How to Overcome Mental Resistance with Breathing

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I don’t procrastinate. I don’t allow myself to dilly-dally. When I say something, it shall be done. I’ve been told it’s an uncommon ability. But like all skills, it is a trait that can be cultivated and integrated into your being.

When you’re on the verge of making a difficult decision, one of great weight and importance to your life, one that runs counter to how you have lived up to this point, one that clashes with your habits or assumptions or suppositions, you may feel a peculiar sensation. It may be in your stomach, it may be in your chest, it may be felt with your entire body. What is this sensation?

Imagine a mighty river gushing at full force. It is following a path it has carved through rock over a thousand years ago, following the path of least resistance as water always does. Suddenly, a nearby landslide flings a mass of earth and rock into the river’s path. The water crashes into the obstruction but fails to break through. The river is now blocked.

The sensation you experience is akin to the moment when the river encounters the barrier. It is like walking face-first into an invisible wall and discovering there is something there. This is the sensation of resistance.

But can you point to the location of this resistance?

The Invisible Resistance

People have preferred ways of living, talking, eating, or doing anything at all. Through a lifetime of experiences, people build up habits and heuristics to help them navigate life. While useful, they create a delusion of a permanent, unchanging self, what Buddhism refers to as sakkaya-dithi.

Consider this: a person is used to indulging in all-you-can-eat buffets. Whenever he has the opportunity to go to one, he fills his plate again and again with delicious foods, stuffing himself past the point of satiation. This becomes an unthinking habit. If you ask him to limit himself at a buffet, he’ll resist the notion even if he knows he has to lose weight, because his ego is wrapped up in the idea that one should always pig out at a buffet, and he views himself as unwilling or unable to change his ways.

You don’t have to be conscious about these unwanted habits and heuristics for them to become ingrained in your being. The most pernicious of them are those that you don’t examine or question. Being unconscious of something, you won’t recognise its influence on you. If you find yourself contemplating a decision that runs counter to your self-identity, you will naturally resistance. This is how the ego attempts to preserve itself.

Likewise, if you are forced to make an emotionally trying choice, you will also encounter resistance. If you perceive you have to give up something or experience unpleasantness, it becomes difficult to make a choice.

Suppose you are hip-deep in education debts. You hold a steady job, but most of your income goes towards servicing your debts. You rely on your car to get you to work, to the market, to just about everywhere. One day, your car breaks down. The engine gives out completely and there is no hope of recovery.

Now you have three choices. The first is to switch to public transportation, and completely reorganise your life around buses, trains and/or taxis. The second is to work out a quasi-permanent car-pooling arrangement with people you know, or complete strangers, at least until you can replace your car. The third is to bite the bullet and buy a new car — and put off buying something else you want or need, which may include your debts.

In all these cases you have to give up something or face unpleasant circumstances. In the first case you need to wake up earlier, learn bus and train schedules, plan routes, set money aside for transportation, and so on. In the second, you’ll have to make arrangements with people, create backup plans for days when they can’t help you — and hope there are people who can help. In the third, you’ll have to spend more of your hard-earned money and possibly sacrifice something else. Every decision carries a cost in free time, energy and/or money, all of which you have an emotional stake in gaining and preserving as much as possible. It becomes painful to contemplate such emotionally-laden decisions, leading to the sensation of resistance and the desire to delay or avoid them to avoid feeling such unwanted emotions.

This is perfectly natural human behaviour. But to continue living, we have to choose. We have to overcome this resistance.

The secret to doing this is recognising that, at heart, there is no substance to this resistance. It may be a powerful surge of emotions. It may register as actual physical sensations.

Instinct or Ego

Before jumping into the heart of the matter, recognize that this resistance is not entirely evil or self-sabotaging. It is a method of self-preservation, and there are times when it is useful.

Let’s say an acquaintance contacts you out of the blue. She says she’s signed up on a program guaranteed to bring you lots of money. You just have to buy some products from the parent company, then sell them to other customers at a markup. If you bring in your friends, you get to enjoy discounts, bonuses, and other perks. She thinks of you as a friend, she thinks you’ll benefit, so won’t you sign up and buy her stuff?

