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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind  

Resistance to Life

by John Lawson 2015

    To be fully alive as a human being is to function without major disturbances that impede the flow of energy and feeling in the body.  When our personal structure is balanced and our vital movements are energetic and spontaneous, we feel "all of a piece," "whole," and "integrated."  Our contact with the world is solid and meaningful.  Considering the developmental problems which most human beings face, such an experience of lively awareness and vital integrity is rare.  Instead of balance, there is insecurity.  Instead of vitality, there is impotence.  Instead of excitement, there is depression.  Under such circumstances, inner conflicts abound.  These inner conflicts are reinforced by the prevailing culture, which is at odds with the healthy needs of the human organism.  Rather than functioning in harmony with the natural rhythms of life, many people find themselves stunted and frustrated in their growth.  In this context, it is understandable that individuals may seek help to overcome their difficulties. 

    I believe the basic reason that most individuals seek help with their personal difficulties is their desire to increase their pleasure and satisfaction in living.  Quite commonly, this is seen to be a matter of solving specific problems.  Thus, we hear comments such as "I need to know how to relate to people better," or "I need to improve my skills in dealing with stress," or "I want to overcome my sexual indifference, which has developed lately and is threatening my marriage."  In instances such as these, the motivation to change involves the desire to learn a certain skill, correct a particular problem, or eliminate a specific "symptom."  The goal is to feel better and to get on with one's life.  What is generally not understood is that the "problem" that is the focus of immediate concern may be a manifestation of a deeper, underlying disturbance in the functioning of the individual.  If this is the case, the real issue is not one of learning a better way to achieve a specific goal.  Rather, the challenge is to get to the bottom of one's difficulties by working through the
restrictions in functioning that are a part of one's character structure.  It is these functional restrictions that limit our capacity for pleasure, dampen the fires of life, and inhibit our natural impulse toward personal growth and development.

    Given this situation, we might expect that human beings would be highly motivated to examine the characterological roots of their difficulties and to pursue genuine personal growth and radical, constructive change in their way of being.  The truth, however, is that such motivation is generally lacking.  In its place, we find not simply indifference to serious self-exploration and the confrontation of inner conflicts but an active resistance to such a venture.  Why is this so, and what forms does this resistance take?

    In thinking about this matter, it is important to recognize that "resistance" is not in itself a negative trait.  Life demands resistance to many pernicious influences found both in nature and in society.  In medical terms, a high degree of resistance to disease-producing agents is a positive physiological state.  If one's resistance is weak, one is susceptible to illness.  Similarly, resistance to the destructive pressures of an unhealthy cultural order is vital, since a lack of such resistance leads to the dissolution of one's personal identity and the loss of one's independence.  Such a situation is described well by George Orwell in his novel 1984 and by Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World.

    Resistance, however, is not always constructive.  Though a virtue in some circumstances, it can be a liability in others.  When one is faced with recognizing the truth about oneself yet consistently resists doing so - opting, instead to ignore the reality of one's feelings and perceptions - then the resistance in question is self-destructive.  It is this type of resistance that inevitably becomes an obstacle to the successful pursuit of serious personal growth.  The nature of such resistance must be understood if improved functioning is to be promoted at a fundamental level.

    In order to gain a deeper understanding of resistance, it is necessary to recognize - as Freud pointed out - that resistance serves as a defense.  What type of defense is it, however, that involves chronically closing off and blotting out one's awareness of reality?  Upon reflection, we must conclude that such a defense exists as a protection against some threatening aspect of one's inner experience as opposed to a danger emanating from the external world.  Defensive behavior of this type is similar to the behavior of frightened children who pull the covers over their heads and hide beneath the sheets.  This is done not so much in order not to be seen as it is done in order not to see that which one wishes to avoid.  One closes one's eyes and makes the world "go away."  One buries one's head in the sand and hides from the perception of danger.  What, however, is the danger from which one wishes to hide by taking refuge in a lack of self-awareness?  The answer to that question has to do with the emotional life of the individual. 

    Human beings - like all other creatures, great and small - are emotional in nature.  Emotional responsiveness is a fundamental aspect of being alive.  Very simple organisms expand and contract, open up and close off, undulate and pulsate.  This is true of amoebae and other unicellular organisms.  The alternating expansion and contraction of pulsation can be seen beautifully expressed by an octopus in a marine aquarium.  The cells of the human body pulsate, lengthen, contract, open up, close off, expand, change shape, and - sooner or later-
shrivel up and die.  In the deepest recesses of their tissues, human beings are emotional; they "move out," "open up," and "express themselves."  This emotional vitality is the biological bedrock of human functioning, the deep heritage of life itself inherent in being a person.  Yet, it is this very emotional nature that is at the root of the possibility of a resistance to life.  How can such a paradox be explained?

