One Sunday in my mid-twenties, I went to a family dinner with my then-boyfriend. His mother, usually a model of English middle class decorum, got unexpectedly drunk. She embarked on an alcohol-fuelled honesty spree, to everyone’s embarrassment. When it came to my turn, she was mercifully brief. “You, Fiona Robertson. You only let people in so far, and then the portcullis comes down.” In vino veritas. I knew that portcullis, that defendedness, only too well, even though I’d never named it before.
Portcullis: a last line of defence during a time of attack or siege...
Two or three years later, the sudden death of a close friend triggered a time of profound change. It was as if that heavy iron grille creaked slowly open, partway at least, and out came grief, shame, rage, fear, and creativity, all repressed since childhood. I finally mourned for the loss of my best friend, a decade earlier; for my father’s absence; for the years that I’d spent battling food and body-image demons. Whilst I realised the catharsis was healing, I also spent a lot of energy trying not to feel the pain. Sex, cigarette smoking, meditation, and a plethora of healing and self-help techniques weren’t quite enough to stem the cathartic tide. Nevertheless, the portcullis remained, particularly when it came to intimacy and relationships. I felt like the princess alone in the tower, the stone walls surrounding me utterly impenetrable.
Defensiveness and resistance have a bad reputation. We read that we’re supposed to be accepting, allowing, open. We think we’re supposed to be able to just let go. And when we can’t, when we’re holding or desperately clinging on, in denial, resisting with all our might, we feel that we’ve failed, and judge ourselves for it. We’re not the spiritual people we’ve aspired to be. We’re even further away from awakening or enlightenment or peace than before. We’re stuck, blocked, self-sabotaging, over-compensating. We seek out ways to overcome or break down those recalcitrant parts of our psyche, trying to batter them into submission. We resist our resistance, and defend against our defensiveness.
What we fail to see – when we’re engaged in trying to get rid of or modify these supposedly unwelcome tendencies – is that they’re there for good reason. At some point in our lives, nearly always when we were very young, we needed to protect or defend ourselves. Wounded at the core, in little bodies and so vulnerable, we came up with ingenious, amazing ways to attempt to keep ourselves safe from further harm. For some, that harm is obvious; beatings, loss, denigration, abuse, neglect. For others, it’s been more subtle, the result of parental anxiety, over-control, or just not being truly seen. Either way, the strategies that we devised so long ago to shield ourselves can’t be given up easily. Back then, it felt like our survival depended on them; no wonder, then, that anxiety, fear, and terror emerge when we come close to the core wound.
In my experience as a Living Inquiries facilitator, I’ve seen over and over how resistance and defensiveness guard the deep pain of the core wound. As we get close, we encounter the portcullis, different in everyone; maybe the mind produces a flurry of thoughts, or sleepiness comes on, or sensations of numbness or rigidity or irritation or hopelessness appear. I can’t do this any more, or I want this to end, or I can’t focus, or I want to hide, or I can’t let go. And we stay with it all. Together, we let the resistance be exactly as it is, just as we let everything be as it is. No judgement. No attempts to move away from or assuage what’s coming. We look at the images of walls and portcullises and black holes and whatever else comes up. We meet that energy of defensiveness, letting it do whatever it needs to do. We notice that the space in which everything arises has no argument with any of it.
What we discover when we really let it all be, exactly as it is right here and now, is that our points of resistance and defence are the keys to the inner sanctum. As the energy of resistance and defence (it was only ever energy, with some thoughts and images attached) is fully felt, it gives way to the precious, vulnerable, tender, delicate core that it was protecting. We encounter the beauty that lies beneath. Tears flow, our hearts melt. Openness, acceptance, and allowing simply happen. We realise our deep and perfect innocence in all this. And in that place, we stumble upon the glorious paradox that there isn’t a self to defend, and there’s nothing to resist.