Flowing Through Resistance : The Power of Momentum
In Steven Pressfield's book, The War of Art, the artist's path is described as one of going to battle daily with an inner force called Resistance (capital R). Resistance is the daemon of our character which inhibits us from answering the call to our life's work. This inner opposition is omnipresent, seducing us to opt for shallow comforts and the securities of social conformity over creatively offering our unique gifts to the world.
Resistance has many names: procrastination, insecurity, not enough time, perfectionism, idealism, waiting for conditions to be right, waiting to have enough energy, fear of judgment, boredom, distraction, lack of motivation, needing to be liked, and many, many others. It's the invisible magnetic pull away from your own brilliance, down to the weighty lethargy of self-justified mediocrity.
This is not exclusive to the artist's path - in their own rights, business owners are artists of commerce and human relationship, spiritual seekers are cultivating the art of presence, parents are creative in how they nurture and discipline their children. Everyone experiences Resistance on their path of expressing their deepest inner callings, regardless of whether or not it's considered a conventional artistic path.
I'm all too familiar with this phenomenon; as a writer, musician, painter, businessperson, and athlete, I've come face to face with, and begrudgingly surrendered to Resistance many times in my life.
As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, this blog took me 5 years to put together, mostly because instead of writing, I was saying that I was going to write, and just... didn't. An unseen inhibition wrapped its tendrils around my mind and dragged me away from embracing the deep yearning I had to let my consciousness spill out into typing.
The opposite of Resistance is your inner pull, The Call of your spirit whispering you towards a higher realm of self expression. It's the enraptured flow state that consumes you when you become immersed in your chosen act of passion, a communion of your consciousness with the present moment.
I've attempted to break through Resistance by adjusting my mindset - trying to pump myself up, bolster my confidence with positive self-talk, motivate myself with big goals and envisioning higher purpose. I've prayed for divine intervention to destroy the obstacles that lay before me in my own mind. I've done everything I could except doing the thing I was resisting - trying to overcome Resistance before I took action became in itself, it's own covert form of Resistance.
Overcomplicating the breakthrough is part of Resistance's game.
"Ain't nothin' to it, but to do it" -Maya Angelou
The reality is, the decision to just do it is going to be hard; we aren't going to suddenly jump from insecure and uninspired to a supernova of unstoppable creative energy.
The muse likes to be seduced, coaxed into surrender with the foreplay of focus, commitment, and devotion to our task. If we are deeply present with her, the muse will reward us with otherworldly inspiration, accessed in a state of total surrender to our creative process.
Our creative acts bear resemblance to lovemaking - the more self conscious you become, the more you try to perform, the more you disengage from the experience; true union requires a surrendering of the self to the rhapsody of sensation and the act of lovemaking itself, obliterating the sense of identity into the ether, and the other. The more present you allow (not force) yourself to become, the more connected you feel to your partner, and the more you enter into the euphoric flow state.
Feeling the Flow
The flow state is a real, measurable phenomenon;
If you've read my other articles, you may have read about how when you are engaged in a habit or compulsive behaviour, you are running on subconscious impulse, and your prefrontal cortex shuts down completely.
Your prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with complex reasoning and nuanced comprehension; it helps you understand language, experience sequences of sounds as music, and forms your sense of humour. It's fundamental to your sense of self, and to your capacity to contemplate your future, and make deliberate decisions.
Because the prefontal cortex is the most energy intensive part of your brain, it shuts down to save on calories, and lets the "inexpensive" parts of your brain that run habits subconsciously take over.
When you enter into a flow state, interestingly, this same shut-down of the prefrontal cortex happens, yet there are a few fundamental differences. When you are in a flow state, your brain becomes saturated in norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins: neurochemicals that cause tremendous amounts of pleasure.
When your brain is running a habit, it is in response to an external cue, and unconsciously makes you run a programmed routine in order to get an exogenous reward (like food, validation from social media, emotional highs from entertainment etc); the flow state on the other, is the reward in and of itself.
