. Most of us have been doing these things regularly for as long as we can remember. As a way of life and thinking about the world around us, it’s all we really know.
But like any journey of a thousand miles, you can begin yours now with a single step.
I encourage you to reflect on your experiences. What do you resist and cling to in your own life? What steps could you take to begin to let go of this needless suffering?
* As an aside, this is a remarkable approach to conflict, but I found it even more impressive that Michael wrote this while on trial accused of fraud, facing the possibility of years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The charges against him were eventually dropped.