In meditation, you are taught to become aware of your thoughts. You quickly realize just how many thoughts you really have during any given period of time.
Meditation helps you start to become aware of the stories in every day life, too. Normally we aren’t aware of these stories. They just come and go during the course of the day.
But you see how easy it can be to get sucked into them; essentially these stories become your reality. But the thing is, they aren’t your reality. They are only your reality if you attach yourself to them and believe them to be true in some way.
These thoughts, memories, and story-lines are empty and baseless. They have no substance or concreteness. They come and go rapidly. They are fleeting. They move through our minds and body at breakneck speed. And we never pause to consider their origin.
Mindful meditation is the act of paying attention and considering origins. You can pay attention to your thoughts, your emotions, or the physical sensations within your body.
I sit for 30 minutes. Eyes closed. I concentrate on my breath, particularly the out breath. When thoughts pop into my head, as they undoubtedly will, I’m supposed to acknowledge them as thoughts and then bring my attention back to my breath.
There are many variations on this simple task. One variation is that you take notice of any common themes in regards to the the origin of your thoughts.
I’ve noticed that mine tend to focus on past relationship experiences.
You can also take note of how your body feels during any unpleasant memories. This can be eye-opening.
Men Like Me Don’t Do This
When you first read about Buddhism and meditation, it can sound strange to our American minds. All this talk about the heart and emotions and feelings. I’m an American man with Irish-Italian roots. We don’t talk about crap like feelings. That’s for wussies.
I played sports growing up. Football, basketball, baseball. There’s no crying in baseball. You get hurt. Ignore it. Play with the pain. Suck it up. Take some Advil.
“Never wear your emotions on your sleeve”. That’s what I was taught. Granted, the advice was for basketball, but I guess I didn’t make that distinction.
Anyway, like Tony Soprano said, the American ideal is Gary Cooper, the “strong silent type”.
Yes, that’s what men should be, the strong silent type.
The Mind and The Heart
Instructions for mediation often tell you to pay attention to the physical sensations you feel in your body when certain thoughts arise. Besides an aching back due to the sitting position, I hadn’t paid much attention to physical sensations. So I gave it a shot.
During my meditation last week, I purposely conjured up the image of someone who caused me great emotional distress. It was about 9 years ago.
I started to feel my chest tightening up. It started to get warm. A slight nausea set in. And, amazingly, a circle of physical pain appeared around the left side of my chest, around my heart.
Just five years ago, I would have been extremely skeptical about this type of experience. But I can now attest that this experience is real. Usually, we aren’t purposely conjuring up memories of painful times. It just happens. And usually we don’t really pay detailed attention to the feelings. We just know they are there.
But this time I did it purposely. And instead of trying to change my thoughts or focus my attention elsewhere, I did as Buddhism suggests: I sat with it. I let myself feel the physical pain.
And then after a few moments, I can’t recall how long, a curious thing happened.
The pain went away and my body relaxed. The image in my head faded. I brought my attention back to my breathing.
Within that brief period of time, I experienced one of the most profound realizations in my life.
By constantly trying to ignore the pain, by trying to escape from the pain, by refusing to let it into my heart and sit with it, I caused my own suffering.
It–the suffering–didn’t have to occur. I had just purposely recalled a painful memory, experienced the physical pain that accompanied it, sat with it, and let it pass. Instead of reacting negatively to the pain by thinking negative thoughts, instead of getting up from the meditation, I stayed with it.
And it went away.
Education is Important, But Not Sufficient
Since I started reading philosophy and the literature on happiness, my life has improved immeasurably. It’s been the best 10 years of my life.
Becoming aware and accepting the realities of life is a huge part of becoming happy. Whereas before my 28th birthday, I would have fundamentally described myself as unhappy, since then I’ve become fundamentally happy. It’s largely about how you view life and your thoughts. Most of us live in a world of delusion because no one has showed us the way. Those who usually give us advice are just as deluded as we are.
So we go on struggling until someone, or something, points us in an opposite direction. For me it was the sudden death of my father when I was 28. I was miserable. I hated my job. I hated my life. I started investigating. I took a new path, and I’m still on that path. A much better path, it turns out.
Pain and Suffering
Emotional and physical pain occur in life, there is no getting around it. It’s called being human.
But the long-drawn out suffering, the months and even years of being stuck, of having recurring bouts of sadness, depression, anxiety, to at least a large degree was due to my avoidance of the pain.
People always say that you have to let things go. But how? You know you want to. The last thing you want is to feel like shit. But before meditation, I never knew how to let go. Meditation is all about letting go.
I suppose I had simply suppressed my lifetime’s accumulation of pains. Time heals all wounds, I always thought.
Now I’m doubtful about that proposition. Now I tend to think that the suffering is just one experience away from telling you “I’m still here”. Like it’s bubbling under the surface of your consciousness until some event occurs and triggers it. That happened to me this year.
I had never in my life let myself sit with the pain. After all, why would I want to sit with the pain? I don’t want to feel pain, so trying to ignore or cover up the pain seemed like the better option. Better to go out and get drunk or smoke pot (back in the day). Maybe try and find someone to hook up with. Anything, absolutely anything, to not have to sit with my thoughts.
It turns out I was approaching pain all wrong. I should have accepted the pain as my friend, as a helpful guide showing me where I was stuck. Instead I treated it as the enemy, something to fear. That’s aversion, and aversion results in negative mind states that make you unhappy.
After the meditation, there was an emotional release (ok, a good cry), and I experienced another odd sensation, a feeling of lightness in my chest where the tightness had previously been felt. A relaxation. Like a heavy weight had just been lifted off of me.
After some consideration, I realized that a lot of my negative feelings in life were due to anger.
1. I was angry at myself as an adolescent (self-hate and low self-esteem) resulting in sadness and depression.
2. I was angry at the pain. I hated the pain. I hated the feelings. So I never sat with it.
3. More recently, I was angry with myself for even feeling pain. I mistakenly believed that since I consider myself a very fortunate person, I have no right to feel pain or be upset. And since I understood the origins of unhappiness and pain, it should have passed quickly. But it didn’t. It wasn’t passing and it was making me anxious. I wasn’t unhappy, mind you. I just had this negative feeling that wasn’t passing as I expected.
I forgot that pain was an inevitable part of the human experience. Even though I was aware of the fact that I needed to let things go, I had never done the meditation part, which is how you actually let go of past hurts.
In the past week I’ve been systematically meditating on all the past hurts I can think of and see how they feel in my body. Some get no reaction. Others do. The odd thing is that some of the events that I would normally dismiss as insignificant actually end up eliciting the strongest physical reactions.
I’m still not completely comfortable talking about the heart in such terms as I did in this post. It just feels strange. But I do realize that the mind and the heart have to be in agreement. My brain knew about letting go of past hurt, but my heart had never done it.
Now I’m giving it that chance.
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