Use resistance as a compass


We often say, “I don’t know what to do, can you help me?”.

Sometimes of course, we genuinely don’t know, we’re stumbling for the next step.

But more often than we like to admit, the question is more honestly “I don’t like what I’m meant to do. Can you help me come up with an excuse?”

We shouldn’t feel bad about feeling this way – it’s a fact of life.

When we pursue something worthwhile, we experience resistance.

The resistance we feel toward a course of action is often as good indicator of its value. It’s a compass that points us to what we should be doing.

As Stephen Pressfield notes in The War of Art.

“Resistance only only opposes in one direction.

Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher… So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing… relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.”

Resistance will grease the easy path, but obstruct the valuable one.

If we listen honestly, our resistance will tell us what to do next. It will make the best option look the most terrifying and that’s how we know it’s the right one.

Defined by its shadow

Sometimes it’s easier to definition an object or concept by its shadow because, the shadow is more familiar, it’s easier for us to identify and work with.

In the case of Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art (about creativity), the shadow was “the resistance” – the force which conspires to stop us doing our most meaningful work.

Pressfield pitches us at war with the resistance, at war for the meaning and fulfilment in our life. And it works, because it’s easier for us to feel the resistance than it is to feel the burning drive of our own creativity. The resistance is familiar and by identifying it, naming it and calling it out, he creates the moment required to take it down.

It’s compelling stuff and is definitely worth the hour or two it will take you to devour it.

But right now, I’m reading a book about vulnerability by Brene Brown which does the same thing. It defines a lot of vulnerability and its importance by what it’s opposed to, by what it neutralises, by what it fights. But in Brown’s book the shadow is not easy to name, to identify or call out.

The shadow side of vulnerability is shame – and I’ve never found anything else which is so difficult to read about, but so important to understand.

I can’t really stress how weird it feels to be read a book which is urging you to open the Pandora’s box of your own personal shame and then take a look inside. And then go to work.

Shame is horrible. It’s insidious and malevolent and just plain fucking awful. And it’s also a key driver of our action and behaviour, so you better believe it’s worth understanding.

A big reason why it’s so important, is that we never talk about it. It’s not part of any broad conversation, except as an instrument, a weapon which is often publicly wielded at those who are caught doing in public, things which we might all do in private.

And it’s hard to talk about shame. I certainly don’t want to write about it here. But I feel like I have to. I feel like we’ll all have to at some point. Because shame is a viscous catalyst of isolation. It’s horribly contagious and it thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement.

It might not be the kind of topic that you strike up at the bus stop, but it’s going to have to come out somewhere.

You might not get on board with the value in supercharging vulnerability, but it doesn’t take much of a look inside, at its shadow before you realise that it’s worth doing something about shame.

The difference between acceptance and being a doormat

Much of our anxiety and suffering comes from the fact that the world isn’t what we want it to be.

We see situations and people which could be so much better and think, “if only they were different”.

When the reality of the world, collides and conflicts with our models and expectations, we experience cognitive dissonance. We realise that something is out of joint and either we, or the world (or both) will need to change if we’re to feel better.

Typically the world – and the billions of people in it – is so big and indifferent and external and out of our control, it doesn’t change (at least without a good deal of effort). So the burden of change naturally falls to us.

But surprisingly, changing our personal attitudes and beliefs is difficult as well. Often this is because we’ve emotionally invested so much into them that we feel like we’re losing when we let them go. We also often feel that by recognising the status quo for what it is and accepting it, that we’re in some way condoning it in a way which compromises our beliefs. That by accepting what we think is wrong, we’re being a doormat and letting our situation or peers walk right over us.

Neither of these are actually true, but treating them as if they are is our biggest barrier to moving forward.

When we experience conflict between what should be, and what is, we resist it. This resistance (as opposed to the other Resistance I like to write about), arises from our acknowledgement that something needs to change, and our fear that the burden of change might fall to us.

This is the behaviour which causes us to cling to old beliefs when we see compelling evidence to the contrary. This is the behaviour which causes us to avoid conflict with those who challenge our ideas. This is the behaviour which turns away from the waves instead of facing directly into them.

This resistance has a formidable stranglehold on our behaviour and can… well… make us act like a bit of a dick. But what we don’t often realise, is that it’s power is entirely illusory and self generated. It’s not an external force, it’s one that we ignite, fuel and perpetuate ourselves. And just as naturally as we can kindle this resistance, we can snuff it out.

