Mindfulness practice makes us better able to recognize pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings, and notice how pleasant events generate attachment, unpleasant ones are associated with aversion, and neutral ones with delusion.
Learning to cope with the discomfort we experience during formal meditation practice is a great training to enhance the quality of our lives because it may lead to the reduction of mindless reactivity. It develops patience and endurance, and augments the time between receiving a stimulus and choosing a mindful response.
Many unpleasant sensations may come up during formal meditation practices, especially during those of longer duration. We instruct our students how to work with physical and non-physical discomfort when it shows up. We ask them to notice the pain and the urge to immediately do something about it, and we advise them to hold on and do nothing for a while — if this option is available to them — and just observe what is going on. We ask them to investigate with a “beginner’s mind” the physical sensations, thoughts and emotions that may be arising, without pushing them away, without hiding from, or running away from them, but getting closer and staying with them a little longer without rushing to react. We tell them to think of the unpleasant sensations as guests who they should welcome and treat honorably. Many times, the mere introduction of this element of curiosity reduces the discomfort, or dissipates it.
If that does not work, we instruct our students to remove the focus from the pain and refocus on some other ‘object of attention,’ such as the breath. Many times this profound and detailed observation of the breathing process has a calming effect which prevents a thoughtless reaction. It demonstrates that moving the focus of attention to something else other than the discomfort, and observing it with curiosity is another effective way of handling it.
Finally, if after trying these two suggestions meditators still feel that they have to ‘do something,’ such as readjust their postures, we ask them to do so in a very mindful and well thought-out way. Our instructions emphasize the need to take time, not rush, and be very mindful of the entire process. With many possible variations, the instructions may sound like the following: “Once you have decided that you really want to move, imagine how you will do it, and mentally rehearse the steps you will take to readjust your posture. Visualize the entire process. Play a mental movie, if you will, of how you will move before actually moving. Once this step has been completed, then go ahead and move, but make sure you do it mindfully. This should not be a reaction, but a thoughtful response to the pain and discomfort. Move mindfully. Observe the way you move, observe the physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts, and mentally compare the actual movement with the one you imagined. After moving, check again to see how you feel. Compare the sensations now with those of moments ago.”
This training is valuable because it makes us better able to stay put in the middle of uncomfortable situations. The practice weakens those conditioned, automatic, fast, habitual, mindless reactions and strengthens the mindfulness mediated responses. It gives us better tools to deal with the stressors in our lives, responding more thoughtfully to them.
We ask our students to become mindful of their automatic reactions and to make an assessment to determine if those habitual reactions are producing outcomes that enhance the quality of their lives. Perhaps this is the case. If so, there’s no need to change, but if they are not satisfied with the outcomes, we encourage them to consider using mindfulness skills to explore alternatives, contemplate new options, and try something new, something different that perhaps may be capable of making their lives better. We remind them that “Madness is doing the same things expecting different results,” and we encourage them to ask themselves, “What could I do differently to improve the quality of my life? Am I willing to give it a fair try?”
The training of staying with the unpleasant sensations and refraining from reacting instinctively is of great use in daily life. It allows us to stay comfortable in the middle of uncomfortable situations, augment the time between stimulus and response, which allows to look again at the situation with removed curiosity, see the new in the old, make a better assessment, see new options, and use wise discernment to decide on the best course of action.
Imagine the following internal dialogue: “Oh, I have been challenged. I have been wounded. I feel the urge to react. Wait a second, I have done this many times before and what was the outcome? Not a good one. Perhaps I can do what they told me to do in the mindfulness classes. S.T.O.P. Stop. Take a breath. Observe. OK, let me do this before I Proceed. Let me investigate my physical sensations, my emotions, and my thoughts. Yes, I feel a tightening in my throat, a contraction in my chest, a pain in the stomach. My hands a sweaty. My heart is racing. My breath is shallow and fast. I feel anger and rage. I feel aversion to this person and his behavior. OK. Noticing my dislike. Noticing my aversion. Noticing my desire to strike back. Oh, wait a minute. I see: this is my ego at work. Oh, the ego is bruised. Let me be curious. Why is this person acting this way? Oh, I see. Let me go back to my breath. Let me breathe consciously. OK. I am here now. I am here and I’m safe. Everything is OK. Let me make a wise assessment of the situation, use wise discernment, and choose the best possible course of action. I feel that urge to react subsiding. Interesting! OK, I don’t need to go down the same path I have always traveled with my automatic, habitual, mindless reactions. I can choose a mindfulness mediated response. OK. What am I going to do? How am I going to respond? Let me think this over before I move. And let me move mindfully. OK. I know who I am and I know the ground where I stand. I feel calmer. And it is from this calmness that this knowing brings about that I will act.”
Formal meditation practice develops patience and endurance to stay comfortable in the middle of the uncomfortable. And why would we want to do all this? Because, hopefully, we want to improve the quality of our lives; we want to enhance our physical, mental and emotional well-being by reducing the wear and tear caused by chronic stress.
Mindfulness allows us to get good at noticing the activators of stress. And this is fundamental because “we cannot heal what we cannot feel; we cannot fix what we cannot see.” Mindfulness makes us better able to recognize stress when it is present by sharpening our ability to notice our body sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
Hopefully, with a better understanding of the Fight or Flight reaction, and of Chronic Stress, and with the enhancement of noticing skills that diligent mindfulness meditation practice brings about, we may be able to let go of old patterns of behavior, those fast, automatic, habitual, mindless reactions that do not serve us anymore.
We have to remember to ask ourselves “What can I do differently to improve the quality of my life?”
Since it is practically impossible to be mindful all the time, our goal should be to increase the number of mindful moments during our days. One of the phrases that mindfulness practitioners repeat often is “Mindful moments, brief moments, many times,” because, as we know, “It’s not difficult to be mindful; difficult it is to remember to be mindful.”
“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” ~ James Baraz
Piero Falci is an author and educator who believes that the inner work that leads to personal awakening and transformation is indispensable to create a wholesome world. He is an explorer of the mysteries of life who loves to observe, reflect, and write, and who not only strives to live a life that matters, but also hopes to inspire others to do the same. He is a promoter of peace who believes in advancing the idea that Heaven is here if we want it to be. He teaches mindfulness meditation, mindful living, and the acclaimed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program as taught at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He organizes Silent Peace Walks.
Take a look at these books at the Peaceful Ways online store
– “Peaceful Ways – The Power of Making Your Wishes Come True”
– “Pay Attention! Be Alert! Discovering Your Route to Happiness”
– “Silent Peace Walk”