“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
Learning to cope with the discomfort we experience during formal meditation practice — especially when we are invited to be still and not move for extended periods of time — is a great training to enhance the quality of our lives because it may lead to the reduction of mindless reactivity. It develops our noticing skills, especially of what is disturbing us, enhances patience and endurance, and augments the time between receiving a stimulus and choosing a response.
Many unpleasant sensations, such as physical pain and restlessness, may come up during formal meditation practices, especially during those of longer duration when practitioners are instructed to stay still. We teach 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, and just observe what is going on, if this option is available to them. We know that this may be very difficult, especially for those who suffer of conditions such as chronic pain, since, throughout the years, they have experimented and perhaps solidified ways of dealing with the pain that, to whatever degree, works for them. We ask them to investigate the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that may be arising, with a beginner’s mind, without pushing them away, or without hiding from, or running away from them, but getting closer and staying with them a little longer without rushing to react, observing the discomfort as a removed observer. We tell them to think of themselves as good hosts, and of the unpleasant sensations as unwanted guests who they should welcome and treat honorably (as in Rumi’s poem, ‘The Guest House’). Many times, the mere introduction of this element of curiosity – of this stance of becoming the observer of oneself — 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 awareness, such as the breath. Many times this profound and detailed observation of the breathing process has a calming effect that prevents a thoughtless reaction. This diversion strategy demonstrates that moving the focus of attention to something else other than the painful discomfort, and observing it with curiosity, is another effective way of handling it. It is not really an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ strategy because the mind is still occupied with the task of developing awareness of the physical sensations associated with the breath.
Finally, if after trying these two suggestions the pain and discomfort are still unbearable, and meditators still feel that they have to do something, such as readjust their postures, we ask them to go ahead and do so in a very mindful, measured, and well thought-out way. Our instructions emphasize the need to take time, not rush, and be very mindful of the entire process of choosing what they will do next. 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. Once the moving is over, check again to see how you feel. Compare the sensations now with those of moments ago.”
This training is invaluable because it makes us better able to stay put in the middle of uncomfortable and painful 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 the triggers that activate stress and pain.
We ask our students to become mindful of their automatic, habitual reactions and to make an assessment to determine if those reactions are producing outcomes that enhance the quality of their lives. If that’s the case, 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 that 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, augmenting the time between stimulus and response. More time before doing anything allows for looking again at the situation with removed curiosity, seeing the new in the old, making better assessments, seeing new options, and using wise discernment to decide on the best courses of action.
Imagine the following internal dialogue in a difficult situation: “Oh, I have been challenged. I have been wounded. I feel the urge to react. I am going to strike back. Wait a second, I have done this many times before and what was the outcome? Not a good one. Perhaps I should do what they taught me in the mindfulness classes. S.T.O.P.: Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed. OK, let me do this before I do anything. 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 are 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. Let me understand the other person too. 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’m safe. I know who I am and I know the ground where I stand. This is home. 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 I will act. I have the alternative of not engaging. I don’t have to win this argument. I can let it go.”
Another example could be that of an individual with chronic pain who instead of immediately and thoughtlessly reacting to the pain by ingesting medication, takes the time to observe the pain, evaluate its intensity, see the alternatives available, and decide to go with the healthiest course of action.
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 mindful choices will improve the quality of our lives, and enhance our physical, mental, and emotional well-being by reducing the wear-and-tear caused by chronic stress.
NAME IT TO TAME IT
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; we cannot tame what we cannot name. 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, Flight, Freeze reaction, and with the enhancement of noticing skills that diligent mindfulness meditation practice brings about, we will be able to step outside of the swirling circle of chronic stress, and 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 may take time to get to a point where we living mindfully most of the time, our goal should be to increase the number of mindful moments during our days. Knowing that “It’s not difficult to be mindful; difficult it is to remember to be mindful,” mindfulness practitioners regularly bring to mind the following phrases:
– “Short moments, many times, “or
– “Brief moments, many times,” or
– “Mindful moments, however brief, many times.”
The Buddhist monk, peace activist and promoter of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh, was once asked, “Do you meditate every single day?” He answered, “Not only every day, but every moment. While drinking, while talking, while writing, while watering our garden, I am meditating. It is always possible to practice living in the here and the now. That’s what we call meditation.”
“Mindful moments, however brief, many times.” These six words instruct us how to practice the art of living mindfully. We are called to have as many moments of mindfulness as possible during our days, however brief they may be, knowing that we enhance the quality of our lives by bringing the same attentiveness and awareness we cultivate and develop during formal meditation to the other moments of our lives when we are not meditating.
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 aspires 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 and 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 leads mindfulness silent retreats and organizes Silent Peace Walks. He lives in Florida, USA. Join his Mindfulness Meditation and Mindfulness Living sessions at Shiwa Yoga in Deerfield Beach, FL.
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