Right Mindfulness Continued
The Establishment of Sensations
Now we move to the next establishment of mindfulness which is sensations. Sensations are the physical sensations we experience in our bodies. They can be caused by physical stimulus or mental stimulus. They can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We are still talking about awareness of the body but, by including the level of pain, pleasure, or neutrality in the sensation, we are adding another dimension to our focus than we had in the previous establishment of mindfulness. Also, because sensations can be caused by the mind as well as the body, that adds another dimension to our focus.
We all have habitual responses to pleasure and pain which conditions the way we experience ourselves and the world and the way we act. By becoming aware of sensations we can become aware of this conditioning and be free of it. Then our experience of ourselves and the world will be more open and alive and we can choose more clearly what will bring us happiness and not bring suffering.
I will tell some stories to illustrate my point. One time I was meditating and I had some pain in my leg, a cramp in my calf muscle, so I was experiencing a painful sensation. At first I just noticed it and went back to my breath. Then it started to hurt more. My mind started to react to it saying “oh this hurts, I should move my leg” and there was a little fear and sadness about it. Then the pain got a little worse and my mind became more insistent saying “this is stupid, you’re hurting yourself, you should move” and there was some panic.
So I was aware of that and just came back to my breathing and then I focused on the pain itself. I could distinguish between the pain and my mind’s mental and emotional reaction to it. I asked myself, “Is the pain really that bad? Am I really hurting myself?”. I came back to just focusing on the sensation of the pain. I could experience it as it was and not be caught up in my mind’s reaction to it. It was just a sensation happening in the present moment. I could feel that it was not going to hurt me so I could just stay still. Then my body and mind relaxed more and stopped worrying about it and I could just be with it. It was just a sensation. I felt very present and spacious and free.
So the pain actually helped me be present and went from being an unpleasant sensation to a neutral sensation. There are other times when I feel pain in my body while meditating and when I experience it clearly I can tell that “yes this will hurt me” so I change my posture but this is a clear response to a clear experience of what is going on instead of a habitual reaction to non-clear experience of what is going on.
One time I was driving in the car with my Mom and my niece from Texas to New Mexico. It was the second day of driving and we were all a little tired. We had decided to buy some food at a grocery store and then have a picnic in the car while we continued to drive. I was very hungry and I was driving and my mom was preparing the food in seat next to me. She had had some hand surgery earlier that month and so she was having trouble opening up the cheese dip. At the moment though I could not see her situation clearly. I was just feeling very hungry and tired and there was the food right before me so I had a lot of unpleasant sensations. In my mind I was thinking “Come on Mom! Open the damn dip! You need to be more strong! You need to be more assertive!” So then I said “just hold the dip and I’ll pull of the seal” and I reached over and gave a good manly tug and proceeded to pull the container out of my Mom’s hands and drop it on her lap and spill crackers everywhere. I apologized and then she explained to me about how her hands were fairly numb in the fingertips and how she just had a hard time doing things with her hands.
So my point is that based on my inability to just be with the unpleasant sensations my mind launched into a whole story about the inadequacy of my mom and went and acted in a clumsy and stupid way. I had had been just a little more patient, If I could have just experienced the unpleasant sensations without reacting to them I could have had a nicer lunch and enjoyed my mom’s company. If we can not be with unpleasant sensations then our mind will create all kind of stories about them and get us to act in unskillful ways.
Here is another story. I remember after being a monk for about a year I started to have this feeling of doubt come up. It wasn’t about anything in particular, it was just doubt for doubt’s sake. I could feel it in my belly. It was a shaky, weak, anxious, and tense sensation. An unpleasant sensation. I had to practice being with my breath and the sensation in my belly to keep my mind from reacting to it. If I didn’t practice I would get doubtful about everything from wether I should be a monk to just cleaning and cooking and talking to people. After about a year of being with this unpleasant sensation and not feeding it it gradually changed to a calm, strong, solid sensation and the doubt changed to confidence. I think the sensation came from when I was a baby and because he had been a monk for a year and practicing regularly it came up to be released.
We carry within our bodies all of our past experiences. When we follow the mindfulness trainings and mediate regularly wounds from our past will come up. They may manifest as unpleasant sensations and emotions. We may or may not have a clear memory of what caused the wound but that does not matter. The important thing is just to be with the sensations and not react to them. When we react to them we are just recreating the situation that caused us to be wounded in the first place. Sometimes the sensations and emotions can be very intense and painful. When they come up you should take refuge in your breathing and try and just stay with the physical sensations. That will help you stay grounded and not be overwhelmed. So if you have intense sadness coming up just breathe and focus on how it is manifesting in your body. Just stay with your body. If crying happens naturally then just let it happen. Let whatever emotions or thoughts that manifest come and go freely, try not to get caught up in them because that can leave you going around in circles and not really processing anything at a deeper level.
I read a book once called “Focusing” which was a therapeutic technique developed by a psychologist who did a lot of research on why some people got better with therapy and others didn’t. After looking at a lot of variables he found that the most important factor in wether a person succeeded or not was wether they could tune in physically to their situation. In other words, when they were experiencing some pain from their childhood, if they could tap into a clear felt sense of the experience and be with it that was the main thing that allowed them to heal. How smart they were, how much they talked about their problems, how much they knew about them intellectually, even how good the therapist was were all, were all secondary to being able to have a felt sense of their situation.
So through regular practice we can build our capacity to be with strong sensations and not be overwhelmed by them. This includes pleasant sensations as well as unpleasant sensations. I will talk more about this in next week’s blog.