Light drives away the shadows: Truth trumps delusion
Posted Aug 26 2008 4:29pm
A friend recently told me about a meditation retreat he'd worked on while traveling in India. On these retreats, you are either participating as a meditator, teacher, or worker--he was the latter, helping cook and clean and do odd jobs. "Which may seem easier than sitting," he said, "but, pfew, stuff was coming up!"
He described how, mid-way through the course, he began having overwhelming cravings for sweets. He'd go in the kitchen between sittings, grab a roll of the English tea cookies, dip them in black tea chai, and then roll that in course ground sugar. The resulting "food" items were then eaten one after another.
"I went to the teacher on the retreat and said, 'Look, I'm having all these problems with food, and I'm afraid to go in the kitchen, but I can't keep away. What should I do?'"
His teacher replied, "Well, when you go in the kitchen to work, if you find yourself having to have one of these cookies, just be mindful when you eat it. Pay attention to what it feels like to lift the cookie, to dip it, to chew it, the whole process. Observe it. You'll be fine."
My friend, wanting to do something, was non-plussed, but without any other solution, tried it out. He paid close attention to the lifting, to the dipping, to the rolling, to the chewing, to the swallowing, observing it as objectively as he could in the moment, attempting to avoid the fight or doing modes.
"After the first half-dozen cookies, I noticed the craving began to wane. Part of me was just looking at all this and wasn't even judgmental, just noted that this behavior wasn't good for me, and didn't solve the problem it was misguidedly intended to solve. The anxiety underlying the eating became obvious, and equally obvious was the fact that the sugar and caffeine-fest was not helping anything. After that, what cravings came up were noted by this observing part of myself and seen for what they were, a desire to suppress emotion."
"I didn't have to wrestle the demon to the ground and keep it pinned, I just had to see clearly that I wasn't acting in my best interest, and then it was as if I got-- really got--that putting my hand on the stove was counter productive. The desire just evaporated."
I love my friend's story, because it so clearly illustrates the principle that what we do that is not in our self-interest must be done without full awareness. When my friend brought awareness to his cookie eating, the reality of what was happening became clear. Reaching for a cookie, his mind no longer said, "I'm trying to survive!" but rather, "I'm avoiding facing the emotions which, if faced, would actually give me some peace." If he had just tried to argue the point with himself, then all he would have gotten more tension. But the experience of his own resistance (the cookies) simply defused the desire.
For all our human foibles and confusions, there's a part of our mind which is blunt and direct and self-centered about choosing action: if it doesn't benefit us, choose something else. When the mind is exposed to the clear experience of error, it changes. Fighting is not necessary. Debate team cleverness is mostly useless. Only experience gets the fist to let go of the thorns.
I remember having a conversation with a different friend who was involved in a sort of politically motivated shop lifting habit. This person explained the thefts as a righteous and appropriate response to what her described as the rapacious behavior of corporate chains. But picking up on her agitation, I asked about the feelings involved. She became a bit stony, but because of her basic deep integrity, had to take a look. I said, "Next time you're stealing, pay attention to how it actually feels. Is it pleasant at base? Unpleasant? Are you agitated or relaxed? Does it feel like something good for you?"
They agreed to do this, and when we talked a bit after that conversation, they were a little chagrined to report that, no, at the level of feeling it was painful to steal, and when they really looked at it, did not seem to be in their self-interest. The behavior was not wrestled away from their grasping hands; when exposed to awareness, it just faded.
You can probably see how this principle applies to the vicissitudes of anxiety and depression. A couple situations that come to my mind are:
Knowing that exercise helps stabilize us when the depressive spiral begins (see the last post for more on this), we nonetheless rationalize playing video games instead of taking a walk through the park.
We're taking herbal or prescription medications for anxiety, and though there has been relief from them, find ourselves avoiding the morning dose because "I'm just too rushed."
We find ourselves on the computer all night instead of sleeping, and wake tired and less effective at work, causing more stress and anxiety.
But instead of looking at what you're choosing to do and going into hyper-critical mode ("See, I'm worthless, I'll never get out of these moods!") or fight mode ("I have to kill these behaviors! I have to wrench them away from myself if I'm going to survive!"), you just observe the patterns. Play the video games, but do so consciously, mindfully. You might find that actually, if you play for 30 minutes, it does help buoy your spirits. Or you could find that the games make your depression worse exactly when you're trying to make it better. Same for the meds and not sleeping: just watch your behavior and choices carefully, and the reality of what's really good for you will arise to meet your awareness.
AND!...I know this isn't easy when a part of your mind and brain, the part that is charged with just keeping you safe at all costs, is screaming that "You have to DO something!" When you're looking for the lion, contemplating your behavior in a mindful way itself feels threatening.
So adopting this principle, that "nothing against one's self-interest can be done in the face of full awareness," is a process and practice, and when you're too overwhelmed to observe, so be it. That's where you are. Don't fight. Accept it and move on to the next moment. Practice your coping skills to come back to center, knowing that there's plenty of time to practice, and as you do, the principle will become more and more real and it's usefulness will become obvious.
Ironically, at that point of development, your "Protector" part begins to see that, actually, mindfulness seems to be safer, in the long run, then some of the habitual behaviors. The Protector then begins to loosen up and allow for observation more often, without being flooded with panic, which is the kind of spiral you want to be in.