«Mindfulness In Plain English By Ven. Henepola Gunaratana Preface In my experience I found that the most effective way to express something in order ...»
Paradoxically, kindness entails confronting unpleasantness when it arises. One popular human strategy for dealing with difficulty is autosuggestion: when something nasty pops up, you convince yourself it is pleasant rather than unpleasant. The Buddha's tactic is quite the reverse. Rather than hide it or disguise it, the Buddha's teaching urges you to examine it to death. Buddhism advises you not to implant feelings that you don't really have or avoid feelings that you do have. If you are miserable you are miserable; this is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront that. Look it square in the eye without flinching. When you are having a bad time, examine the badness, observe it mindfully, study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics. The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can't trap you if it has been taken to pieces. The result is freedom.
This point is essential, but it is one of the least understood aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Those who have studied Buddhism superficially are quick to conclude that it is a pessimistic set of teachings, always harping on unpleasant things like suffering, always urging us to confront the uncomfortable realities of pain, death and illness.
Buddhist thinkers do not regard themselves as pessimists--quite the opposite, actually.
Pain exists in the universe; some measure of it is unavoidable. Learning to deal with it is not pessimism, but a very pragmatic form of optimism. How would you deal with the death of your spouse? How would you feel if you lost your mother tomorrow? Or your sister or your closest friend? Suppose you lost your job, your savings, and the use of your hands, on the same day; could you face the prospect of spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair? How are you going to cope with the pain of terminal cancer if you contract it, and how will you deal with your own death, when that approaches? You may escape most of these misfortunes, but you won't escape all of them. Most of us lose friends and relatives at some time during our lives; all of us get sick now and then; at the very least you are going to die someday. You can suffer through things like that or you can face them openly--the choice is yours.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is not. Pain and suffering are two different animals. If any of these tragedies strike you in your present state of mind, you will suffer. The habit patterns that presently control your mind will lock you into that suffering and there will be no escape. A bit of time spent in learning alternatives to those habit patterns is time wellinvested. Most human beings spend all their energies devising ways to increase their pleasure and decrease their pain. Buddhism does not advise that you cease this activity altogether. Money and security are fine. Pain should be avoided where possible. Nobody is telling you to give away all your possessions or seek out needless pain, but Buddhism does advise you to invest some of your time and energy in learning to deal with unpleasantness, because some pain is unavoidable.
When you see a truck bearing down on you, by all means jump out of the way. But spend some time in meditation, too. Learning to deal with discomfort is the only way you'll be ready to handle the truck you didn't see.
Problems arise in your practice. Some of them will be physical, some will be emotional, and some will be attitudinal. All of them are confrontable and each has its own specific response. All of them are opportunities to free yourself.
Nobody likes pain, yet everybody has some sometime. It is one of life's most common experiences and is bound to arise in your meditation in one form or another. Handling pain is a two-stage process. First, get rid of the pain if possible or at least get rid of it as much as possible. Then, if some pain lingers, use it as an object of meditation.
The first step is physical handling. Maybe the pain is an illness of one sort or another, a headache, fever, bruises or whatever. In this case, employ standard medical treatments before you sit down to meditate: take your medicine, apply your liniment, do whatever you ordinarily do. Then there are certain pains that are specific to the seated posture. If you never spent much time sitting cross-legged on the floor, there will be an adjustment period. Some discomfort is nearly inevitable. According to where the pain is, there are specific remedies. If the pain is in the leg or knees, check you pants. If they are tight or made of thick material, that could be the problem. Try to change it. Check your cushion, too. It should be about three inches in height when compressed. If the pain is around your waist, try loosening your belt. Loosen the waistband of your pants if that is necessary. If you experience pain in your lower back, your posture is probably at fault. Slouching will never be comfortable, so straighten up. Don't be tight or rigid, but do keep your spine erect. Pain in the neck or upper back has several sources. The first is improper hand position. Your hands should be resting comfortably in your lap. Don't pull them up to your waist. Relax your arms and your neck muscles. Don't let your head droop forward.
Keep it up and aligned with the rest of the spine.
After you have made all these various adjustments, you may find you still have some lingering pain. If that is the case, try step two. Make the pain your object of meditation.
Don't jump up and down and get excited. Just observe the pain mindfully. When the pain becomes demanding, you will find it pulling your attention off the breath. Don't fight back. Just let your attention slide easily over onto the simple sensation. Go into the pain fully. Don't block the experience. Explore the feeling. Get beyond your avoiding reaction and go into the pure sensations that lie below that. You will discover that there are two things present. The first is the simple sensation -- pain itself. Second is your resistance to that sensation. Resistance reaction is partly mental and partly physical. The physical part consists of tensing the muscles in and around the painful area. Relax those muscles. Take them one by one and relax each one very thoroughly. This step alone probably diminishes the pain significantly. Then go after the mental side of the resistance. Just as you are tensing physically, you are also tensing psychologically. You are clamping down mentally on the sensation of pain, trying to screen it off and reject it from consciousness.
The rejection is a wordless, "I don't like this feeling" or "go away" attitude. It is very subtle. But it is there, and you can find it if you really look. Locate it and relax that, too.
