Whether you’ve been mediating for a couple weeks or several years, chances are at some point in your practice you’ve been confronted with some kind of discomfort, whether physical, emotional, or psychological. So let’s talk about that right now…
I recently posted a video titled “I Suck at Meditating” in that video I outlined some of the frustrations I have with my daily meditation practice, and, even more so, I talked about the frustrations I have with what seems to be my lack of meditative progress. Sometimes meditation itself can a kind of catalyst for discomfort. Meditation is an extremely ‘reflective’ experience. Now I don’t mean reflective in the sense of being in deep thought. What I mean here is that meditation is mirror-like in that it can incisively reflect the details of one’s subjectivity back to oneself. It can reveal the details of our attachments, expectations, anxieties, fears, judgments. Although this can sometimes be a painful and uncomfortable experience, it can also mean that its working. Meditation fully confronts one with the contents of reality and all that is included within the present moment, which often includes things that aren’t so pleasant. I posted that video in a Facebook discussion group I belong to and I received a great comment from another member of the group. They stated the following:
Due to that misunderstanding about the goal being not having anything thoughts, I’ve tried to use meditation to escape unpleasant feelings. It didn’t work very well.
I’ve had a major life change recently, not handling it well, and my therapist told me I have to actually feel emotions instead of repressing them, so I’ve been trying to allow that to happen in meditation. It feels awful to be aware of how much everything hurts, of how angry I am, and doesn’t feel like lovingkindness or peace. But my physical health is improving, so I guess it’s having benefits.
I replied saying that as paradoxical as it may seem often the most lovingly kind thing you can do for yourself is to allow yourself to feel how you feel. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself is to give yourself permission to experience exactly whatever you’re experiencing. It can be much more violent to try to repress or ignore pain and discomfort. Yet, from my experience, it seems that when you’re fully present to the hurt and you simply observe it with mindfulness, the sting begins to fade.
This really got me thinking. Early on I tried to use mediation as an escape from discomfort, stress, and frustration. A few years ago it felt like my life was falling apart. I lost my job, lost my house, my marriage was on the verge of collapse. It felt like I was in a losing battle with depression. On top of everything else I lost, I lost hope as well. Whenever I would feel myself getting overtaken by anxiety, stress, depression, or anything like that I would run to the cushion. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad strategy – meeting strong emotional and psychological reactions with meditation head on. But, that’s not exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to use meditation as a means to push away the discomfort and not deal with it, to escape from it. I was trying to use my practice as a way in which to avoid dealing with the problem.
Jon Kabat Zinn writes that “You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquility of stillness and peacefulness. This of course would be an attachment to stillness, and like any strong attachment, it leads to delusion.” In other words, if you use your meditation practice as a means in which to avoid facing the perturbances and difficulties of everyday life you will remain trapped in suffering, and if you cling and grasp too firmly in an attachment to the idea of and the desire for tranquility and stillness, you will remain ensnared by delusion. Dogen says that “Realization is reality right now. Even shocks, doubts, fears, and frights are none other than reality right now.” Jon Kabat Zinn goes on to say that “Mindful sitting meditation is not an attempt to escape from problems or difficulties into some cut-off ‘meditative’ state of absorption or denial. On the contrary, it is a willingness to go nose to nose with pain, confusion, and loss, if that is what is dominating the present moment, and to stay with the observing over a sustained period of time”.
I recently read a great article by Daniel Scharpenburg on the Tattooed Buddha Website. Daniel is a fantastic writer and meditation teacher and the Tattooed Buddha is really cool website that I’ve recently had the pleasure of writing for. Daniel’s article is titled ‘Greed, Hatred, and Delusion‘, or whats known in Buddhism as ‘The Three Poisons’. These three poisons are also known as ‘Attachment, Aversion, and Ignorance’. Greed is synonymous with Attachment, we are greedily attached to our desires, attached to the desire to have our desires permanently fulfilled. we are addicted to comfort, satisfaction, and security, yet, we are never fully satisfied, we are constantly chasing the dragon. In Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, Dan Harris writes that “We’re always on the hunt for the next dopamine hit. We hurl ourselves headlong from one cookie, one promotion, one party to the next, and yet a great many of us are never fully sated”. This is Greed, this is attachment.
