“Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you're feeling massive Resistance, the good news is that it means there's tremendous love there too.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
With great power comes great current squared times resistance. Is this thing on? Forgive me, I love nerd jokes. Ok down to business. For many years now, I've been asking myself the question, how do I know when I'm in the presence of positive resistance and how can I tell when I'm battling a fruitless endeavour? How can I tell when the search for a life of peaceful, easy flow has become the avoidance of growth? When is a person or situation it's easy to be around not a good fit, but a passive presence that doesn't in any meaningful way question or challenge my thinking or behaviour? Or when is a new endeavour or relationship that requires tenacity, discipline, occasional discomfort and persistence through trial and error, a love driven quest for growth? And when is it flogging a dead horse?
I have a friend who I hope with all my heart you have a version of in your life. She does not ask me if I would like to try new things, she informs me of the dates and times that I will be trying them. Last year she let me know that we had been signed up for a free surfing lesson, something that was on my bucket list but that had also been highly unlikely to happen due to a belief that I was too old, it was too late and that it was frankly out of my league. So in 2016 I showed up on a beach in California and faced the ocean with a healthy dose of fear and trepidation but also an enormous feeling of excitement. As predicted it was very hard work, but my take away from the experience was worth every wipe out. Because about five minutes into the class, I could see that if I was willing to work hard enough I would eventually be able to surf, something I had formerly considered to be beyond my capacity. To my surprise however, I discovered that I didn't care, because I really hadn't enjoyed it. The effort required I realised, minus caring just wasn't worth it for me. I got up on the board on my second attempt, and my heart hadn't soared in the way I had assumed it would.
So on the beach that day I finally realised, after many years of shaming myself for not being willing to work hard enough at things in order to succeed, that hard work and effort were not the enemy for me, but that the absence of caring or being clear about what I cared about were. Because I also knew that you can put the very different but equally arduous task of learning to craft a screenplay in my hands and that the thousands of mortifyingly awful lines of dialogue and dead end story ideas will manifest as supportive stepping stones on the way to the incomparable feeling that surfaces when I finally hit the sweet spot. My heart soars. Or to use a perhaps less romantic example, I'm not a huge fan of cleaning bathrooms, but I care about having a clean bathroom and for me there's something remarkably fulfilling and centering about mundane 'chop wood, carry water' tasks, so for me it's worth it. Effort plus caring it turns out, equals growth and joy squared.
So if effort minus caring seems to offer little to no reward or point, does it follow that caring minus effort is equally redundant? I don't think so. Art galleries surely exist for this purpose, as do theatres, cinemas, novels, fashion, nature etc. We appreciate and bask in the creations of others as a source of pleasure. It's entertainment, and it feeds our souls. On the other hand, appreciation in and of itself, without an inner nudge towards inspired action, builds and creates nothing.
You may for example appreciate a person from afar, but unless you take actions to connect, and if mutually desirable stay connected to that person, you will to all intents and purposes be a fan. And there's really nothing wrong with that. Every day we appreciate others who provide experiences we appreciate without ever connecting with them. Relationships on the other hand like all creations, take action and consistent effort. And like any creative pursuit, we will eventually meet with difficulty, resistance and challenge. Luckily, there too, we have love on our side, the fuel that drives the engine. Love is what gets us through the door and gives us the willingness to show up and to keep showing up for the challenges to come for as long as the relationship still provides a place of mutual love, growth and expansion. So the feeling of being willing to pursue a connection, comes not merely from love, because that's just being a fan, and certainly not from it being easy, but from the mutual desire to co-create a relationship born from intimacy creating experiences, whether they be working through challenges or sharing the joyful results of having already done so.
For many years I struggled against this truth. And not from a place of laziness, conscious avoidance or hedonism. I actually believed that if a thing was difficult, it was wrong. I kept waiting for a career to fall into my lap that would feel good and easy all the time. I longed for a job or a source of income that would never require me to experience fear of failure, fear of shame, fear of financial insecurity, fear of rejection, indeed any kind of confrontation at all. I fantasised that something existed that I would experience in a state of consistent, euphoric, flow. I kept wanting to write but found it excrutating. I felt comparably awful when I measured myself against other writers I knew, and often my feelings were not a distortion of the truth, I really wasn't as good. But I mistook this reality to be my measuring stick of the rightness of the work for me. What I didn't realise was that the desire in my heart to write was my one and only meaningful piece of guidance. The inner resistance I felt was in some ways in direct proportion with the rightness of me continuing to pursue writing as a vocation. The resistance was actually a measure of the emotional stakes, not of my talent or lack thereof. I was in love, and I was terrified, that was the only truth that mattered. My writing chops, my qualifications for the task, my self confidence were all irrelevant, and continue to be so. But the love propels and sustains me through the pain, the doubt, the frustration, indeed all of the inner and outer resistance. Not knowing this kept me for many years in a constant state of seeking. One day, I told myself, I'll find my calling, and because it's my calling it will be effortless and easy. I was blind to the reality that I was chasing a childish fantasy and missing the point of life. Most important of all I was missing the fact that everything I needed was already right in front of me, it just wasn't necessarily comfortable or easy.
