Trying to explain the potential value of mindfulness to a new patient, someone in prolonged and severe chronic pain, I started by talking about resistance. We have a tendency to develop a relationship based on resistance to chronic pain. But it is not just when pain is present. How much of of our entire exisitance is based on resistance — obvious and subtle to what is actually so? If complaints were dimes, we’d all be millionaires! More of this, less of this, the presence of a, b, & c; the absence of x, y. & z.

The uber bad guys in Star Trek Next Generation, the Borg, were infamous for their saying, “Resistance is Futile.” The alternative to resistance is acceptance.

This can lead to confusion. How do we draw the line between passive acquiescence on the one hand and acceptance on the other? What does it mean to accept rather than resist?

Acceptance starts from the vantage point of contact. First, we must know what is going on; what’s actually happening. Second, we bring interest to this phenomenon, even if it is unpleasant and unwanted. That’s probably enough.


Contact and interest are enough to transform our relationship to any phenomenon. Contact brings awareness into focus and interest hones perception. There’s no room for a grievance narrative; no room for the mind to generate a story wishing things could be otherwise; no room for judgment of like and dislike, want or now want. 

When we resist we give more power to the phenomenon. There is a folk saying, “what we resist persists,” and there is some truth to this because we are giving the event more attention. By resisting we are making the unwanted experience more salient and thus our emotional brain takes over and makes it into a “problem” to be solved.

But most of the situations we resist can’t be resolved with our usual problem solving tactics. The emotional brain evolved to solve problems like finding food and eating food that wouldn’t poison us. It’s well-suited to those sorts of problems but not well suited to “solving” that which we resist.

Take any example. Something happens. The event is in the past. Time only moves in one direction — forward (at least that we can perceive). We are upset by this event. We generate a story about it, wishing it hadn’t happened. This story leads to anguish, misery, or suffering. 

Acceptance doesn’t mean we like the event; that we’re happy it has happened. It means recognizing it has happened (contact) and noticing the implications of this event (interest). 

When I cut my finger open on the 4th of July, I initially resisted the event (see Shambhala Sun guest blog post). But then I made contact and brought interest to bear on the situation. I noticed bleeding and tissue damage. The pattern of tissue damage suggested the need for stitches and a trip to the walk-in clinic. When I resisted, I was in anguish. I castigated myself and swore like a sailor. When I accepted the event, equanimity prevailed. This is what is so in this moment; deal with it. And I did. While the tissue damage remained, the anguish was transformed. 

Mindfulness practice helps us to move more fluidly from resistance to acceptance. It helps us to recognize the resistance story and to replace it with contact and interest. By doing so we transform anguish into equanimity.

(photograph by Arnie Kozak)

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