By Sherrin Fitzer
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl
Many of us likely know that there is a difference of opinion among people who meditate concerning whether a person should scratch an itch during meditation.
Some feel it is not a big deal if we want to scratch: do so, and come back to our point of focus.
Another faction suggests to scratch it if we wish and to do this with utmost mindfulness. Others suggest resisting the scratch and using the experience to deepen and grow our mindfulness practice. They believe there is much to be learned from focusing on the itch. We can learn more about our feelings and responses.
We can learn about the nature of the itch.
What is it?
How does it really feel? Is it always the same?
Does it change?
We may notice the impermanence of the itch as it suddenly goes away. No feeling lasts forever. All feelings are transitory—the good, the bad, and the neutral.
What made me think of this particular issue? I have a rash. I’ll spare the gory details, but it is a mother of a rash. It hurts. It itches.
I feel as if I want to rip my skin off. To scratch or not to scratch? Lucky me, I get a 24/7 mindfulness lesson. Well, not exactly 24, as I do get a reprieve while I sleep. I have tried ignoring the itch. I haven’t found this particularly helpful. Ignoring it just seems to make it more prominent.
Besides meditation and mindfulness are not about avoidance and suppression, but about engagement and acceptance.
I have scratched the itch, which gives temporary relief with not so temporary pain afterward. So I try sitting with the itch, paying attention to the itch.
It ebbs and flows. It intensifies and subsides.
Some spots are tingly while others sting. It is ever present. What I observe of myself is that I am not accepting of this pain and discomfort. I judge it. I think it is wrong for me to have to feel it. Honestly I want to scream, rip my clothes off and roll around on sandpaper.
I still have a rash; it still itches, and I have not experienced a great spiritual epiphany.
I am however very interested in this space between stimulus and response explained by Viktor E. Frankel. I think that there is great hope for us if we can learn how to find this space.
It is always present, but we don’t always recognize it, as Frankel says it can help us grow and help set us free.
The stimulus can be the itch, the response the scratch: anger/lashing out; craving/taking a drink.
I work with women in prison and can see that many of them have no awareness of this space. They feel they have no choice; they are not free. If someone hits them, they must hit back. If they have a craving, so they must use.
Regular meditation practice can help us be more aware of this space from which we respond.
The space can be fleeting. It can be elusive, and that is why we must practice.
So I guess I will use this rash as a lesson in finding this space between stimulus and response: feel the itch, notice the space, and mindfully choose my response.
As it’s said in the London Underground, “Mind the Gap.”
Sherrin Fitzer works at a large women’s prison in the Midwest (a place she never would have expected to be, yet it is exactly where she is supposed to be). She has been involved in teaching incarcerated prisoners since 1991. In addition to helping incarcerated women with their children, she facilitates a theatre troupe and meditation classes. She believes in the importance of the arts in prisons and tries to implement this as much as possible. Sophia—seen in the picture—is often her editor and generally a quite harsh one.
Editor: Jes Wright
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