Mindfully Into Misery

or The Blessings of Skillful Thinking

On my way up Bald Mountain I sit down on a rock to better connect with where I am. My gaze sweeps over the hilly landscape but my attention is absorbed by emotional pain and – just as much – by the aversion to that experience. What to do? What I want is to be connected with my surroundings and not distracted by internal turmoil. What I experience is how attention does not stay with what I want, agony, and resistance. Together they constitute a toxic brew.

I finally give in and allow for the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of distress to take center stage: The power of depression, of the “desire for nonexistence”, of the aversion to my experience – even to seeing budding leaves on nearby maple trees – is remarkable. All life seems to point back at my pain, magnifying it.

Paying attention to difficult emotions in this way, I seem to give them even more power. They take over and flavor all experience with a strong, bitter taste. Mindfully, I spiral down into more negativity.

It is then that the thinking mind interferes with a wholesome suggestion: How about if I bring my attention to neutral sensations rather than either trying to stay with what I deem positive and relevant around me or unpleasant but important – because it is strong – within me?

I immediately notice a plethora of neutral bodily sensations: stillness in my lower belly, the subtle warmth in my left thigh, tingling in my fingers. As attention begins to willingly settle there, these neutral sensation become a refuge where I can drop confusion and recuperate. How calm it is here and how quickly joy regains strength! The pain does not go away, but the bedrock of neutral bodily sensations holds it with warmth and care. Anguish so becomes but one of an array of things happening this moment: wind blowing through the still bare branches of deciduous trees, the song of a nearby finch, cold stone, the glistening surface of Willow Pond, sadness, the beauty of the wooded hills, joy of being.

Invigorated I get up and walk on. I am intrigued by this experience. By intentionally directing my attention away from the screaming foreground to the subtle background “hum” of neutral bodily sensations I was able to contain what would have otherwise pulled me down into an abyss of negativity. I usually tend to let attention go to what is strongest, believing that this is how to properly be mindful. But when I am not grounded by what may not shout but offer its unwavering stability quietly, I can mindfully drown in misery.

This willful choosing of a certain segment of my experience over another stands in contrast to the notion that I have to focus on what calls for attention most urgently, especially when it is unpleasant and painful. It goes against the belief that I cannot choose my experience but that I have to take what is given, i.e. what screams loudest. However, by choosing subtle bodily sensations I did not reject the painful experience. In the end the opposite was true: Opening to the whole spectrum of what was there and then intentionally taking refuge in neutral ground, I was able to gain perspective and open up to the pain rather than being overwhelmed by it. The uplifting effect of this experience on the whole day was remarkable.

What is your experience? I'd love to hear.

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