In mindfulness meditation, we learn how to stay present with ourselves, even in the face of discomfort, when we normally automatically reach for our favoured ways of tuning out. But cutting ourselves off from parts of our experience can leave us shut down, trapped in a tight comfort zone. We can mistake comfort for happiness, becoming afraid of opening our hearts and fully engaging with the vibrant, varied life that is here. In learning to stay, we can learn to truly be there for ourselves, like a good friend who cares for you even when you're grumpy, tired, worried, or sick. Also, Luna's internet debut!
“The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.”
- Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
Recording a guided meditation track with a dog present is a lesson in patience! In between attempts to steal the bell inviter, Luna shuffled, snuffled, yawned, groaned, sighed, lip-smacked and dream-barked her way through into an adorably noisy backing track. It took us longer to get the track down, but I can’t say it wasn’t worth it, if only for entertainment value during the editing process. Anyway, here is a thinly-veiled excuse to show you some pictures of Luna; today I’m going to write a little about an aspect of mindfulness practice - learning to stay (get it?!)
I must say, I’ve often found myself in Luna’s position when I sit down to meditate. My body and mind won’t settle, I find myself shifting and scratching and sighing and dreaming (usually without the barking - I have a feeling my dreams are less exciting than hers). The tendency is for us to think that these are bad meditation sessions, that we have somehow failed when this happens, that we’re not much “good at” meditation.
One of the great things about mindfulness, however, is that everything that arises in our experience, including the itchiness and restlessness and boredom and frustration and craving, is included in the practice. Everything is welcome. “I am aware that my breathing is shallow”. “I am aware of the desire to cut this meditation short and get some breakfast”. “I am aware that my mind keeps being drawn like a magnet to <insert current worries>”. “I am aware that my nose is itchy”. Welcoming all of our present moment experience in this way, perceived barriers to meditation can become valuable insights into the nature of our minds.
Easier said than done, of course. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we call it mindfulness practice.
We are creatures of comfort. Part of this is hardwired; it makes evolutionary sense that we avoid the unpleasant, the threatening, and grasp onto the pleasant, the reassuringly safe. We tend to be afraid to stay nonjudgmentally present with the entire gamut of our experiences - certain things we would just prefer to avoid. To quote Pema Chödrön, “We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present.”
But as creatures of comfort, how often do we mistake comfort for happiness? The tendency to push away the things we find uncomfortable can leave us rigid, confined to a small safety zone and afraid of opening our hearts and fully engaging with the vibrant, varied life that is here.
On and off the meditation cushion, we have many inventive ways of leaving, of disengaging from the fullness of our moment-to-moment experience. Daydreaming, fixating on the past or future, planning. Alcohol, food, drugs of varying types and legality, zoning out with Internet, gaming, TV... So much of the time we may not even notice what it is that we’re actually doing. We automatically, unconsciously reach for something to soothe, numb or distract from those uncomfortable feelings.
So, learning to stay can sound like one of those hard but wholesome things we should be doing, like running three times a week or giving up desserts or juicing kale. But actually it is an incredibly kind thing to do, and allows us access to a wellspring of compassion and nurturing as we touch our vulnerability and care for it.
The key is, as usual, attitude. In the quote at the top of this post, Pema notes the difference in effect between a rigid, critical attitude and a kind one, in meditation as in dog-training. When we have an attitude of trying to whip ourselves into shape, self-criticising when our mind wanders, unsurprisingly we end up feeling demoralised, frustrated and lacking. But staying present with our experience, whatever that experience is*, with a gentle attitude of curiosity and kindness, yields entirely different results. We can relax. We can observe that wandering mind with a smile, and embrace ourselves and all the idiosyncrasies of our experience with kindness.
“It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves as we are that meditation becomes a transformative process. When we relate with ourselves without moralizing, without harshness, without deception, we finally let go of harmful patterns.” – Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
What this practice of staying present with our experience in effect does is that it allows us to become a good friend to ourselves. We can be the kind of friend that is there for us not just when we're fun and nice to be around, but also when we're grumpy, sick, tired, sad, worried... We can have our own back.
There is little more powerful than truly being there for ourselves.
*It’s worth noting that in some cases it can be kinder and healthier to leave, rather than stay with, an experience we’re having. If we start to feel lost or overwhelmed it is possible to honour that message by changing our focus. For instance if we have a history of trauma and are overwhelmed by a flashback or intrusive thought/image, we can choose to divert our attention to awareness of sensations in our feet or hands, tune in to our breathing at the abdomen, open our eyes and look at and touch our surroundings, go for a walk or do something else to anchor ourselves in the present rather than being pulled into the traumatic past.