That last part is more subtle. There are really no human words to describe this action precisely. The best way to get a handle on it is by analogy. Examine what you did to those tight muscles and transfer that same action over to the mental sphere; relax the mind in the same way that you relax the body. Buddhism recognizes that the body and mind are tightly linked. This is so true that many people will not see this as a two-step procedure. For them to relax the body is to relax the mind and vice versa. These people will experience the entire relaxation, mental and physical, as a single process. In any case, just let go completely until your awareness slows down past that barrier which you yourself erected. It was a gap, a sense of distance between self and others. It was a borderline between 'me' and 'the pain'. Dissolve that barrier, and separation vanishes. You slow down into that sea of surging sensation and you merge with the pain. You become the pain. You watch its ebb and flow and something surprising happens. It no longer hurts. Suffering is gone. Only the pain remains, an experience, nothing more. The 'me' who was being hurt has gone. The result is freedom from pain.
This is an incremental process. In the beginning, you can expect to succeed with small pains and be defeated by big ones. Like most of our skills, it grows with practice. The more you practice, the bigger the pain you can handle. Please understand fully. There is no masochism being advocated here. Self- mortification is not the point.
This is an exercise in awareness, not in sadism. If the pain becomes excruciating, go ahead and move, but move slowly and mindfully. Observe your movements. See how it feels to move. Watch what it does to the pain. Watch the pain diminish. Try not to move too much though. The less you move, the easier it is to remain fully mindful. New meditators sometimes say they have trouble remaining mindful when pain is present. This difficulty stems from a misunderstanding. These students are conceiving mindfulness as something distinct from the experience of pain. It is not. Mindfulness never exists by itself. It always has some object and one object is as good as another. Pain is a mental state. You can be mindful of pain just as you are mindful of breathing.
The rules we covered in Chapter 4 apply to pain just as they apply to any other mental state. You must be careful not to reach beyond the sensation and not to fall short of it.
Don't add anything to it, and don't miss any part of it. Don't muddy the pure experience with concepts or pictures or discursive thinking. And keep your awareness right in the present time, right with the pain, so that you won't miss its beginning or its end. Pain not viewed in the clear light of mindfulness gives rise to emotional reactions like fear, anxiety, or anger. If it is properly viewed, we have no such reaction. It will be just sensation, just simple energy. Once you have learned this technique with physical pain, you can then generalize it in the rest of your life. You can use it on any unpleasant sensation. What works on pain will work on anxiety or chronic depression. This technique is one of life's most useful and generalizable skills. It is patience.
Problem 2 Legs Going To Sleep It is very common for beginners to have their legs fall asleep or go numb during meditation. They are simply not accustomed to the cross-legged posture. Some people get very anxious about this. They feel they must get up and move around. A few are completely convinced that they will get gangrene from lack of circulation. Numbness in the legs is nothing to worry about. It is caused by nerve-pinch, not by lack of circulation.
You can't damage the tissues of your legs by sitting. So relax. When your legs fall asleep in meditation, just mindfully observe the phenomenon. Examine what it feels like. It may be sort of uncomfortable, but it is not painful unless you tense up. Just stay calm and watch it. It does not matter if your legs go numb and stay that way for the whole period.
After you have meditated for some time, that numbness gradually will disappear. Your body simply adjusts to daily practice. Then you can sit for very long sessions with no numbness whatever.
Problem 3 Odd Sensations People experience all manner of varied phenomena in meditation. Some people get itches. Others feel tingling, deep relaxation, a feeling of lightness or a floating sensation.
You may feel yourself growing or shrinking or rising up in the air. Beginners often get quite excited over such sensations. As relaxation sets in, the nervous system simply begins to pass sensory signals more efficiently. Large amounts of previously blocked sensory data can pour through, giving rise to all manner of unique sensations. It does not signify anything in particular. It is just sensation. So simply employ the normal technique. Watch it come up and watch it pass away. Don't get involved.
Problem 4 Drowsiness It is quite common to experience drowsiness during meditation. You become very calm and relaxed. That is exactly what is supposed to happen. Unfortunately, we ordinarily experience this lovely state only when we are falling asleep, and we associate it with that process. So naturally, you begin to drift off. When you find this happening, apply your mindfulness to the state of drowsiness itself. Drowsiness has certain definite characteristics. It does certain things to your thought process. Find out what. It has certain body feelings associated with it. Locate those.
This inquisitive awareness is the direct opposite of drowsiness, and will evaporate it. If it does not, then you should suspect a physical cause of your sleepiness. Search that out and handle it. If you have just eaten a large meal, that could be the cause. It is best to eat lightly before you meditate. Or wait an hour after a big meal. And don't overlook the obvious either. If you have been out loading bricks all day, you are naturally going to be tired. The same is true if you only got a few hours sleep the night before. Take care of your body's physical needs. Then meditate. Do not give in to sleepiness. Stay awake and mindful, for sleep and meditative concentration are two diametrically opposite experiences. You will not gain any new insight from sleep, but only from meditation. If you are very sleepy then take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can. Then breathe out slowly. Take another deep breath again, hold it as long as you can and breathe out slowly. Repeat this exercise until your body warms up and sleepiness fades away. Then return to your breath.
Problem 5 Inability To Concentrate An overactive, jumping attention is something that everybody experiences from time to time. It is generally handled by techniques presented in the chapter on distractions. You should also be informed, however, that there are certain external factors which contribute to this phenomenon. And these are best handled by simple adjustments in your schedule.
Mental images are powerful entities. They can remain in the mind for long periods. All of the storytelling arts are direct manipulation of such material, and to the extent the writer has done his job well, the characters and images presented will have a powerful and lingering effect on the mind. If you have been to the best movie of the year, the meditation which follows is going to be full of those images. If you are halfway through the scariest horror novel you ever read, your meditation is going to be full of monsters.
So switch the order of events. Do your meditation first. Then read or go to the movies.