Mind, Meditation, Suffering, Letting Go

Mind, Med­i­ta­tion, Suf­fer­ing, Let­ting Go — it’s dif­fi­cult to let go of our own sto­ries, espe­cial­ly about how we suf­fer. Here are some hints.

Look­ing for more on this top­ic? Check out my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall.

Back around the turn of the cen­tu­ry, Dar­bel­la and I devel­oped a holis­tic pro­gramme to help injured work­ers in Ontario. 

If you want to learn what we taught the par­tic­i­pants, there’s a course avail­able called “Find­ing Your Flex­i­bil­i­ty.

The first week, I sart­ed by saying, 

Through­out the next weeks, I want you to under­stand one thing. Pain is a part of liv­ing. Suf­fer­ing is optional.”

I want to unpack this a bit, and offer you some experiments.

The insight that led to the Buddha’s awak­en­ing was his real­iza­tion of the trou­ble we cause our­selves by our uncon­scious liv­ing.

We often run on auto-pilot, unaware of what we are say­ing or doing. 

The say­ing and doing part is not the issue. It’s the auto-pilot that caus­es us to waste our lives caught in a dream.

The First Step

Zazen, or sit­ting med­i­ta­tion, is not a means to an end. It is the begin­ning, the path, and the end.

mind, meditation

Med­i­ta­tion caus­es us to see, like­ly for the first time, the work­ings of our body and mind. As we “just sit there,” it becomes painful­ly appar­ent that our minds nev­er shut up.

Med­i­ta­tion is not about an emp­ty mind — that is impos­si­ble — but rather helps us to learn to let go of our mind’s games.

Here’s how it works.

I have a dicey low­er back. Knock wood, I haven’t thrown it out in a long time, but let me tell you, I’ve been flat on the floor, in spasms, unable to get up, more often than I can count.

I there­fore pay atten­tion to my low­er back, lift things care­ful­ly, brac­ing myself when I sneeze and cough, etc.

Dar­bel­la and I did Iyen­gar Yoga for 6 years, and I con­tin­ue to do stretch­es and lift weights. I still notice that my low­er back is tight and sore a lot, part of which is attrib­ut­able to get­ting old… er.

When I do tweak my back, what I feel is pain. A trig­ger­ing, warn­ing shot across the bow, so to speak. 

Because I spend time pay­ing atten­tion to myself, I notice two things simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and then add in a third.

First, I notice the “grab.” (I notice the body sen­sa­tion of “pre-pain.”)

Sec­ond, almost imme­di­ate­ly, my mind kicks in, thus­ly:

Holy crap! Your back just blew out! You’re going to be on the floor, you’ll nev­er get up again! Do some­thing, now!” 

The last thought is (or could be) the killer.

From past expe­ri­ence, I “know” that if I just crash down to the floor, in all like­li­hood, my back will be a mess.

Every­thing my mind is telling me is “suf­fer­ing talk” designed to take me exact­ly where I do not want to go. My mind “just knows” that my back is toast, and it screams at me to drop to the floor.

Here’s the third part, which I added on: I hear my inter­nal voice, smile, and stretch a bit, while breath­ing.

Why? Because my back isn’t actu­al­ly hurt­ing. It’s warn­ing me to take care.

After some stretching, I very slowly lower myself to the floor.

Result? I lay there, wig­gle my butt around, and low and behold, noth­ing.

The mus­cles of my low­er back feel sore — like they’ve been exer­cised. I get back up, with not much pain. And no suffering.

The suf­fer­ing part is this: I’m toast. My back will be like this for­ev­er. I am so dumb for doing this, and I’m nev­er going to be able to get up again, and… and…”

Now, get this: when I lis­ten to the bab­bling of my mind, I often do end up with a back issue. When I over-react, I tend to end up where I do not want to be. 

My mind, true to itself, (and to every­one’s mind) tries to get me to over-react and to repeat behav­iour that, in the past, had got­ten me into trouble.

If I just do what my mind wants, I’d be guilty of not learning from my past.

This known as being a lemming.

We keep doing dumb stuff because we take the bab­bling of our minds seri­ous­ly.

For exam­ple, we con­di­tion them­selves to blame oth­ers for our pain, and end up mak­ing mat­ters worse. Our minds tell us to blame, and we blurt out words in keep­ing with blame.

In the past, doing this made the sit­u­a­tion worse, so, just like lem­mings, we run off the same cliff again.

You have to ful­ly grasp that the sto­ries our minds pop up for us are not true! They are not accu­rate! They are not even par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing. All they are is rep­e­ti­tious, and designed to cause us suffering.

Now, you might wonder why our minds would want us to suffer. 

But this is not a help­ful question. 

It’s enough for us to notice that this is what hap­pens. Our minds are not sat­is­fied with “what is” — they’d rather bitch, moan and com­plain that things should be dif­fer­ent.

Except that they nev­er pro­pose an alter­na­tive; rather, our minds encour­age us to do again what nev­er has worked.

So, back to “catching myself.”

At the point of the “grab and crunch,”tweak of pain, a fork appears in my road. I could lis­ten to the sto­ry my mind is shov­el­ing, and prove my mind right. 

Or, I can pause, turn my atten­tion away from the chat­ter, and have a chat with my low­er back.

In the choice to pause, and ask my body what it needs, I hear anoth­er, dis­tinct, wise voice (of my body? Hmm. maybe. Dis­tinct, though, and dif­fer­ent…) saying, 

Stop right here. Hold. Now, go down to the ground, slow­ly, wig­gle and check.”

If I com­pare the two voices, 

  • the first, (the mind voice,) is all scream‑y and dra­mat­ic, hard done by, and just aching to prove that I will be suf­fer­ing, and soon. 
  • The oth­er (body?) voice is calm, rea­son­able; it invites me to exper­i­ment with myself in a calm and col­lect­ed way, and then to judge actu­al results, with­out drama.

Exer­cise: Pay atten­tion to the work­ings of your mind. If you refuse to do this, you are doomed to be a suf­fer­ing, unhap­py, non-present dra­ma queen until you die. 

If you choose to shift (in addi­tion to sit­ting Zazen, 20 ‑25 min­utes a day…) do this:

Lis­ten in on your mind. For exam­ple, you may say aloud or to your­self, “What a love­ly day.” Imme­di­ate­ly after, say, “This is my mind, describ­ing how I per­ceive the day.” Or, short­hand, “Me, talk­ing to myself.”

In dia­logue with some­one, you might notice your­self think­ing “How dare she talk like that! Tell her what a jerk she is!” Stop. Breathe. Say to yourself, 

Me, hav­ing judge­men­tal thoughts.” 

Then, try ask­ing ques­tions instead of blaming.

The fre­net­ic, dra­mat­ic voice your mind pro­duces is basi­cal­ly full of crap. It prat­tles on about how spe­cial you are, about how every­one should treat you as impor­tant, about how hard done by you are. 

It wants more of the good stuff, it rejects the bad stuff, and clings to its sto­ries like a ter­ri­er on a bone. This voice is not you, is not accu­rate, and leads you, repeat­ed­ly, into deep water.

In order to come to terms with this voice, and thus to put it in its place, you must learn

  1. to hear it, and
  2. to ignore it’s stupidities.

Then, with a breath and a bit of mind­ful­ness, anoth­er path will occur to you.

And this, the path less trav­eled by, makes all the dif­fer­ence. (with thanks to Robert Frost.)

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