You must look inside yourself and determine that from now on pain is not a problem. It’s just a thing in the universe. Somebody can say something to you that can cause your heart to react and catch fire, but then it passes. It’s a temporary experience. Most people can hardly imagine what it would be like to be at peace with inner disturbance. But if you do not learn to be comfortable with it, you will devote your life to avoiding it.
– Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul
I recently learned about Vipassana meditation from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love. The essential principle of this type of meditation is the practice of pure regarding: paying attention to your thought patterns. It’s forbidden to move your body at all during Vipassana and rather than trying to stop thoughts or feelings, you observe them. As clearing my mind during meditation has, of yet, proven impossible, this was a practice I felt might be beneficial. So yesterday I headed outside for my first Vipassana-inspired* meditation session (please feel free to call it “prayer.” I see “prayer” as the act of talking with God, whereas “meditation” seems to me the act of listening.)
As usual, I soon found myself narrating all of my experiences:
“The sound of the wind through the trees is so calming.”
“I wonder if that’s a goose or a duck?”
“I hope that cricket doesn’t come any closer.”
Rather than trying to keep these thoughts from forming as I normally would, I focused on simply paying attention. My mind floated calmly from thought to thought for a while, touching upon subjects lightly and gliding in peaceful silence for long stretches. As time went on, however, my thoughts became fixated on the alarm I had set to end my session. I wasn’t ready to stop meditating but I couldn’t relax, knowing the timer was going to ring soon. I began obsessing about it and realized that rather than simply being in the moment, enjoying the calm that surrounded me now, I was anticipating the sound of the alarm and longed to turn it off. I began to wonder: how much of my life has been this way? How much drama and discomfort do I create for myself now, simply because I anticipate what will or might happen? My counselor calls this “preparatory misery” and I can’t remember a time in my life when it wasn’t my reality. And so I sat, watching myself be uncomfortable and irritated as I waited for the alarm to sound.
When it finally rang I was faced with new dilemmas. First: without the alarm, I wasn’t sure when I was going to stop meditating. As much as I was enjoying this session, I felt the pull of my house, my responsibilities. What if I didn’t meditate for long enough? At the same time, I didn’t want to turn this session into an ego boosting exercise. This was the longest I’d ever meditated before, and I found myself wanting to continue for as long as possible, just to give myself a mental pat on the back. What if I meditated for too long, for the wrong reasons? Without the timer, I wasn’t sure how or when to end my session without giving in to either impulse. My second problem was that my feet were falling asleep. I’ve long held the irrational fear that if a limb falls asleep, it could result in the blood supply being completely cut off and eventual amputation (welcome to the insanity of my mind.) And so began the struggle with not just discomfort, but fear.
My dual dilemma’s struggled against themselves. The discomfort and fear made me want to end my meditation session and also to prolong it. The point, after all, had been to sit with my feelings and pay attention to them and this was a new, disturbing feeling to pay attention to. Finally, I decided to trust God to let me know when my meditation should end. Maybe a car would pull into driveway or one of the kids would need me and I’d take that as a signal it was time to stop. Until then, I would sit and do nothing about my pain and fear but pay attention.
With my mind’s eye, I looked at the pain I was experiencing and, perhaps for the first time in my life, didn’t seek to alleviate it. As I sat there, fully experiencing the discomfort, I slowly began to realize that I don’t have to do anything with pain and fear. I don’t have to give my mind the impossible task of eliminating discomfort, mental or physical. Instead, I can allow myself to feel it. I can let it in, let it through and let it go. I realized that I’ve created incalculable amounts of stress for myself as I’ve pushed my mind to succeed at a job it’s simply not equipped for: eliminate and avoid pain and discomfort at all costs. In that moment, I gave my mind a new task: Observe. Hang out and watch this with me. I don’t know how long we sat there together, watching my feet, but over time an interesting thing started to happen: the pain slowly started to dissipate and eventually vanished entirely. I sat, marveling at this new development, when I suddenly felt a large and forceful presence beside me. For a split second I wondered if I was having a transcendental experience, but a wet nose pushed itself against my face and I realized it was my dog, whom the children had let out to potty. With a laugh, I opened my eyes and stretched out my legs, surprised to find that my feet were no longer numb.
* An introductory Vipassana course lasts ten days, with sessions lasting 2-3 hours at a time for a total of ten hours a day, so I obviously wasn’t actually practicing Vipassana, but following some of its principles.