Oh the Pain

Following is another of the questions that came in, this one concerning an unusual condition that keeps repeating each time Jacques meditates

Hi Roger, I liked your online course and 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. I 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

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Hi Jacques, I’m going to answer your question in a round about way.

My last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri, who taught at the Kanduboda Meditation Centre in Sri Lanka, said something to me that pertains to what you’ve described.

I was there for a silent retreat, 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 Pemasiri, thinking if I just kept noting this event it would pass away like other temporary effects of meditation. But after the second week it had not only persisted, but gotten more intense, such that I was waking up each day dreading the hours of pain I would have to go through.

So at the morning interview I told him.

Pemasiri listened, nodding his head, then prescribed a different method to the one I had been practising. He told me to switch to the ‘Multiple Point’ method (which is a part of the Practical Meditation Audio package you are using – strongly recommended for your kind of problem).

So I began using this method – beginning with my attention on the breath as usual, then switching to the multiple points method as the rigidity began to encroach – moving my attention from point to point around the body 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 is Pemasiri’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, so you can find peace in your life. You’re not here to have peaceful meditation. 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, when you’re waiting for the real work to begin.’

And its strange because I already knew what he was saying. I’d been practising for over a decade and a half, and I realised 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 the theatre we use to develop the mental skills we need in life – of detachment and awareness and intuitive wisdom.

Or, in one word: ‘mindfulness’.

So now I was confused – having realised I’d used the multiple point method to avoid an important lesson, did Pemasisi want me to go back to learning how deal with the suffering? 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 out suffering. You must think middle way. 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 it. You hated it. So when the suffering arose you paid too much attention to it. This reaction magnified the suffering as you tensed up around it trying to shut it out and make it go away. With this reaction you made suffering out of suffering. So I gave you the multiple point method to distract your mind from its reaction. Without the reaction, you saw the suffering passed away naturally – as it might have, had you treated it with detachment before. You see?’

I did. The lesson was clear – suffering in any form is not our enemy. It’s simply the natural friction of being alive.

Our true enemy is our own self and its reaction to this friction. As is the case with all the ways we human’s suffer:

Like when we get depressed – we get depressed about being depressed. We get sad and react to how we feel by being sad because we’re sad. We get angry about being angry, or 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.

So, as in any life training, whether it be physical or mental, there is a component of suffering. It cannot be avoided – it naturally comes with the change of transformation. Just as any athlete must learn how to deal with pain to adapt their body to their chosen field of excellence, it’s the same in any area where we seek to improve ourselves – any gym-goer, mountaineer or running enthusiast knows they have to deal with the discomfort of adapting themselves 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, in which we use the stresses of being still with no distractions, as opportunities to teach our mind to let go of all the habits and little addictions it uses to avoid stillness. With these capacities, our mind becomes stronger and more resilient, and more efficient in the way it processes the vicissitudes of life. The stronger and efficient our mind becomes, the more calm and peace 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 to say, switch your attention from the breath, to whatever is persistently distracting you – in this case, the sensations in the middle of your forehead.

And make this a rule.

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 the muscles around the event, and use the note, ‘thinking, thinking’ to cut away all the negative thoughts that are arising.

You might find in that instance that the sensations will temporarily intensify. Don’t worry about this – it’s what’s called an ‘extinction-burst’. Any condition, just before it fades away, intensifies into the lead up to its resolution. When it has faded, or become manageable, then you can switch back to the method you have been practising with.

If that doesn’t work, then use the Multiple Points method (Exercise No 12.) and see if the uncomfortable sensations fade away.

Some more points:

1. Try not to meditate in fear of suffering. Try to re-frame your view of each so-called problem that arises from ‘damn I hate this’ to ‘oh, how interesting’ – from ‘obstacle’ to ‘opportunity-to-learn’ .

2. When any problem arises in meditation, use any of the methods I have given you in the Audio Course to see if you can move through it.

3. Don’t cling to an expectation that meditation should be all bliss and sparkly stuff. For sure, there will be pleasure, but so too will there be pain – usually in equal measures. In time, the more you practice, the suffering will become less intense, as will the pleasure. It’s then that you will find a new quality appearing – not pain, not pleasure – but tranquility.

4. Treat everything that happens with the same interested detachment. And keep using the methods to let go and move forward. Always move forward. I hope this has been helpful.

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