If you see red flags, good for you. This is how a multilevel marketing scheme works. If you join up, the company will suck your money, you’ll waste hours trying to sell stuff, you’ll become human scum as you push an ever-widening range of products on your friends and family, and in the end you’re not going to get much out of it. Feeling resistance and refusing to accept the offer in this case is perfectly natural.

Resistance is natural. When you experience it, your first reaction shouldn’t be to overpower it. It may well be your subconscious warning you of danger. From the perspective of the ego, there is no difference between a threat to existence and a threat to self-identity. Thus, you must develop and exercise discrimination, so that you can tell the difference between self-protection (preventing you from coming to harm) and ego-protection (preventing your self from changing).

When you encounter mental resistance, ask yourself these questions:

*What are the consequences of acting?
*What are the consequences of not acting?
*What am I giving up with every choice I face?
*What do I want out of life, and which choice aligns with my goals and inner self?

Fear of imagined pain outweighs actual pain. Make abstract resistance concrete by articulating and visualising the costs and benefits of actions, and how these actions align with who you are. Acknowledge that there is no permanent, unchanging self, for in every action you create yourself, and you are always free and ready to become a new person.  Instead of fretting over potential emotional pain or conflict, view the true costs and benefits with a clear heart.

And you can clear your heart with your breath.

Dissolve Resistance

Earlier I likened the sensation of resistance to a river being dammed up. The opposite sensation of resistance is ease — water flowing smoothly and freely. Within the human body, the closest sensation to that is breathing. Deep, rhythmic, abdominal breathing.

Close your eyes. Sit or stand with your spine erect. Breathe into your belly, expanding and contracting your diaphragm. Place your hands on your stomach; if you feel it rise and fall you’re doing it right. Let your breath be smooth, slow, deep and comfortable. If you have difficulty breathing, consider adjusting the tilt of your skull or pelvis until you get it right. A quick trick is to press yourself up against a wall to align your skull, spine and tailbone.

Focus on this sensation of ease and flow. Whenever you feel troubled, or run into mental resistance, default to the deep breath and let that sensation of ease fill your being. This dissolves any phantom pain, resistance or other unpleasant sensations within you, letting you focus clearly on what you must do. With freedom of breath comes freedom of mind, and with freedom of mind comes the clarity necessary to contemplate the choices before you.

The Space of Seven Breaths

The Hagakure states, ‘With an intense, fresh and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.’

The space of seven breaths may be a metaphor, but it points to the underlying principles of resolution, determination, focus, and awareness, of making a decision based on complete self-knowledge.

Strive to be in total awareness of yourself, your goals and your principles. Understand what makes up who you are, who you want to be, and what you must do to become your best self. This creates a mental heuristic that nudges you ever onwards to self-development, and allows you to prioritize your expenditures, resources and energy.

Going back to the example of the broken car, you know you wish to pay off your debts and loans as quickly as possible, and recognise that you can live without luxuries for a while. Thus, you stride into a car dealership and purchase a car at a reasonable price — not necessarily a new car, just one you can use. Or perhaps you have time to burn but little cash to spare, so you start plotting routes by public transport and live without a car until you can lift the burden of debt. If you have the great fortune of friends willing to help you, or trustworthy strangers keen on sharing a ride, then you can rely on carpooling until the day you can afford a new vehicle. The choice you make reflects your own priorities, beliefs and principles — so to accelerate the decision-making process, know your circumstances and your self, and pick the choice that reflects your character and your aspirations.

Regardless of your choice, act swiftly and decisively. No matter how long you delay the decision, no matter how reluctant or heartbroken you feel, it must be made. Feelings are transient and subjective; the consequences of actions and non-actions are concrete and lasting. And the longer the delay, the heavier the penalty of non-action. Face the choice now and act.

All actions stem from the self. Strive to know yourself and institute the mindsets, habits and heuristics that help you make growth-oriented decisions. Through the breath, fill your soul with the sense of ease and freedom and dissolve any barriers to clear thought. Recognize that your feelings are immaterial; only the decision before you, and the consequences of your actions, remain.

Cultivate a spirit of intensity, immediacy, resolution and focus. Then, in the space of seven breaths, act.

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If you’d like to support my work, check out my Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

2 thoughts on “How to Overcome Mental Resistance with Breathing

  1. I just finished rereading No Gods, only Daimons and I am so glad there is a second novel coming out. I am looking forward to reading it.

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