    Like so many human problems, the problem of resistance to emotional openness and growth is rooted in the experience of pain.  By its very nature, pain is unpleasant; and it is characteristic of human beings - as well as other animals - that they seek to avoid such an experience.  Considerable pain, however, can be tolerated if there is a prospect of eventual relief.  Unfortunately, no such relief is forthcoming in all too many cases, and emotional pain becomes the "norm."  The painful nature of life typically becomes a fact of experience very early in personal development when the needs of the infant and young child are not met and when the best interests of the child are thwarted.  This initial process of painful socialization is typically continued and reinforced as one grows older and faces the restrictive and destructive pressures of a culture that is oriented toward inhuman and anti-human values and which rewards acquisitive behavior focused on the quest for power, status, fame, and fortune.  Frustrated and deprived, many humans grow up with a basic sense of insecurity and alienation, and - relinquishing their inherent liveliness - they become disturbed individuals who resist free and spontaneous movement and seek refuge in a secondary emotional defensiveness that is activated both passively and aggressively.

    The primary obstacle to deep and transformative personal growth, then, is a resistance to painful emotional states that have been developmentally inculcated into the individual. 
If we have some faith in life and some hope for the future, we need not resist the sometimes painful process of self-discovery that leads to regaining our lost potential as human beings.  In place of faith and hope, however, the underlying reality of many people is anxiety.  It is this anxiety - which at a deep level constitutes a fear of life - that is endemic to the prevailing culture of the modern world, where power and possession are the ruling passions.  This culture is destructive of human potential and well-being.  No amount of electronic gadgetry, no amount of drugs, no amount of money, no amount of power, and no amount of fame can provide real happiness.  The true pleasure in life is to be found in being in touch with oneself, in moving and expressing oneself with a degree of balance and grace, in feeling deeply and being capable of love, in caring about life and engaging in meaningful work.  To be firmly oriented toward a genuinely pleasurable existence requires a system of values that provides meaning to life and that connects an individual vitally to other people and the world at large.  Such values are lacking in today's world, and instead of an affirmation of life there is a resistance to life.  This resistance to life is a major obstacle to the self-confrontation and self-exploration that are an essential part of personal growth.

    This being said, it is important to recognize that there is no inherent virtue in the experience of pain.  The meaning of life is not to be found in pain, and the purpose of therapeutic growth work is not to promote pain.  Nonetheless, pain does have its place in the scheme of existence.  Pain signals a danger or threat to one's well-being, and the natural tendency is to withdraw from the source of pain.  We pull our hand away from the flame of a burning candle in order to avoid the pain caused by the heat.  If we felt no pain in such a situation, we would suffer physical damage.  Feeling pain, we sense the danger, and we learn from the experience.  As the saying goes, "once burned, twice cautious." 

    What, however, occurs when we are, for some reason, unable to eliminate the source of our pain?  Under such circumstances, we are not free to withdraw, nor can we take the obvious step of changing the environment - for instance, by removing the burning candle or by devising safeguards so that it will not burn us again.  The only recourse left is to adjust to the situation.  This means inuring ourselves to our pain.  In effect, we learn "to cope."  Learning to cope is not simply a mental process; it is an emotional process as well, and emotions are bodily phenomena.  In order to cope, we must control our emotions, and in order to control our emotions, we must control our basic functioning at a bodily level.  We accomplish this by curtailing our breathing, tightening our muscles, restricting our movement, limiting our self-expression, and deadening our sensory awareness.  We become "armored" and, in so doing, we constrict and bind up our vital responses.  The natural impulses of life, however, do not disappear.  They are merely driven underground.  Beneath the surface of our awareness, they continue to exert themselves, and in so doing, they are experienced as a threat to our security.  This threat is registered - consciously or unconsciously, depending on the circumstances - as anxiety.  In exchange for the security afforded by adjustment, we create in ourselves an ongoing state of distress.  Our motility may be restricted, our freedom may be greatly reduced, the natural pleasure we take in living may be attenuated, and our functioning may be seriously distorted, yet we survive.  This condition of alienation from one's basic functioning, of adjustment secured at the price of self-abandonment, of survival won at the cost of self-confinement is more or less characteristic of the human condition in our time. 

    On a personal level, the emotional prison that has come to characterize the lives of numerous human beings is anchored in the painful experiences of individual development.  Much is known about this process of development and - while there is controversy concerning specific details and inconsistency in the descriptive terminology used - a basic understanding has evolved regarding the formation of human character structure and the manner in which this character structure represents a response to the ordeals experienced by individuals in the disturbed course of their maturation and growth.

    From a functional, energetic vantage point, the basis of human growth and development is to be found in the pulsatory, expansive nature of the life process.  Living substance is motile, propelled from within itself, expanding and contracting rhythmically, ingesting nutrients and expelling wastes.  Living substance is surrounded by the external world, from which it is differentiated and of which it is a part.  The distinction between "self" and "other," even at so simple a level as a living cell, is one that includes a boundary and involves contact.  Both the simple cell and the complex human organism, which is composed of trillions of cells, "touch" their environment, reaching out and extending themselves toward sources of pleasure and withdrawing from sources of pain. 

