I’ve decided to give up resistance for Lent this year. Lent, the period of forty days leading up to Easter, is one of my favorite seasons of the liturgical year. I love the additional focus that comes during Lent, as we practice the discipline of giving something up – or in more traditional language, taking on additional “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.” Ascetisim – the practice of intentionally foregoing a lesser good in order to focus energies on pursuit of a higher good, such as loving God – always lends a bit of extra focus to my daily contemplative practice.
As Lent rolled around the calendar this year I struggled to decide what to give up. I felt a little weary of the usual things, like giving up chocolate or beer or ice cream. My three kids voted to give up desserts after dinner, although they still ask for dessert almost every day! (No one said anything about dessert after lunch – so I bring chocolate to work with me.:)
But then a few days into Lent it occurred to me to give up resistance. OK, but what exactly does that means? Most simply, it means not resisting reality. In just a couple of weeks it has become extremely clear to me just how much I resist… well, just about everything. The other interesting part of this little Lenten experiment is that I’ve come to see that there are a lot of layers to resistance. I’d like to unpack those layers in this blog post.
Peeling the Layers of the Onion
First, there’s just the regular old resistance that I feel in my body – when my daughter yells downstairs to me for the third time, after I’ve already read to her, sang her a song, snuggled with her, tucked her in, kissed her stuffed dog… or when my co-worker comes into my office to interrupt me (when I’m clearly writing the most important email in the world). That immediate resistance is tension – in my muscles, in my mind, in my will. The world is not going according to my (brilliant, damn-near perfect) plan, and now I’m resisting. At just this level alone, it’s exhausting to resist reality. So I’m noticing these moments, and trying to offer up my non-resistance as my oblation and Lenten sacrifice.
With all of this non-resisting I can’t help but think about the sanskrit word, ahimsa (from the yoga sutras, 2.30) which is a term with multiple layers of meaning not easily captured in English – most often it is translated as non-violence, non-injury, or non-harming. At the most external level, this is an entirely correct way of capturing the notion of ahimsa. This was the ethical principle of non-resistance to evil that motivated and inspired Gandhi and Dr. King and others to overcome injustice without violence or force (which is also reflected in Jesus’ teaching of non-resistance to evil in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Ch. 5). So, at an external level, my giving up of resistance means that I am not actively forcing my will on others through violence. Of course, most of us aren’t using physical violence to impose our will on others on a daily level. But consider how frequently you aggressively argue with others, trying to get your point across. Most of what passes for political discourse in our country today takes place at this level – trying to “win” by forcing my/our agenda onto others.
The tricky part about this kind of external resistance is that it always creates an equal and opposite reaction; the harder and farther I push that ball up the hill the more gravity is pulling it back down, threatening to flatten me. I really believe this is an emotional law of the universe. So, giving up resistance at this level means I’m not waking up every day ready for a Sisyphus-level effort. Just bringing some gentle awareness to this kind of resistance already begins to free up a tremendous amount of energy – energy that I can be putting into other creative and life-giving pursuits. I find myself asking people a lot more questions in order to understand, rather than arguing in order to win.
But we can keep peeling the layers of the onion. Giving up that external desire to impose my will on everything and everyone around me requires a certain amount of bodily and emotional awareness. Here’s a point where the embodied practice of yoga has been tremendously helpful for me in deepening my practice of contemplative prayer. On a more conceptual level I’m reminded of the distinction in Hindu (Vedanta) philosophy between the gross body and the subtle body. At the level of the gross body, this resistance manifests in tension as I scrunch up my shoulders, clench my sphincter (pardon the image, but it’s true), and hold in my breath.
Yet I’ve also noticed how resistance manifests itself at subtler levels. Even when I’m able to give up resistance in the gross level of the body, there’s another deeper layer of resistance that I notice as a tension at a level that is both spiritual and embodied – I feel it most strongly in my forearms and fingers, almost as if I’m gripping to hang onto that last morsel of control that I want to wrest out of daily experience. I love the way that the singer, song-writer Kelley McRae refers to this as the place “where the spirit meets the bone.” Letting go at this subtle level frees up even more resources for creatively living in contact with the realities of daily life, for moving into a deeper communion with God and with others around me, for moving with the ebb and flow of the inevitable intrusions that come along to resist my will every day.
Let’s be clear – I’m not doing this perfectly, and I fall short of this every single day. However, when I’m able to let go of resistance at these gross and subtle levels, I do find a greater peace of mind in my daily routine. I’m a little more recollected, and able to stay more present. I’m much more likely to savor a connection with my wife, my kids, a friend or colleague. These are the connections where I find myself most connected with God, and the whole purpose of giving something up for Lent is ultimately for the purpose of letting go of all that stands between me and the rest of Reality.
Finally, there’s one thing that giving up resistance does NOT mean – it does not mean a quiet acquiescence to the status quo. In fact, it is a much more radical, creative, and effective way of taking a stand for greater justice, greater commitment to the common good, to the rights of those who are vulnerable.
By refusing to engage in the head-to-head kind of battle of the wills that frequently occurs in public and political discourse, resistance-free living releases energy for the hard work of staying engaged in the long struggle to bend history toward the arc of justice. It enables a deeper solidarity where we can seek to apply the greater interior freedom we discover in a contemplative practice to work that seeks to remove the barriers to others’ exterior (and interior) freedom.
If you find yourself interested in going deeper into non-resistant living, you may enjoy one of the following resources from Contemplative U.