Instead of acting out a pre-programmed routine to get a reward from doing an action, your brain is dripping with pleasure-generating neurotransmitters that make you feel blissed out as you zone in on your act of choice.
With your sense of self out of the way, you access the subconscious stores of information that have been hard-wired into your brain for years, firing off neurons in in new and novel ways to create uninhibited expression. This is the neurological birthplace of creative genius - you've shut down your capacity to be self conscious, and only the creative act itself remains within your consciousness.
"I" am never there when I write a song, when I let a solo fly from my fingers onto the fretboard of my guitar. I'm not here now as I allow the fascinated enthusiasm I feel for this subject transcribe itself into this article.
However, when I began writing today, it was like I kept looking over my own shoulder, waiting for that moment where I gave my ego permission to take the back seat and enjoy the show. It takes patience, it demands focus, it requires undistracted time invested into one particular thing, but eventually, your expression builds enough momentum that not even the most resistant ego trip can stand up to the force of your own creative urges.
Inertia and Momentum
The most powerful force that Resistance will use against you is inertia. Oftentimes, just starting is what stops a person in their tracks.
Have you ever had to push a car that's stalled out in neutral? It's the first few heaving pushes that take the vast majority of your effort, rocking the car back and forth, trying to get just that first bit of movement... when it finally picks up enough momentum though, the wheels start rolling, and suddenly the task feels smooth, the car is moving with effort, but it feels like it's moving with you more than against you.
This is what overcoming resistance feels like - that first push requires the greatest labor, but once you get going, you build enough momentum to make the dam burst and you flow like an unbridled stream of torrential creative outpouring.
If inertia is the weapon of Resistance, then the counterattack from The Call is momentum. Momentum carries you to the flow state, where paralyzing self-consciousness is replaced with your sense of self dissolving completely, leaving only the creative process itself.
So how do you build momentum when the inertia feels so burdensome and insurmountable?
Here are some ways that have profoundly shifted my own life, and have helped others close to me as well...
1 - Lay Claim to Your Day
Have you ever had the alarm go off in the morning, then immediately grab your phone and spend the next 20 minutes in bed scrolling social media? Do you follow it up immediately with a cup of coffee before even taking a sip of water? Probably while still looking at your phone?
If your day is immediately spent on habitual, reactive, unintentional behaviours, then it will create inertia from the very moment you wake up, and you'll have to fight to muster the will power to break free of it. I've talked about dopamine desensitization quite a bit - the idea that if you chronically expose yourself to instant gratification, then you will become chemically resistant to delayed gratification.
It's kind of like if you ate a bunch of french fries and chocolate right before eating fresh produce or a healthy home cooked meal; if you eat the hyper-palatable foods first, your sense of taste will become distorted to experience the healthier whole foods as bland by comparison.
Similarly, if you start your day with cheap easy hits of dopamine, distraction, caffeine, or otherwise before you act with intention, deliberation, or creativity, your brain will have a hard time registering motivation for those greater things. You're basically plowing the fields of your mind for Resistance to take root for your entire day if you start with distraction and impulse.
Instead, lay claim to your day with an act of intention before Resistance even has a chance to rear its ugly head.
2 - Build Massive Momentum With Small Wins
Of course, sometimes Resistance lays its first assault before you even get out of bed: the snooze button and the allure of your bed pull you back under the warmth and comfort of your blanket cocoon.
When I've been in the thick of some seemingly insurmountable ruts (IE, spending hours in bed immobilized by a depressive lack of motivation and chronic need for distraction), the way I got out of it was by making my bed. I gave myself permission to do whatever else I wanted that day, as long as I got up and made my bed as soon as my alarm went off.
I was bargaining with my lethargic, depressed mind, reassuring it that I could do whatever lazy, unmotivated thing it wanted without guilt as long as I completed this one task. But this one task forced me into movement at the outset of the day - it got me out of bed immediately, and began my morning with a small sense of accomplishment from a completed task.
