Wednesday 28 May 2008

Stony path

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?

Ah, here’s my Kendal Mint Cake, my emergency fuel: a quote from Charlotte Joko Beck (via psychologist and mindfulness teacher Delany Dean, whose blog mind.expressions is a great new discovery).

“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.


Zhoen said...

A very real conundrum. If most folks can't even see, and mindfulness turns them to insight, what about the oversensitive, does it turn us in the wrong direction? I don't know, either.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Oh. {{{Jean}}}

I'm thinking about this a lot. Taking my thoughts with Maizy for a walk. Will report back if anything coalesces.

Anonymous said...

Well, it rained. A very very fine mizzle propelled my a middling breeze. Would this make it a fine mizzdleeze?

I'm obviously very interested in your experiences since I'm doing the course at the same time. My feelings about it are very different (in sum been here, done this, with a much better teacher) and I think it's because I've been incredibly lucky to have had a meditation teacher who enabled me to start some time ago the kind of work highlighted in the MBSR/MBCT course. I remember writing somewhere, some time ago, that I hated the idea of sitting because I had to ask myself, with radical honesty, how I *felt*, and at the time how I felt mostly was absolutely unbearably terrible. But I knew that, ultimately, however much it hurt it helped, so I carried on.

I think it's probably really very easy to meditate for years without looking at the pain not just because of the society we live in but because it's counter-intuitive to our relationship to physical pain which is to move away immediately from the cause and give it a wide berth in future. Existential pain (dukkha, perhaps) is different since it surrounds and permeates us like amniotic fluid.

Anyway. I don't know that we ever get to the top of the mountain, do we? Maybe the road gets less steep and less stony (or we develop the muscles and soles that make it appear so). But the view, in my experience, becomes ever more beautiful :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm just full of admiration that you're sticking with this, Jean. I have a hard time with the idea myself.

Here's a stone for the pile:


Jean said...

Yikes, you're making me think hard, rr.

I don't think I've ever used meditation as an escape. I've always been led by teachers to rigorously face how I was in that moment, as I sat. But I love sitting meditation, so I'm usually fine (at least relatively fine, or at least okay, or at least better) while I'm sitting, however bad things were right before and may be again right afterwards (I don't think this is necessarily true for everyone. Some people - as I have understood them to describe - find sitting very difficult and all their worst feelings rise to the surface as soon as they sit still. This has never been the case for me. What I haven't done before, and am finding very painful, is to sit and direct my mind to a particular painful experience which is current in my life, but not necessarily at that moment.

Lucy said...


courage Jean. Perhaps the worst has already happened?

MB said...

First off, I don't do this consistently enough; I tend too easily to turn away. That said, when I have maintained an awareness, a level of presence or mindfulness, I have found that something eventually eases -- not that things get easier, but that my perspective on it shifts slightly so that it all feels more in balance. As for the sensitivity, I personally have found there can be a cost (a sort of pain all its own) I create when I turn away, as much as when I experience. So while I feel a need to protect myself, in essence I can't protect myself from something that is already present, even when I try to turn away. However, I can avoid creating the (additional) pain of trying to avoid it. And staying aware underscores for me the need to properly care for myself and thereby avoid some things to begin with. Clear as mud, probably, and of course speaking in all this only for myself. Don't know the "real answers." :-)

Unknown said...

Here's an idea: Sometimes it is helpful to use this model (from Joko Beck) about emotions, i.e., an emotion (e.g., I am feeling terrible, or I feel horribly guilty or afraid) can be experienced as the conjunction of two experiences, or two classes of experiences: a thought and a physical sensation. It is helpful not to experience "feeling terrible" so much in a global way, but more by experiencing and labeling the component thoughts and sensations. So, you can STAY WITH the experience, not so much by looking deeply at, or feeling overwhelmed by the feeling of, the overall hugeness of "feeling terrible," but more by inquiring: what are the thoughts, right now, entering consciousness, when I direct my attention to *thoughts* and what are the physical sensations, right now, available to my awareness, when I direct my attention to *sensations* and, perhaps, at the same time, what can I hear, right now, with my ears? This can help, sometimes, to enable one to stay with an experience, without being overwhelmed by it... (or re-traumatized by it)...

Let me know what you think and how that might or might not be helpful, Jean (and rr!)...


Beth said...

Jean, I've always admired your courage and honesty, and with this even more so. Meditation for me has always been more what you describe - and a reminder that at the heart of existence, there is no problem. It would be rough for me to have meditation itself turn into something else; escape is not why I do it, but it's also not to make myself suffer; I spend enough time being mindful of how I feel and what's going on while NOT meditating! I'll wait anxiously to hear how you feel about it as the process goes along; your reservations seem real to me.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely didn't mean to imply that you were using meditation as an escape.

Perhaps where I have been fortunate is to have had a teacher who stressed the importance of taking the insights and benefits of meditation "off the cushion".

Or perhaps I'm entirely missing the point :-)

litlove said...

I'm really with you on this - it's a journey I've been taking myself lately. The best things I was told, the thoughts that helped me, were to know that change can only come if we have fully inhabited where we are, pain and all. It's a paradox that only by being exactly where we are can we move on. And that you know this is real change by the very fact that it hurts. If it didn't, then nothing of worth would be occurring. You'll get there, and you'll be so glad that you did.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Jean, I'd really love to talk with you about this some time, if you wish. What you wrote and are experiencing has strong resonance for me but from another perspective. It's difficult to put it into a comment so I'll wait for the right moment.

Lori Witzel said...

You wrote:
"...will I ever be ‘perfectly willing to be there’..."

Oh my gosh, this opens so many questions for me.

There are times (such as my last work-week) where it is a kindness to myself not to be mindful of what and how I feel.

I made a choice to do a particular kind of work for a variety of reasons, and that work entails some activity I would normally avoid at all costs -- running/managing executive conferences.

To do this, although I'm "there" in the sense of attention and service, I can't be fully "there" regarding my own needs.

So the questions:
What happens to a mindfulness practice when being mindful might immobilize the practitioner?

If we're still in the place of "I" not "the transcendent Self," will a mindfulness practice nourish us or enmesh us further?

Anyway, sending warmth from Texas your way. Thank you for sharing your wrestling with all of us -- I very much appreciate it.

Brenda Clews said...

Jean, this was heart-felt, deeply, and I admire your courage, endurance, honesty, openness. I'm such a mix of passions, some untamed it seems when for instance someone's criticizing my children, and hence surprising, that I don't know if I could stare straight into my own shadow (or what I am that I won't acknowledge even to myself). A fixed, hard stare into one's own pain. Oh, Jean! And yet what strength you return with, having reclaimed each little bit more each time. hugs & love to you