Don’t Scratch That Itch.

| January 7, 2009 | 2 Replies

I am sitting cross legged on a pillow on the floor, which I try to do daily these days, when my cheek begins to itch. A 20 minute daily sitting meditation has, over the past year, become more routine for me. I sit focused on my breath. I am my breath, in, out, not controlling, just aware. This focus is easier said than done. My mind sometimes races, daydreams, ponders assorted tasks, and of course it can start to worry. When I notice this behavior I acknowledge it, without feeling frustrated, and turn away from the distraction, back to my breath. Though it can be exhausting to train the mind, it is also one of the most refreshing things I have encountered.

The notion of training mind makes sense to me. In fact, the more I read Buddhist thinking by fellows like Thich Nhat Hahn, or Sakyong Mipham, the more I am amazed by similarities to some of my favorite postmodern thinkers like Heidegger and Foucault. The realization that we undergo thinking, that we are not always in control of it made sense to me when I first encountered it in college – who hasn’t had the experience of trying to remember an elusive thought?  I enjoy critiques of things we as a society/culture see as fixed absolutes, and I was drawn to many of the same flavors of critique in postmodern and eastern thinking. Later, I began to understand that Buddhism and meditation are less of a religion and more of a type of mental training.  They offer a way of training our minds like an athlete trains his body. That training, for me, seemed almost a continuation and application of the critique of thinking and concept of self that I found so compelling in postmodern theory.  It also seemed like an antidote to much of what ails me, and to an extent, society

I think I think too much. Yeah, I know how convoluted that sounds, but it is accurate. Sometimes I feel a victim of my mind – it whirls, it swirls, and it is most certainly in charge of me.  Sometimes I have hyperfocus, other times I have no focus at all. I used to think that I had a weak will, or possibly a lack of discipline. It didn’t occur to me that I could train my mind (as bright as I can be, I am often pretty slow). What I am learning now, is that I can work toward a heightened awareness, a mindfulness rooted in my present moment. When I cultivate mindfulness I don’t race, I don’t rush around, I can focus. Most importantly mindfulness brings with it a pause, an awareness of self, and a detachment that demands one hold even the things we believe at a distance, because they are also in flux. When we are truly present and mindful in the moment we have choices we might not have otherwise.

I have noticed that I have gained a stronger focus over the last year. Most importantly I am starting to see that mindful awareness in a way I can measure. When I first started sitting, I would have an itch and I’d catch myself scratching it without thinking. It is a reflex to scratch an itch, much like it is a reflex to hurt anyone who hurts you, or to yell when someone screams at you, or pulls out in front of you in traffic without signaling. As human beings we do a lot of that reflex stuff, and I think it often causes real pain. The ability to pause before reacting is invaluable, especially for someone like me who can be so quick to assess and quick to act. Pausing and breathing lets me recognize and be aware of my stance, but also to strive to see to see the other, to be mindful of their position and being. That pause has often tempered my reactions and helped me navigate better solutions than I might have without it. When I notice an itch on my cheek, I often now catch my hand right after it starts to reach and I pause, become aware of the itch, and relax and focus on the breath. Sometimes I don’t even react at all, I am able to turn away from the itch and back to the breath without reaching to scratch. Often the itch goes away when I am not paying attention to it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all learn to pause before we react, and if in that moment of pausing we were able to recognize the truth that none of us are separate on this planet, that we are all linked all connected. I think our reactions would change and sometimes problems might also go away.

Sitting and breathing daily is a simple thing. It costs me nothing, needs no equipment, and can be done anywhere. Though simple, it is making a tremendous difference in my life. Somehow I feel more in control (while realizing that I have no control at all) than I ever have. I worry less, because I now see how worry robs me of my present and adds no benefit at all. I feel less stressed, because I now know stress also a weight I put on myself that pushes me out of the moment, and doesn’t help me accomplish anything. I think I may be even more kind and compassionate.  I smile more, and that may be the most important part of being in the moment – it feels great.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, Good and Evil, ignorance, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Lisa lives and works in the city of St. Louis, and is striving to develop the right mix of both while asking herself what it means to live a good life. You can follow her on twitter http://www.twitter.com/lisarokusek

Comments (2)

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  1. mindy says:

    Oh my. Lisa – this is breathtaking. No pun intended! I think too much. I drive myself nuts some days with it, and can be paralyzed by it. I am going to start doing this, this meditative breathing. I am going to try to train my brain. Thank you for so eloquently describing the process and what it can do – I related to your whole post.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Lisa: This is a wonderful post. It is a gift. Thank you. I have been drawn toward meditation, which I occasionally (= rarely) do in a (ad hoc) way. Your post has inspired me to get more serious about doing "nothing" more carefully, on a regularly basis.

    I've previously posted on a prominent skeptic, Sam Harris. Unknown to many who find his skeptical and philosophical writings to be interesting, Harris has also found that meditation makes a huge difference to his way of thinking and living; it has allowed him to experience a plane of experience previously unknown to him. Consider this description of how difficult it can be for those of us all caught up in the day to day rush of experience:

    The initial instruction given on a vipassana retreat could not be more simple: when seated, pay attention to the sensation of breathing; when walking, notice the feeling of moving your feet; and whenever you find that your mind has wandered into thought, simply come back to the mere awareness of sensation. Once meditators have developed an ability to concentrate on the flow of physical sensations in this way, they are encouraged to pay attention to the entire range of their experience. The practice from then on is to be precisely aware, moment by moment, of the full tumult of consciousness and its contents: sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, intentions, and emotions. Of critical importance for the purposes of science: there are no unjustified beliefs or metaphysics that need be adopted at all.

    Many of the scientists found the experience grueling. Some said it was the hardest week of their lives. Indeed, many had not known that they would be consigned to total silence for the first six days of the retreat, and asked not to read, or to write, or to make eye-contact with the other retreatants. One neuroscientist reported that on the second day of the retreat he hit "a wall of grief," in the face of which even the most trivial memories — of drinking a cup of tea, of shaving his face — precipitated profound feelings of sadness, simply because they testified to the inexorable passage of time. It is, of course, natural to brood about time when one suddenly has too much of it on hand. Heaven help the meditator who gets a song like "Cats in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon" stuck in his head. He will surely die by his own hand.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-contem

    One other thing, Lisa. I'm going to reveal you to the DI world as a highly interactive tech-savvy Twitterer, etc. Don't you feel pulled in half by your needs to meditate and to (at other times) hook up your brain to the frenzy of the Internet?

    See http://dangerousintersection.org/2008/12/30/how-i

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