So when do we know that the resistance we feel is actually a measure of barking up the wrong tree? How do we know when the discomfort we feel is in fact an indicator that we are off track and it's time to stop and go in a new direction? In my experience it's simple. Do the challenges positively transform you? Do you feel stronger, more whole, more alive or in any way changed for the better as a result of showing up to meet the resistance with a willing heart? Or do you feel empty, stuck, drained or smaller, as if you are in a state of atrophy as a result of your efforts? Is your ego growing but your true self stuck? If you are meeting resistance in relationship, is there a mutual agreement that the resistance is to be collaboratively worked through, or are you the only one doing the work? If you are meeting resistance in your career, are you also finding yourself in the presence of available helping hands? There may be fear, sometimes enormous, overwhelming fear, but does the idea of rising to the challenge and being on the other side of it excite you?
In our defence, we are wired for the path of least resistance. Consciously or unconsciously we meet life every day through the filter of our past. Our memory reminds us how to drive, walk, speak, interact, problem solve etc. We approach everything with test driven, familiar routines. Growth, expansion and creativity however demand that we resist the path of least resistance. Clearly we cannot do this with everything we do everyday. The first 6 months of moving to a new country or starting a new job are exhausting for this very reason; you don't know where the bathroom is never mind how to drive on the other side of the road. Autopilot is a wonderful energy saver freeing us for more inventive or fulfilling pursuits. But when we live our whole lives on autopilot, our creative life force begins to atrophy. Depression, feelings of apathy, futility, frustration and disappointment kick in. We begin to fantasise about shiny objects or experiences falling effortlessly into our laps and a life of emptiness and futuristic living begins. Because what we fear most of all is death. And with every step of growth and change what you can absolutely depend on is that there will be some kind of death. Death of comfort, death of an old identity, an old life, an outworn security blanket, perhaps even relationships or circumstances. And the more we are able to embrace it, the more fully alive and in 'flow' we are able to be.
There is a TV show in England that I love, on which amateur chefs with a passion for cooking are repeatedly thrown into baptism of fire scenarios in order to test their capacity for a potential professional career. When asked how they're feeling the first time they step into a professional kitchen they often answer with a light in their eyes, 'Good scared.' I know that feeling of 'good scared.' It means that my heart has just walked into something that is going to stretch and open and expand it through resistance and learning curves and challenge. It means I'm going on a quest. It means I just left the Shire. So perhaps this is the answer I've been seeking. That it is autopilot, the path of least resistance, that is not flow. And that when autopilot becomes something other than a foundation for supporting us into unchartered territories, no matter how big or small, it is actually a slow, apathetic, fear driven death. So then flow perhaps, is actually a state of acting from the heart, which sometimes feels easy, sometimes terrifying, but always feels as if it is in service of expansion.
I heard once that when asked about his famous quote 'Follow your bliss,' Joseph Campbell reported that he wished he had said as a more accurate illustration of the point he was trying to make, 'Follow your blisters.' As humans we are both blessed and cursed with self will, and are free to refuse being called into evolutionary challenges indefinitely, but not without a price. Easy atrophy is an incredibly costly state, because it is not a natural state. All human beings have a natural inclination for wholeness, and wholeness requires consistent evolution and change. To attempt stasis, coasting or a life without new challenges is to attempt the impossible. Enter stage left compulsions, boredom, excessive fantasy lives, addictions, jealously, repressed rage, anxiety, self recrimination, low self esteem, declining physical health, negative consequences ad infinitum. In short, it is easier to face our fears and to face death, but only I would add in those situations which also engage our hearts. We must care, and I believe that caring is what must guide us first and foremost in our efforts, into the places where our true potential will be forged through the endless forms of resistance and adversity we will assuredly meet. So then effort becomes easy, because in the end, the relentless, self sabotaging and ultimately gruelling effort required to avoid facing the sometimes terrifying requirements of our potential, is so much harder work than reaching into our hearts and finding all that we need to face our fears and to become that which we were meant to be.