Thankfully, the process for unplugging this resistance from its main power source is surprisingly simple – all you have to do is to recognise that it exists, look at it directly, and let it go.

Unfortunately, not everything which is simple, is easy. Skydiving is simple: fall out of a plane. Stand-up is simple: be funny on stage. Juggling is simple: don’t drop the balls. But that doesn’t mean that they’re easy.

Like these examples, letting go of resistance is simple, but not that easy. But also like these examples, it’s just a skill – and any skill can be mastered with practice.

It takes practice to identify resistance. It takes practice turning to face it. It takes practice to let it go. It’s not arduous practice, and it pays dividends – but the only way to get better at it, is to do it and do it and do it again.

The reason this practice is worthwhile, is that as soon as the resistance drops away, you can better see the situation for what it is. You’re not viewing it through the lens of your personal attachment, or existing beliefs, you’re seeing what the reality of what it is, in the here and now. And while you might not condone it, you might not like it, you can at least accept that this is the currently reality.

And as soon as you accept this, you’re in a much better place to respond to it skilfully. Now that you’ve looked at it dispassionately, you can decide if it’s even worthy of your future attention and effort – most of the time it’s not.

If you have any kind of meditation practice, then you’ve probably got some experience in letting this resistance go. If you don’t, then a good place to start is with headspace or Tara Brach – both of which are effective, accessible and free. Tara has also written an entire book on the subject.

Being a doormat is the result of emotional attachment limiting your options in a situation which isn’t going your way.

Acceptance is about stripping away your attachment to a situation and creating a better set of options for spending your precious time and attention in the future.

Shipping, fear & the resistance

I gorged on some Seth Godin videos over the weekend. Hey, you can judge me, but you gotta do something while you fold the washing for a family of five.

I was aware of Seth, but not particularly familiar with his work. His name would pop up, associated with an idea which sounded challenging, but intriguing, and I would dutifully note it down in under a category of things best described as “I probably should, but never will, look into this further.” It’s a big category full of vague, knotty items like “learn more about affiliate marketing, explore Dostoyevsky & find out why men your age like Taylor Swift”.

Anyhow, he has lots of interesting ideas which do sound worth exploring, one of which is this notion of “shipping”.

It’s a product term relating to the act of actually getting your product to customers, but in a broader context could be analogous to “completing”. When you ship something, you’re putting a version of it out into the world with your name on it. People will (may) see it, and when they do, they’ll know that you’re responsible for it.

OK, so while this is Mickey Mouse stuff (do stuff, then put it out there), the interesting thing is this gulf between having an idea, and shipping it. Lots of people have ideas, but very few people ship. Everyone has a great idea for a product, a movie, a book – but very few people become product designers, directors or authors.

Why is it that we all have these ideas, but that most of them die as scribbles in Moleskin notebooks and not out in the real world?

Godin contends that it’s because people assume that coming up with ideas is the work, but that the actual work is shipping. Ideas are a penny a pound, but commitment to ship is rare.

He suggests that partly what makes shipping so difficult is the social fear of failure generated by our brains in our Amygdala (or Lizard Brain).

Our Amygdala is one of the most primitive blocks of our brain and is hardwired to respond to some of our most primary needs and mechanisms. Memory modulation, aggression and the utility of fear as a motivator, all fall under it’s purview. While the Amygdala’s response to fear was originally primarily to physical threats which tended to be short-lived (either the leopard ate you or you got away), it is now capable of triggering the same response in the presence of more chronic, social pressures such as email, public speaking and anything else which can make you look stupid in front of other people.

Since “shipping” a product or idea into a public space has the capacity to make you look publicly silly, the Amygdala will create a fear response to the notion of shipping. This fear can become one of the primary barriers to bridging the gulf between having an idea and shipping it. Godin calls these barriers, The Resistance, a term which was coined by Stephen Pressfield.

The real challenge, according to Godin, is how to manage this fear so that you can move beyond it to just ship.

Shipping is where the exposure to criticism will come, but it’s also where all the value is found.

There’s a lot more in this, and I haven’t done enough work to have an opinion on most of it – but I thought it was worth capturing for a start.

Here are links to:
Seth Godin’s site
Seth’s talk on shipping and fear
Stephen Pressfield’s site