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We all have Houdini tendencies when we're faced with discomfort. Here's how I work with my inner escape artist. Full article here, and below.
I meditate every morning, vipasana-style, for twenty minutes. How do I know it’s twenty minutes? Because I use a meditation app on my iPhone which opens and closes the session with the sound of a singing bowl. Having a set period of time for my sitting practice is useful because it means I leave the house for work on time (usually, anyway…) and because I find I can get more deeply into the practice if I’m not “deciding” on when to come out of it; we don’t “decide” on the timings of most of what happens in our day-to-day lives, so we may as well get some practice in on the cushion.
But here’s the thing. About two-thirds of the way through sitting, I often think: “But what if my iPhone has run out of batteries and switched itself off without my knowing and I will be left sitting here FOREVER?” Then there is usually the thought, “It’s probably fine. Just hang in there a while and relax.” “But seriously, what if?” And this goes on for some time. Sometimes, in the past, I’d decide I was as good as “done” (as if I were a soufflé rising) so I’d close my practice, and then check my phone—only to find there were about 53 seconds left on the timer.
The iPhone story my mind tries to tell me is basically an amazingwriggling-out device; it means I can wriggle out of discomfort at my own volition. Right foot going to sleep? Weird pain in my hip? Incessant repeating of a particular line of thought in my mind? Impatient? No problem! Let’s just wriggle on out via a handy escape route.
The point of this practice though, at least for me, is to get comfortable with my own discomfort. To see it, feel it and know it—and stay with it. Because there is, ultimately, no escape from discomfort. We go from one thing to the next, generally speaking. And there’s a positive side to this, too, as articulated perfectly in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke; in Go to the Limits of Your Longing, he writes, “No feeling is final.” This, to me, gets to the very core of meditation practice. You’ve surely heard the analogy that our thoughts are like clouds, moving across the sky; occasionally obscuring the sun, but always passing on by.
To me, this line, “no feeling is final” has all life in it. The relief and balm of knowing that it’s okay if you’re in pain, it will pass. And the heartbreaking tenderness of knowing that feelings of joy pass, too.
In vipasana meditation, we bring a light attention to the breath while we sit, and when the thoughts come—as they do—we recognize them, maybe acknowledge them as “thinking”, and return to the breath. Here they come, here they go.
Most of us have wriggling out tendencies in our physical yoga practice, too. It might be obvious, like taking a bathroom break if a pose you don’t like comes up in class. Or maybe it’s a bit more subtle. A particular favorite of mine is in Warrior 2 pose where I’ll straighten my front leg because I’m feeling discomfort in holding the pose. Because I have an established practice it can be quite a subtle kind of wriggling: “I know my body, I’m just working with it.” But when I do this, it means that I don’t get to watch my mind struggling, and realize that my body is actually fine.
I’m wondering if you, too, are a fellow wriggler-out-er? And if so, where and when you catch yourself doing this?
Moving away from what we dislike, and towards what we like are such fundamental aspects of most of our daily lives. Aversion and attraction keep us permanently running from pillar to post, seeking the thing which will make us happy, or stop us from being unhappy. We dash about, and life keeps happening; hard things keep happening and beautiful things keep happening and maddening things keep happening and gladdening things keep happening. The question is, do we want to be on the run all the time?
When I first started practicing yoga, I remember hearing a teacher use the word “equanimity” as something we could work towards. And part of me thought, “That sounds boring. Why would I just want to feel ‘meh’ about everything?”
But my understanding of equanimity now has changed. To me, it’s more about finding a steady place from which to fully experience our aliveness. To stop trying to run away, and instead feel my joy and sorrow and touch my emotions and thoughts; to live, really.
Like I said earlier, I am a pretty adept escape artist. I think we all have our Houdini tendencies that we’ve honed over the years. But the same fluidity that finds ways of moving out of and around things also helps me step back sometimes and see what I’m doing (and often have a quiet laugh to myself about it).
Real, deep discovery about ourselves and what we’re capable of is so often found in the most uncomfortable places—as I have absolutely learned in the many shades of discomfort I’ve felt in yoga and meditation. I don’t have to like it, but I don’t have to dislike it either. No feeling is final. Okay. That’s something I can work with. After all, when I do manage to stop trying to escape, that’s usually when I really arrive.
Spiritual Post-Its, via dear friends
Sometimes it can be really easy to forget what you already know. I was reminded of this over the weekend, spending an evening with three dear friends: Seth, Graciela and Marissa. All three are yoga teachers, and I was struck by how easy life feels in the company of people who you feel are on the same path as you. It feels safe. I remember my granny telling me, years ago, that she’d gone to a party where all the guests were psychotherapists, and saying, “I’ve never been to such an easy party in my life!” Meaning, people had shed enough layers that there wasn’t so much anxiety around trying to prove anything.
So we were sharing the various things going on in our lives—the adventures, the feelings, the trials and tribs, the usual. And I spoke about a particular tangle I’d got myself into—my mind was trying to deal with a thorny-seeming problem that kept going round and round in my head. We talked it through, and by the end of the night, each friend had revealed a beautiful, shining gem of wisdom. As we were winding things up, my friend Marissa said, “I know you already know these things. We all go through times in our lives where we get so overwhelmed in a particular situation that it’s like we forget what we’ve learned.”
So, if you have found yourself in a pickle lately, I want to offer you theirthree excellent pieces of advice—like spiritual post-its—which maybe you, too, already know and have temporarily forgotten.
1. Do away with the third layerMy friend Seth did a simple analysis of the semi-torturous layers of thinking that we often have in response to an emotion. We broke this down into three main components. The first is the actual emotion—the nitty gritty, if you like. The second is the thinking response to that emotion: “Oh no, I am sad” (or, “Hooray, I’m happy!”). And the third is the opinion we have about that thought: “I am ashamed that I am sad” or “I am relieved that I’m happy”—which can spiral off into a further nine zillion layers if we let it: “I am a bad yogi. I have failed somehow…” “Thank God I’m happy, now I can start fantasizing about the rest of my life….” And so it goes. If we’re working with what’s going on inside us, we need to get past the chatter, or at least notice the layers.
2. Get right into the very moment in the simplest possible wayMy friend Graciela pointed out that what we fear is going to happen—or what we wish hadn’t happened, or what we wish would happen—is not happening to you right now. Right now, you are reading at your computer. Later you will be making a cup of tea, or walking down the street, and you will be alive in the world as you do these things. Any time you feel overwhelmed, just come back—to the simplest part of what’s going on. The walking, the breathing, the hearing. While walking home recently, my whirring thoughts were interrupted, like a newsflash, by a flash of actual reasonable insight which said: “When you are thinking these thoughts, you are not in the real world of your life. Any moment you spend on these thoughts is a moment you are not spending actually living”. I say this without judgement—daydreaming can be a wonderful thing. But I think it can be important to recognize what it is you’re actually doing, and to do it as a decision.
3. Healing treatments are not magic solutionsWhen we’re feeling distressed, we might wish that someone would just wave a magic wand and make everything okay (I have definitely found myself wishing this were possible from time to time). But no-one can do your inner work for you. Marissa said that treatments like Reiki and bodywork do their amazing work of relaxing you and returning you to a quiet space, where you are then able to feel what you need to feel or be open to whatever insights may arise, and where you have the tools to support this work.
We all get in a tangle from time to time and forget some of the precious things we thought we’d learned. That’s why it’s so important that we hold the wisdom and kindness for each other, to be shared right when we need it. This is a part of Sangha, the Buddhist idea of true community—which is itself one of the three jewels that practitioners take refuge in. Precious indeed.