A few months ago, I submitted an application for my first academic promotion. The process was new to me, and the application fairly long and involved. It took me 2-3 months to produce the required 8 page case and a detailed CV. The promotion process feels a little like reapplying for your existing job at a higher level - it calls for honest and considered reflection on where you are in your career, what you've achieved so far, and where you're headed next. It requires you to explicitly identify yourself to others, and evaluate your achievements, as a researcher, teacher, mentor, leader and citizen of the university.
Like job applications, I found producing the promotion application quite hard. My primary felt experience of the writing process was one of resistance - the feeling of not wanting to work on the application. More than being simply stuck or mired, I experienced a deep aversion to the task and all that it animated, a resistance that expressed itself in my mood, body, thoughts and behaviour.
In this post, I want to explore the mental and physical characteristics of resistance using my recent experience as an example. In the Buddhist tradition, resistance (or aversion, dislike, ill will) is the second of the five hindrances, five kinds of mind or mental states that hinder our ability to be mindful (these include sense desire/wanting, aversion, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt). Arising routinely in life, these states are known for their powerful capacity to obstruct or carry us away from the present moment and into deeply rooted patterns of physical, psychological and emotional reactivity. For this reason, they occupy a special place in the practice of insight meditation (or vipassana), whose focus on cultivating present moment awareness through careful and sustained observation of the behaviour of the mind includes close attention to the hindrances as they occur. Importantly, the goal of working with the hindrances is not to get rid of them or interfere with them, but to patiently watch them in order to learn about our own conditioning. As we become familiar with these states, we're more aware of what's happening in ourselves mentally and physically, and can more easily see our reactive tendencies.
So what is resistance? Resistance is the feeling of pushing something away, pushing against something, or rejecting what is. It typically emerges as a non-accepting reaction to any felt experience of discomfort, unpleasantness or distress. This mental posture or attitude is reflected in the types of thoughts that commonly accompany aversion, such as 'I don't like this', 'I don't want this', 'Make it stop'. Resisting what unfolds from moment to moment takes real effort and energy, it creates tension, hardness and sometimes agitation in the mind and body, and can trigger strong emotional reactions based in fear and anger. Consider mundane experiences like being stuck in traffic for long periods, or having writer's block when you're rushing to meet a deadline. My meditation teacher captures the felt sense of resistance with the example of pushing with both hands against a wall. Imagine what it feels like to push with all your effort against a solid, immovable object. How do you feel after 30 seconds, 5 minutes, an hour, a day, a week? What happens in the mind, in the body, and to your mood? And how do you react?
I was working on my application draft and it was going very slowly, far too slowly to meet the upcoming deadline. I couldn't seem to find a comfortable working rhythm or produce a consistent output - the words emerged in fits and starts. I felt blocked, frustrated and periodically overwhelmed. Some days I'd write one or two good paragraphs, and on others I couldn't get one good sentence down. I'd work on it every day for two weeks straight, abruptly stop for ten days, then slowly find my way back. This stop-and-start process was accompanied by a mixture of feelings and thoughts: a sense of pressure ('I have too much to do', 'There's not enough time'), confusion ('I don't know how to write this'), doubt ('Do I even want to work in academia?'), and frustration ('I can't let this beat me', 'I just need to be more disciplined'). Together, this collection of experiences felt like stress. And when reflecting on this period, I realised that the feelings and reactions I cycled through resonated with the common physiological expressions of the stress response: fight, flight and freeze.
In the face of feeling stuck, my first instinct was to push. Unable to tolerate the naturally slow pace of the work, I fell back into the familiar habit of pushing myself. This reaction felt tense, strained and exhausting. Despite having hit a mental brick wall, I refused to give in. Rather than recognising what was happening and making space for that experience, I told myself it 'wasn't an option' not to get the task done.
From the outside, the ability to 'push through' periods of feeling stuck can look like resilience, determination or a 'can do' attitude. On the inside, it feels like being locked in a fight - literally going into battle with your experience. For me, this was the fight instinct animated by the stress response. I attempted to eliminate the threat (feeling blocked and consequently, weak or vulnerable) by applying force (making myself work). The activation of the fight response had distinct effects in the mind and body. I observed a palpable sense of hardness and rigidity set in, both mentally and physically. As I worked, my thought process became even more bogged down, and I felt both confused and irritated. The mental agility, lightness and openness that I associate with periods of productive flow was replaced with a stagnant, unyielding, unforgiving and even aggressive mind state ('Why can't you do this?', 'You need to work harder!'). This felt sense of stubborn opposition resonated in my body, which was tight and fatigued from so much striving. Without realising it, I was physically bracing against the experience.
When the strategy of fighting wasn't working, I'd periodically switch into the freeze response. The fear that I wasn't making enough progress or wouldn't meet the deadline triggered the instinct to drop everything. This response felt like mental paralysis, a mind state characterised by overwhelm. Overwhelm is when the mind's normal function shuts down under the pressure of whatever is happening - in my case, too strong an emotional reaction to too great a quantity of work. I had to complete my promotion application on top of my usual workload and life. These experiences of time pressure and workload pressure, paired with the separate personal struggle of narrating my career, were often more than I could manage. I reached a point where it all felt like 'too much': too much to do, too much mental charge and activity, too much pressure. This 'too much' produced a feeling of mental tightness and contraction - of everything shrinking inwards until my mind switched off.
At other points in the process, I'd slip into stretches of avoidant behaviour which took me far away from the work. When I couldn't face the draft, I set it aside for long periods. I told myself I was taking a break from writing or would simply distract myself with unrelated tasks (e.g. other work, cooking, crafting). For me, the flight response was defined by the absence of strong emotional charge, which had been characteristic of my tendencies to push and become frozen. Avoiding the work felt like hiding or pulling the covers over my head - mentally retreating from the experience. It had a distinctly anaesthetising effect, allowing me to feel less of what was happening. Like fighting and freezing, the instinct to flee or escape is equally rooted in fear. The strategies of avoiding and distracting helped me to manage feelings of fear by pretending they weren't there. When I gave my attention to something else, my mind became pleasantly numb to what was actually going on.
In this piece, I've attempted to stay close to the felt experience of resistance and describe my observations of this phenomenon. This is different from telling the story of writing my promotion application. In other similar posts on this blog, I've noticed a tendency to write in a predictable narrative arc - to resolve or propose solutions, to tidy up, and even to moralise, especially when the experiences being explored are uncomfortable or perceived as negative. I've avoided doing that here. Though ending the post abruptly feels slightly uncomfortable, it's an exercise in sitting with the experience rather than analysing it too much or falling into storytelling.