Resistance is like stepping on a hose with all our might and commanding the water to flow. But if we can simply step off the hose and allow the water of our reactions to flow through us, we eventually arrive at a state of expansion. While on the surface this may seem passive, it's anything but. In an expanded state, we're freer, more creative, and better able to break through barriers.
The more I began to talk about releasing resistance, the more people asked me how to do it in real time—when traffic was backed up, the baby was screaming, or the same old argument was spinning out of control. In response I conceived the simple process called Living the Questions. Simple, but not easy. It takes courage, practice, and a willingness to open where we're habitually closed.
The initial step is to become aware of what we're resisting and decide whether we even want to let go. If we do, there are only two questions to ask. The first is, What is happening right now? In asking, we pay specific attention to the sensations in our bodies and any emotions associated with them. Instead of looking for an answer, we just allow what's there to make itself known. The second question is, Can I be with it? To be with what's happening means embracing whatever we find with no agenda whatsoever. In the expansion that follows, what's been trapped is free to chart its own course.
A few months ago, I met with a 40-year-old woman named Susan who hated her job as a home health aid. She judged herself harshly for her feelings, but realized she'd never feel successful until she had a flashy, executive position. At the same time, she felt paralyzed by the prospect of career change. A job counselor friend kept offering to help, but she was too tense to schedule a meeting.
Susan greeted me with a healthy dose of skepticism. "Look," she said. "I feel my feelings. I read plenty of self-help books. How can something so basic as these two questions get me over such a big block?"
Rather than provide a conceptual response, I suggested we dive right in. "Focus on your work dilemma," I said, "with all its intense frustration. Let it fill you up. With particular attention on your body, tell me what is happening right now?"
Susan closed her eyes and took a deep breath. After a few moments she responded, "There's a tightness in my chest. And my jaw's clenched."
"Can you be with it?" I asked. "Not the whole issue—just the tightness and the clenching. For this moment only, can you accept with 100 percent of your being that it's actually happening? You don't have to like it. You don't have to give up your desire to change it. All you have to do is open to it completely."
Susan shrugged, decided to give it a try. For a minute or so I sat with her in stillness. Then I repeated the first question. "What is happening right now?"
"I'm angry," she said. "At myself for being stuck, at the people I work with... at life."
I sensed we were getting closer to her core resistance but weren't there yet. So I asked Susan to be with that anger and see where it led. I watched her face redden and her whole body go rigid. Then she abruptly pulled out of the experience.
"Why am I doing this?" she protested. "It makes me feel what a failure I am. That's exactly what I don't want."
Next: 3 things to steer clear of during the self-inquiry process