Facing What Disturbs You
Following is a question concerning an unusual condition that keeps repeating each time Jacques meditates:
“Hi Roger, I liked your book but I got a big problem meditating. I have given it many tries but every time I meditate I build up tension in the area between my eyes, top of my nose and bottom of my forehead. If you draw a circle from about 3 to 4 cm with middle point the top of my nose between my eyes that is the area I’m talking about.
This tension gets worse every day and after a few weeks of meditating it stays all day. It is so annoying that I stop meditating all together. I tried to include it calling it tension, not ignoring it, dealing with it in a relaxed way but no result. I would so much like to start meditating again. Can you help?
All the best, Jacques”
Hi Jacques, I’m going to answer your question in a round about way.
One of my teachers, a venerable old Sinhalese monk, said something to me that pertains to what you’ve described. I was practicing a method I’d been using for many years – following the breath and mentally noting whatever distracted my attention. But this particular retreat, things were not going well. I was experiencing a strange physical phenomenon that was making the long days of meditation very difficult.
About fifteen minutes into each session, my body would begin to clamp up. It was as if all the muscles were turning to stone – particularly around my shoulders and chest and I’d begin to panic because it felt like I couldn’t breathe. And nothing I did seemed to alleviate it. The solidification of my body would intensify until I opened my eyes and moved, when the rigidity would instantly disappear. But then on beginning again, the same thing would happen again.
At first I didn’t tell my teacher, thinking if I just kept noting this event it would pass away like other temporary effects of meditation. But after the second week it not only persisted, but became more intense, such that I was waking up each day dreading the hours of pain I would have to go through that day.
So, one morning interview I told him.
My teacher listened, nodding his head – then he prescribed a different method to the one I had been practicing. He told me to switch to a ‘multiple point’ method.
It went a bit like this – I would begin with my attention on the breath as usual. Then, when the strange body tension began, I’d switch to the multiple points method as the rigidity grew – moving my attention from point to point around the body – from the forehead to the chest, then the elbows, then the hips, the knees and then the feet and back again. I did this until the rigidity disappeared, at which point I’d return my attention to the breath. It worked wonderfully, and eventually the rigidity disappeared and I went back to my core method.
But what is pertinent here was my teacher’s reaction when I came in smiling the next interview and thanked him for ‘fixing up meditation.’ I was joking, but he didn’t smile with me.
‘So you are having a good time now?’ he said sourly.
‘Well, the pain has gone,’ I said, a little defensively.
‘And you think this is the way meditation should always be?’
‘Well, no, but at least I can meditate now. Before, all I could do was struggle.’
He sighed heavily.
‘What do you think you are here for?’ he said. ‘To sit with your head in the clouds, feeling blissful and wasting time? What you call ‘struggle’ is the meditation. Struggle is the work. You are training the mind, and the things that make you struggle are the tools you use to develop your mind and make you stronger. You’re not here to have peaceful meditations. You’re here to create peaceful life. So all the good times and pleasant feelings and sparkly things you think are ‘good’ meditation? They are not! They have no importance at all … they are just what happens in between, while you’re waiting for the real work to begin.’
Its strange, because I already knew what he was saying. I’d been practicing for over a decade and a half, yet I realized I’d forgotten the most important lesson in meditation – that the meditation experience is the least important aspect of it. That the most important aspect of meditation lay in the use of adversity to train the mind – that the still, sitting body is a workshop we use to develop the mental skills we need in life – of detached knowing of what is happening in each moment, acceptance of what is happening, and the ability to let go and move on – continuously.
In one word: ‘mindfulness’.
So now I was confused – having realized I’d used the multiple point method to avoid an important lesson, did my teacher now want me to go back to learning how deal with the suffering I’d been experiencing before?
I certainly hoped not. But I asked him.
‘No!’ he said curtly. ‘Just as we teach our self not to cling to pleasure, we should not seek suffering. Middle way is the key – neither this, nor that, but in between. That is the lesson you’re teaching the mind.’
‘But isn’t the multiple point method simply a way of avoiding the lesson I have to learn?’ I said.
‘No … your problem was never the suffering. It was your reaction to it. The pain you felt was held in place by your reaction. You were afraid of the pain. So when suffering arose your reaction made you tense up around the pain, trying to shut it out and make it go away. With this reaction you made more suffering out of suffering. So I gave you the multiple point method to distract your attention away from this reaction. Without the reaction, the suffering passed away naturally. You see?’
I did. The lesson was clear – suffering in any form is not our enemy. Our true enemy is our reaction to it.
As is the case with all the ways we human’s suffer.
For example, when we get depressed – we get depressed about being depressed. When we’re sad, we get sad because we’re sad. We get angry about being angry. Anxious about being anxious. In the same way with physical pain, we tense up, trying to make physical pain go away, which only makes the pain worse … and so on.
One of the primary lessons of meditation practice and perhaps the hardest to adapt to, is to remember that meditation is first and foremost mental training – not a nice, comfy equivalent of sleep.
And, as with any life training, whether it be physical or mental, there is a component of suffering when we meditate. It cannot be avoided. Just as any athlete must learn how to deal with pain to adapt their body to the sport they have chosen, it’s the same in any other skill. Any gym-goer, mountaineer or running enthusiast knows they have to deal with the discomfort of adapting themselves to their desired skillset, mentally and physically.
It’s no different with meditation – suffering cannot and should not be avoided.
The still, sitting body is a boot-camp for our indulged, undisciplined minds – a safe place where we use the stresses that arise in the awareness of stillness, to teach our conditioned mind to be able to let go whatever gets in the way. Result being, as we keep meditating, over time and with practice, our mind becomes stronger and more resilient, and more efficient in the way it processes its life experience. The stronger and more efficient our mind becomes, the easier it becomes to let go of whatever bugs us – and calm and peace increasingly appear in our life.
So, Jacques, with regard to your particular problem – the tension in the area between your eyes, top of your nose and bottom of your forehead. I suggest you use this event as a main object when it arises.
That is, switch your attention from the breath, to whatever is persistently distracting you – in this case, the sensations in the middle of your forehead, and contemplate it as sensations, while working to let go of your reactions to what’s happening.
Never try to meditate past a challenging event that has arisen in meditation. If something is disturbing you, then switch your attention to the sensations of that event. Try to relax around that event, and let go of your reactions to it In the short term, you might find that the sensations will temporarily intensify. Don’t worry about this – it’s what’s called an ‘extinction-burst’. Any condition, before it fades away, intensifies into the lead up to its resolution.
Then, when the event has faded, or become manageable, switch your attention back to the method you’ve been practicing with.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
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(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)