Hatred is equated with Aversion – aversion to pain, discomfort, etc. As vehemently as we are attached to our desires for what we want, we are just as equally averse to all that we don’t want. Daniel Scharpenburg makes it clear that this hatred/aversion can be directed toward “unpleasant people, circumstances, or even toward ourselves.” He highlights that hatred and aversion “can manifest as anger, but also as impatience, ill-will, annoyance and hostility.” In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer expresses a similar idea when he says that “This aversion appears as a cacophony of resistance in the body to the pain, as well as painful emotional thinking, including blame of others, self-blame, fear, despair, anger, and so on.” We are so attached to our ideas, beliefs, and concepts of pleasantness, comfort, and satisfaction that we express a deep seated hatred and aversion to anything that threatens to shatter or conflict with those desirous beliefs.
Being so caught up in these bifurcated beliefs, so firmly distinguishing between pleasant and unpleasant, between what we want and what we don’t want, we are lead into the third poison, Delusion and Ignorance. Put simply, Delusion and Ignorance arrives at the very moment we believe that all our desires can be lastingly fulfilled and that all discomfort and unpleasantness can somehow be avoided. In other words, we demonstrate an utter lack of understanding concerning the nature of reality.
In the article I recently wrote for the Tattooed Buddha I discuss what’s known in Buddhism as ‘the second arrow’. In the Sallatha Sutta the Buddha states the following:
When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.
The first arrow is unavoidable. We will inevitably and invariably be confronted by pain, loss, discomfort, unpleasantness, difficulties, etc. It is our reactivity to the first arrow that causes the strike of the second arrow. We are the second shooter, the second gunman, the second archer on the grassy knoll. We are responsible for the second arrow. As I say the article, the second arrow flys “when we begin bemoan the fact that things aren’t the way we think they should be.” Norman Fischer explains that
What makes suffering suffering is our aversion to it, our desire to escape, our childish sense that this shouldn’t be happening, that we shouldn’t be suffering, and that we should be able to figure out how to make it stop. That attitude makes the suffering worse. But when we are willing to suffer when it is time to suffer, when we don’t mind, when we know that suffering is and was always built into being alive in a living world, and that this is the beauty and the privilege of living, then we can take on the suffering, and it isn’t really suffering.
Fischer goes on to say that “If you can sit still for all this and keep breathing, eventually you discover that it is the aversion, much more than the primary sensation, that hurts.” Perhaps one could say that the second arrow is the very expression of the three poisons, that is, our Attachment, Aversion, and Delusion. It shows us what we are attached to, what we are avoiding, and what we are ignorant of or deluded by.
If I’m being honest, I have to admit that sometimes my meditation practice is more an expression of my attachments, aversions, and delusions than it is my release from them. But, it’s through my sitting practice that I’m beginning to be able to see and detect these three poisons more easily. These poisons coming to light, especially during mediation practice, can be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and, perhaps, even painful. It can be extremely tempting to push the experience down or to push it away. Yet, as Jon Kabat Zinn explains “There can be no resolution leading to growth until the present situation has been faced completely and you have opened to it with mindfulness, allowing the roughness of the situation itself to sand down your own rough edges.”
A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of The Minimalists Podcast. It was episode 135, titled “Acquaintances”. While they weren’t discussing meditation or Buddhism, I think what they had to say relates to what we’re talking about here. They talk about how avoiding everything you dislike will stunt your growth.” Avoiding experiences you dislike will severely limit the breadth and depth of your experience of reality. In fact, Experience becomes richer when you open yourself up to experiences you dislike. In his book, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body, Thich Nhat Hahn writes that “When we know that our suffering, our hatred and fear are organic, we don’t try to run away from them. We know that if we practice, we can transform them and they can nourish our happiness and well-being.” If we can fully confront our suffering, our pain, our discomfort, our attachment, our aversion, and our delusion, not only can we avoid the sting of the second arrow but, we can also transform our pain and our poisons into the fertilization of our new growth.
The truest testament to the results of mediation is not the quality or the pleasantness of your time spent on the cushion but, the quality of your life spent off the cushion.