Sometimes we get onto the cushion, chair or mat and soften into a deep inner stillness and profound sense of peace. On these days, practice is full of ease. It feels like coming home to ourselves, which can be quite a pleasant place to rest. Other times we experience discomfort in the body, thoughts crowd in like an impatient mob, or intense and overwhelming emotions pour over us. On these days, practice can seem difficult to bear – and yet there is so much to learn if we can open to and even welcome in these challenging experiences.
If we hold any posture long enough, we will all eventually encounter some level of bodily discomfort. Aches and pains in the body are often the harbingers of unrecognized emotional unease. Even when physical pain is associated with an injury or disease process, its frequency, duration and intensity can be impacted by one’s psychological state. During practice, we can experiment with opening to the experience of physical discomfort so that we can see it more clearly and objectively. The richness and diversity of the topography and trajectory of what we might consider to be unpleasant bodily sensations can be quite surprising. We can learn much about our habits and patterns and develop a measure of equanimity, even around very intense physical sensations.
Contrary to popular belief, the goal of meditation and yoga is not to “empty the mind”. Our minds are always thinking. Even the act of recognizing what is happening inside of us is a form of thought. Rather, it is discursive thinking that can become an obstacle to meditation. This is the tendency of the mind to ramble aimlessly from subject to subject, narrating stories about our experiences. The interpretations we make during this type of thinking is what often leads to judgments of “unpleasant, unsatisfactory, unwanted”, urges to fix, avoid, or distract, and consequently give rise to afflictive emotions. Non-discursive thought involves the direct experience of phenomena – it is immediate, factual, and descriptive. Over time, a dedicated practice allows discursive thinking to recede into the background as the mind becomes more skilled at resting in the now, non-discursively.
Discursive thinking lends itself to emotional reactions because we must make an interpretation in order to have a feeling about something. When we are on automatic pilot, these interpretations can be made in split seconds below the level of awareness. If we aren’t tuned into our own internal experiences, we run the risk of acting impulsively and unwisely in order to hold onto desired emotions (grasping, clinging) or to avoid, fight against, or distract ourselves from unwanted emotions (aversion). Very strong emotions, whether pleasant or unpleasant, tend to cause us the most difficulty. But, just as with body sensations and thoughts, we can learn to notice emotion as it arises and observe it with curiosity and friendliness so that we can learn from it.
Mindfulness is intentionally attending to what is already here, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, without judgment. When we impulsively try to avoid that which is both inescapable and difficult, we eliminate a wide swath of experience from which we might learn. How can we respond wisely and with compassion when we are unaware? When approached gently and with a spirit of kindness, we can learn to trust our inner knowing to guide us in skillfully facing any challenge that arises.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
– Rumi, “The Guest House” from The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks