In my last post, I commented on the role being-with plays in healing. Being-with is our willingness to feel, or be-with, whatever it is that is happening inside of us. It is to bring our conscious awareness as fully as possible to the experience that is happening in the present moment. This willingness-to-be-with difficult feelings involves working with resistance which allows for a deep working through of our suffering.
We sometimes need support and guidance to be-with feelings that are uncomfortable. In psychedelic assisted therapy, the therapist supports our effort to be-with our experience, and just a little encouragement or a reminder is often enough to redirect our attention inward, toward the feeling. Our therapist can provide encouragement, but it is our willingness that is required to open ourself up to an experience. Wide open willingness to feel the full expression of a feeling is the gateway to freedom from the haunting feeling, because feelings that don’t get caught up on any obstructions can pass on through. Our predicament is that when we encounter a difficult feeling, we are at least somewhat unwilling to feel it…we naturally do not want to feel bad and our resistance to feeling bad creates an obstacle for the feeling to flow around.
I often find in my own inner work that I am rather unwilling to feel something painful, but I have also found that my resistance is not a show stopper. Rather, when resistance shows up, it becomes the first order of business. Resistance is not only important to address, it turns out that it was the main issue all along. For example, let’s say that early in life my father was preoccupied with his own concerns and was not present and attuned to his relationship with me and I feel sad and angry about it; indeed, throughout my life I continue to feel sad and angry in all sorts of circumstances in which someone doesn’t seem to care. I feel unimportant and inherently inadequate. As I begin to work with my painful sense of inadequacy I notice that I tense up when it comes to acknowledging that I don’t feel good enough for my job, my spouse, my role as a parent, as a friend, and so on. Perhaps I feel humiliatingly like a helpless child in an adult body. Ouch, if people see who I really am I’ll be alone and unloved for the rest of my life. My task here, ultimately, is to feel as fully as possible, the feeling states of unlovability, worthlessness, and hopelessness, so that they can finally pass on. But these feeling states are interwoven with painful resistance. So if I am to disentangle the threads of resistance from the tapestry of my life force, I must be willing to feel my resistance; not only resistance in my mind, but the painful tendrils of tension umbilically rooted in my body.
Willingness in its purest form is like a wantingness; it is a wanting-to-be-with, which is indeed very difficult when it comes to painful feelings. If we were to liken psychic pain to physical pain, it would be like wanting to feel the pain of placing one’s hand on a hot stove; trepidation is built into the equation. As long as unwillingness is in the mix with some degree of willingness we are in a state of ambivalence in which resistance continues to pull us away from fully feeling. So we can see here that wanting-to be-with a very difficult feeling is indeed a predicament. How then do we achieve wanting-to when we don’t-want-to? Two suggestions:
Be-with our unwillingness
Want to want-to
Being-With our Unwillingness
Resistance to experience, or repression, is what gets us into much of our psychic pain in the first place. Resisting a feeling is an attachment to having things the way we want them and is certainly wanting things not to be the way they are/feel the way they do. Resistance to feeling psychic pain (attachment to the way things are not) forces us into a situation in which we must continue to put effort toward repression. So, we have to deal with our resistance, but we can’t use resistance to get through our resistance. In other words, we can’t just kick down the doors to our feelings in an effort to overwhelm our defenses so that we can surrender to a feeling…rather than surrender, it would be an assault that calls forth a defense.
Willingness, or will power, is not an overpowering. It is harnessing the power of one’s willingness to feel something to which one is customarily averse; it is the power to surrender to experience rather than to do anything to compensate for experience. Here we can see that will power is transformational rather than instrumental; it is transformational in that resistance is transformed into non-resistance through the willingness to be-with resistance. The paradox is that in the surrender, one gains the power to be in control of one’s self, not necessarily in control of what happens.
Willingness to be-with resistance is a step in the healing process that is in-between identifying the traumatic feeling state and working through the traumatic feeling state. In an Internal Family Systems therapy approach this might be referred to as honoring one’s protectors, or those parts of oneself that have just been trying to keep us safe all this while. If we try to push aside those parts of ourselves whose duty it is to protect us, we are likely to experience a backlash or redoubling of effort to protect. If on the other hand we make friends with our protectors, they are much more likely to relax. First we must notice the protectors at the gates of our trauma, then we must stand beside the protectors in peace and friendship until they are comfortable enough to walk with us through the gates.
Wanting to Want-to
It is not all that effective to try to get rid of our resistance or to overpower it. Resistance to resistance is resistance. Another way of putting this would be that when I do not want to feel something (resistance), it would be a folly to in any way rationalize, try to get around, or otherwise finagle my way past the reality of the phenomenon of resistance, because to ignore reality, again, is what got me into my predicament in the first place. The task, rather, is to acknowledge and be-with what is happening in the present moment: my resistance is happening in the present moment. It is from this baseline of being-present-with-my-not-wanting-to that I can want to want-to feel what I don’t want to feel. This approach is clean and unfettered by defense mechanisms.
Wanting to want-to is realistic; it implicitly acknowledges the reality that I don’t-want-to and I don’t yet know how to want-to. So, the bottom line is that I want to want-to because it is really the only thing I can do that is true; I acknowledge and am willing to be present with the reality that I am ambivalent. The funny thing about the truth is that when we acknowledge and accept it, we can kind of finally relax…because there’s no need any longer to repress. Thus, by wanting to want-to, I naturally arrive at a place of non-resistant presence with how things are.
And so it is that the truth sets us free! Yippee!