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The Bearable Irritation of Being
One way to bring the mind into the present - to ground ourselves in basic meditation - is to meditate on the body and the breath. We can do this whenever we get lost or carried away by thoughts or feelings: just remember, I'm still breathing, the body is still here. That will ground you. It will establish mindfulness in the present.
Emotionally we can resist this simple practice. Maybe we're looking for something else. It doesn't seem important enough just to reflect on the breath, on our posture, or on the feeling of the body as it is; we tend to dismiss them. But I encourage you to have complete faith in this practice of "just the present moment," just what's happening with the breath and with the body.
Contemplate the body. Such consciousness allows an intuitive awareness that the body is in the mind. The conventional way of thinking about the mind is that it's in the body. The average American would say, "My mind is up here; it's my brain." In the West we're so obsessed with thinking, with ideas, with intellectual accomplishments - it's all up in the head. In Thailand, they usually point to the heart when locating the mind. Either way, we think it's inside us.
But there is another way: contemplating the body as being in the mind. You can be mindful of the body just by listening or watching or opening to the feelings of the body. When you think about your right little finger, that finger becomes a conscious experience. It's very good for the body to be allowed, to be accepted in consciousness rather than to be dismissed, misunderstood, or exploited. We usually either ignore our body or exploit it for pleasure.
Instead, we can listen to its rhythms, contemplate its feeling, its sensitivity - through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. This sensual realm that we're born into is something we can contemplate. The mind can observe sensitivity: heat and cold, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, harmonious sounds or jarring noises, fragrant smells or horrible odors. Salty, sweet, bland, astringent, bitter - it's all sensitivity. We feel good or bad, depressed or elated.
With the body as a focus, I have found it very helpful to get in touch with neutral sensations as well. Contemplate one hand touching the other, or the pressure of the clothes on your skin. Human beings usually notice only the extremities of sensory experience-when the body is feeling really healthy or in great pain. We don't notice neutral sensations unless we really pay attention. We also have a way of ignoring the mildly unpleasant sensations. When we feel slightly uncomfortable, we just ignore that feeling, at least until it becomes too irritating.
So this realm and this form-this whole cosmos we are now experiencing - is a sense realm, a sensitive realm. We can contemplate the body as in the mind. This means that you can bring it into consciousness - your feet, hands, head, face, shoulders, chest, back, waist, hips, the whole lot. This reflection on the body is one of the Foundations of Mindfulness. Foundation means that it's something you have all the time. The body is with you until it dies. It's something here and now.
Mindfulness of the body is a way to see the body in terms of Dhamma rather than in terms of personal attachments. We tend to take sensitivity as some kind of personal thing when it's just a natural thing; it's nature. Noticing sensitivity means reflecting, otherwise we're just caught up reacting to pleasure and pain, praise and blame, liking and disliking, heat and cold. Reflecting means noticing: this is the way it is. Having a human body is like this. It's going to be a source of continuous irritation no matter how much we try to make it comfortable. Americans have done marvelous things for the past 100 years to make life increasingly more comfortable, but we are still constantly irritated even in the midst of such comfort.
What I mean is that because this realm is a sensitive realm, it's also an "irritating" realm. Something is always coming at us, always impinging on us in some way. Even when we close our eyes, we hear noises or feel bodily pains. There's always something impinging on our consciousness, some irritation. Even pleasant conditions are irritating when we contemplate them. Any sensual experience is basically irritating to the mind. This is the experience of sensitivity. The conditioned realm we live in during the lifespan of the body is a state of sensitivity and irritation, and this implies that we're going to be irritated until the body dies.
But we can endure this. It is bearable. There's nothing wrong with irritation; it's not bad. It is simply something to contemplate and to accept for what it is. When you don't accept your experience and look for something else - a way of life where you won't ever be irritated again - you are wasting your life, looking for paradise in a realm that's not paradisiacal.
The world we live in is like this; we're going to experience pleasure and pain. Society is going to praise and blame us. How many people have only been praised for their entire life? Never blamed or criticized? We all want to be respected, to have good fortune and success. We all dread being a failure, despised, looked down on, rejected. We tell ourselves, "I want to be successful and happy. I want to have good health. I want to be attractive, acceptable, respected, loved, praised, wealthy, secure." We don't want to get sick, look ugly, lose our hair or all our money.
These are worldly values: always trying to get the best and avoid the worst. When we reflect on this, we realize that good or bad, success or failure, praise or blame are of equal value in terms of meditation. Spiritual development is not dependent on being successful, happy, healthy, wealthy, or being liked. In fact, sometimes we learn the most from the other side: from sickness, disappointment, disillusionment, a broken heart, unrequited love, and all the rest. We can gain a lot of strength if we are willing to contemplate these experiences.
When I look back over my own life, I'm grateful for all the experiences I used to resent when I was younger. Even for much of my monastic life I carried around the thought that certain things had been unfair and should never have happened. Whenever I remembered those events, I still felt the resentment inside me. But through contemplation, I now feel grateful for the misfortunes of my life. When life gets tough and things aren't going right, something has to rise up, you have to kind of "take it," to endure, to survive what you most despise or believe is unfair or unjust. Those times-the ups and downs of human experience-have given me a lot of strength.
Life is not just easy and pleasant, one party after another. This realm is irritating. It is a realm of dukkha, of experiences that irritate us, and cause us to create suffering if we're not mindful. So this mindfulness is what the Buddha expounded as a way to realize nonsuffering. He didn't say nonirritation; he was still irritated by life after his enlightenment, but he didn't create suffering.
The way of realizing this nonsuffering is through mindfulness, through watching and listening, through bringing attention to the body and the breath. Train yourself to do this-both when you're meditating and when you're washing the dishes, working in the kitchen, or walking from one place to another. Everywhere. Just keep remembering: "Where am I? What am I doing?" More and more, integrate the sense of bringing your attention to what's going on right now rather than rushing from here to there. We usually want to hurry to get the dishes done so we can go and do something more important, like meditate. But doing the dishes is part of conscious experience. When you're doing the dishes, that's meditation too. Don't see things as obstructions to practice but as opportunities for integrating mindfulness into a flow of life.
Formal meditation - sitting still for 45 minutes - helps us develop this ability to be mindful. We learn to deal with pain in our legs or back, with unpleasant thoughts or a wandering mind. None of us wants pain or restlessness or any unpleasant experience, but our practice is not a matter of trying to get rid of them. Instead, we learn to accept them for what they are. By contemplating the sensations in the body, we see how they change by themselves. They're not permanent. They are not the ultimate reality. We learn how to be patient and endure emotionally what we thought we couldn't take. We can bear with physical pain, with hunger, with heat and cold, with praise and blame, with any irritation.
What I'm recommending is not a willful practice - "I'm going to break through the pain barrier" or "I'm not going to give in to weakness" - but more of a faith-oriented practice. Just observe and witness. Contemplate the various sensations and reactions, physical and emotional, that you're having in the present. This helps us to bear with it, to endure when mind is saying, "I can't stand this any longer." We can take it. We can endure everything and anything.
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last updated: 07-07-2005