Times are hard (though, God knows, others' lives are so much harder than mine and I hardly know how I have the cheek to say it). So hard and so weary that I push myself to say something, because self-expression, finding the words or the pictures for it, always helps and opens things up. It's particularly since I started doing the Mindfulness course. It seems - surprise, surprise! - to be making me mindful… and most of what it’s making me mindful of is not pleasant. There’s so much more weariness, so much more pain than I was previously aware of. I think this is true of most of us, not particular to me. If most people weren’t devoted to looking away, to numbing themselves, Western societies could not possibly run the way they do, based on relentless activity, endless bombardments of information. Being more aware, more mindful, more alive: this must be a good thing, surely? But what a scary thing. It’s so far from the norm. I’ve always been pretty far from the norm, and suffered for it. So where the hell is this taking me? I suppose I must look on it as an adventure, a mountain to climb, with an unknown view from the summit. Puff. Gasp. Where’s my Kendal Mint Cake?
“When we begin to practice [mindfulness]... we see through our pursuit of outward things, the false gods of pleasure and security. We have to stop gobbling this and pursuing that in our shortsighted way, and simply relax into the cocoon, into the darkness of the pain that is our life… When we’re perfectly willing to be there—when we’re willing for life to be as it is, embracing both life and death, pleasure and pain, good and bad, comfortable in being both—then the cocoon begins to dissolve.”
I cannot but question, though, whether this way, right into the heart of the pain and through it, is the right one. Is it just masochism? Can choosing to be more self-aware, even more raw and unprotected, be a good thing for people who are already by temperament highly sensitive or exceptionally neurotic (choose your definition – which one I choose depends on my mood, though Elaine Aron’s work on the trait of high-sensitivity has certainly had a big impact on my thinking)? We should always question. The thing is, I haven’t found another way. Suppression, pretending I’m not here, certainly hasn’t worked. But will I ever be ‘perfectly willing to be there’?
I must admit, I thought I had asked and answered these questions long ago. I’ve been meditating for about ten years. I’ve read and been moved by the teachings of Joko Beck and many others, and met in person many Buddhist teachers with the same message. But I’ve never faced the ‘darkness of the pain’ in the ways that the MBSR course is requiring me to. I’ve sat with myself for long hours, some of them soothing and some difficult, and always felt better for it. And those long hours have slowly helped me to be present to more of life. But this looking directly at the difficult, the unbearable, feelings, this ‘bring to mind something difficult, look at it, feel it, be with it’… I haven’t done this before. It’s a leap into the fire – and I mean that almost literally: when I turn towards instead of away from difficult feelings, my body and my mind burn and flinch and burn, the heat and intensity take my breath away. I could compare it with the ancient Buddhist practice of meditating in the graveyard or the charnel house. It’s a practice of looking at the very worst, in order to know that the looking itself won't kill us. Sounds dramatic. Except that it turns out the very worst is mostly nothing dramatic, it’s the everyday stuff, those old unbearable feelings of pressure and fear and defeat that we turn away from every day.
And so the question recurs, with renewed force, even after all these years of meditation: will I ever be ‘perfectly willing to be there’? And I don’t know the answer, can’t yet see the view.