    In human beings, the pulsatory process of alternating expansion and contraction, of growth and development, is experienced in the form of urges or "drives" that are independent of conscious volition.  Hunger and sex are the two primary such drives.  Growth of the individual takes place by means of alimentation, which results in a metabolic increase in energy.  Increases in organismic energy beyond a certain level are accompanied by a build-up of sexual tension; this leads to the discharge of excess energy in the orgastic convulsion.  In a broad sense, all human activities and behaviors concerned with incorporating nourishment from the environment - physically or psychologically - can be seen as "oral."  All those activities involving the discharge of excess energy - as in sex and creative work - can be seen as genital.  The rationale for making such distinctions is that the intricacies of the human personality and the complexities of human development are rooted in basic biological functioning. 

    When the basic functioning of human beings is disturbed, there must be problems at the oral and genital levels, and these problems will be manifested in a person's character structure.  This means that there will be functional disturbances at both the psychological and the somatic level.  It is reasonable, therefore, to view the functional problems of individuals in terms of clearly evident disturbances anchored in somatic distortions, particularly in restricted respiration, inhibited movement, and blocked energy.  Working with clients at this level, one gains access to the fundamental processes of life.
  One reaches into the depths and becomes aware of just how shallow and superficial human experience has come to be in so many cases.  The prospect of working bio-functionally to remove crippling personal impediments suggests the possibility of a direct, expeditious, and effective way of promoting genuine personal growth.  For such a possibility to be realized, however, the difficulties inherent in the enterprise must be recognized and evaluated. 

    The primary difficulty to be considered in every situation involving serious personal growth work at a functional level is the experience of anxiety that inevitably comes into the foreground.  Anxiety is a natural phenomenon.  It involves a state of uneasiness, alarm, and foreboding that may be experienced throughout the body as a sinking, falling sensation.  Anxiety may be localized so that it is felt principally in the abdomen, the diaphragm, the heart, or the genitals.  Clearly, anxiety is akin to fear, yet we tend to speak of anxiety when the fear involved has no apparent basis in reality.  For example, what is to be feared from breathing deeply?  Why should such a prospect provoke anxiety?  The answer is that painful feelings and memories are resurrected in the process of breathing deeply, and it is the fear of such pain - even though the pain be nameless - that evokes the state of anxiety and provokes the attitude of resistance.  The fact that an individual is unaware of his or her anxiety only means that the fear is sequestered beneath the level of the individual's conscious experience.  On the surface, the person acts, thinks, and functions in a more or less characteristic fashion that conforms to his or her "personality."  This personality constitutes an habitual way of being and of doing that serves as a defense.  Stiff muscles, dampened breathing, reduced motility, and emotional rigidity contain and deaden the experience of anxiety. 
Since the awareness of anxiety is pushed into the background, the defensive function of the person's character structure is only dimly understood by the individual himself.  The price paid for the defensive position is great, but the fear of pain is diminished.  If the defensive structure of the personality proves inadequate to anesthetize the anxiety and pain, then new means - such as drugs - may be employed to contain and to mitigate the increased level of distress.  Anxiety itself is seen as a problem to be eliminated rather than as a signal that inner conflicts and unresolved personal issues need to be addressed.

    It is sobering to realize the extent of the difficulties that human beings face in the contemporary world.  The human animal is a sensitive, complicated creature with enormous potential for healthy development and - at the same time - a great propensity for disturbed functioning.  The reason for this dual nature is that experience and learning play a far greater role in human maturation than is the case with other animals.  The tremendous growth and development of the human brain and nervous system after birth mean that human beings are extremely malleable in response to their environment.  Put another way, human character structure develops to a considerable extent in response to environmental factors.  This malleability may be the basis for great creativity on the one hand and terrible destructiveness on the other.  An important deciding factor influencing these two tendencies is the quality of the environment in which the basic, healthy needs of the growing human unfold,
especially during the early period of development.  There is no question that in today's world these needs are, as a rule, not adequately met.  The result in human misery and destructiveness is apparent.  This situation has profound implications for the practice of serious personal growth work - both for the individual seeking to provide assistance and the client who seeks to benefit from such assistance.  The established culture, with which we must all contend, promotes alienation from life.  If the culture in which we live is itself disturbed, then adjustment to that culture cannot be consistent with the goal of improved personal functioning.  On the other hand, impulsively disregarding the demands and constraints of the prevailing culture is not a viable course of action, since doing so leads to isolation, deprivation, and estrangement.   What, then, on a personal level, can be considered a healthy response to this dilemma?

    The healthy alternative to conformity on the one hand and impulsiveness on the other involves creative struggle, and it is this struggle that is joined in the process of confronting and working through one's developmentally based problems and moving in the direction of more integrated and more potent functioning.  This process involves the dissolution of emotional armoring and the re-configuring of one's sense of reality based on a deeper contact with one's genuine nature.  This very process, however, necessarily brings into awareness the anxiety against which one has erected defenses.  Hence, the challenge that must be faced in serious personal growth work is this: resistance to change and growth, rooted in anxiety, must take center stage.  It is by confronting and understanding anxiety that the doors to a deeper experience of life are opened.  Painful experiences must be worked through if a more meaningful, creative, and pleasurable existence is to be fostered.

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