It wasn't long before I was stacking other things onto my morning - I felt good making my bed, so I took a shower and got dressed. I had a few glasses of water. I started to feel better - then noticed that I wanted to feel better. I stopped using my phone for the first hour of my morning, and instead, developed a ritual that makes me feel connected to myself, and helps me build momentum for more conscious, intentional tasks through the day.
My morning routine now are 3 things that I usually feel resistant to doing, but I feel immeasurably good from doing on a regular basis. They are excellent for building will power, because even though I don't want to do them, I feel vibrant and alive when I've finished doing them, so it feels like there's a built-in reward.
Meditate for at least 15 minutes, focusing on generating inner emotions of gratitude and excitement for being alive. I won't get up until I've felt my inner state change.
10 minutes minimum of mobility exercises and stretching. I set a timer and intuitively flow between yoga asanas, gymnastics stretches, and weightlifting mobility exercises. This wakes up my body, makes my joints feel great, and connects me to a grounded sense of self.
I take a cold shower. This is the one I feel the most resistant to - despite living in the frigid Canadian Rockies, I feel a deep contempt for cold. However, after I push through the mental barrier and submerge myself under the chilly shower water, I come to life. I become profoundly present as I try to control my breathing and not hyperventilate, I consciously relax my reactively contracting muscles, and I surrender to the biting temperature washing away my fatigue.
The whole process takes about 45 minutes to an hour, and the momentum that it's created for me in my life is monumental. This is not a "mandated" part of my morning routine, but after getting out of the shower and getting dressed, I usually head to my computer and spend about 2 hours writing undistracted about whatever thought I had during my cold shower.
This momentum I've built for myself with just little small wins has opened up a flourishing period of prolific creativity and self-expression... and it all started with making my bed.
3 - Design Your Environment
One of the modules that I teach in my Habit Mastery coaching program is the principle of environment design - recognizing your greatest cues for distraction and compulsive behaviours and eliminate as many of those roadblocks as you can.
In the example of waking up in the morning, if you are a snooze button addict and compulsive phone user, one way to design your environment is to buy an alarm clock. You'll use the alarm clock, which you'll wire on the other side of your room from your bed. Your phone will be off and charging in another room altogether, so you can't check it from the comfort of your warm fuzzy blankets. When your alarm goes off in the morning, your environment demands of you that you get out of bed to turn it off.
That's already the first hurdle of getting up taken care of without using extra will power to fight for it! From there, you can do a small task, like making your bed to build momentum.
When I'm writing, I'll set up my desk in a way that I don't have distractions immediately present. I'll typically keep my phone in the other room. I have a pitcher of water and my glass here so that I don't have to leave my workspace if I get thirsty. I've even ditched my chair and stacked a box on my desk to make a "standing desk" so I don't have to take stretching breaks when my back gets sore from sitting. I give the muse as much room as I can to make her way to me, and stack the odds in my favour as much as possible for staying on task, and building enough undistracted momentum to land in the flow.
Gyms are typically easier to work out in, offices are easier to get into 'business mode', libraries inspire you to read, churches inspire you to pray (even if you're not of a religious sentiment, there's an energy to the environment). You'll feel more Resistance if you're trying to complete a task that feels less conducive to the environment - design the space so that the "good stuff" is as easy to access/natural as possible, and the "bad stuff" is out of sight, out of mind.
The reality is, these are all tricks and tips to work around our human tendency towards laziness, inertia, instant gratification, and Resistance, and while tricks and tips work great, sometimes it really just is as simple as shutting up and doing it. The more we focus on trying to set up the perfect system to make all the conditions right to do the thing, the less we're spending on actually doing the thing.
Write the damn poem. Paint the damn picture. Record the damn video. Put up the fucking song.
Sometimes there really ain't nothing to it but to do it. So get to it.
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Thanks for reading - let me know if you have any questions that I can help with in the comments.