By Tammy T. Stone
Do you scratch that itch when it appears in your meditation session?
Recently, I was on a 10-day silent meditation retreat, in beautiful, nature-filled Gatineau, Quebec.
The serene environment was a perfect place to let go of the outside world, and slightly more difficult, the incessant wheel of thoughts—worries, concerns, ideas—that accompany our lives as human beings.
Sitting and meditating for most of the day, coupled with the total silence among the 150 or so participants of the retreat, had the gradual but very real effect of helping me untether from the world and turn inward.
During meditation, as we try to be still and do seemingly simple things like follow the breath, we quickly realize that the mind is not exactly in love with playing along. Thoughts come and go—sometimes in streams, sometimes in torrents, and often, very strong emotions are attached to these feelings, so that sitting still and letting the thoughts go becomes a difficult struggle.
Over a period of days, though, it’s fascinating to watch the stream of the unruly mind slow somewhat to a trickle.
I slowly found myself…well, slowing down. The grass I walked on during breaks became more vivid. I started noticing which flowers were in which state of bloom, and how their movements tracked those of the sun’s throughout the day. Everything popped, sung and whirred; the forest as alive as I’d ever seen one.
I became more aware of my body in space. I became aware of my body, period, and realized how much of a floating head I seem to be most of the time.
One afternoon, I was meditating in my room, practicing follow my breath. When a strong sensation like an itch or pain comes, we learned, we should observe that it is happening and not suppress it, without lingering on these sensations. By doing so, we are training the mind not to react to every stimulus that gets thrown our way. As we learn how not to react to strong, unpleasant sensations with aversion—by hating it, or trying to avoid it—we are effectively learning how to handle the storms of life with equanimity and peace.
Anyway, I had a lapse in my attentiveness at one point during this meditation session. An itch had evidently appeared and I did what I unconsciously do in my daily life: I scratched it. I reacted. I had an aversion to the itch, and I did what I always do to alleviate it.
This time was different, though. Whereas I would typically scratch the itch, probably not aware I was even doing so, and move on with my day, this time I became aware of my action.
It actually wasn’t the scratching that brought myself back to the present moment, though, but the immediate after-effect of the scratch. I was shocked to experience the intensity of the ongoing effect of the scratch as physical sensations on my cheek. Because I was in a state of hyper-awareness, I could feel the lingering effects. It burned, the way it might feel if you dragged your hand slowly along the side of a car on an extremely hot day.
I know that sounds excessive, but that’s the point. Once the distractions (the thoughts, plans, phone calls, TV watching) disappear, you start to really see what is happening to your body—to you—at what feels like a microscopic level. It felt like violence, like a violation I had inflicted on myself as a matter of course. I started crying as I realized that even this tiny scratch, this one tiny thing among many I must do throughout most days, leaves such a hefty price tag, a profound after-effect of imprints on and in the body.
How many times a day do I commit these micro-aggressions against myself without being aware of it?
Actions like these are not nothing. They stay and leave a mark, they ferment, they become embedded in the fabric of who we are.
We get into the habit of committing acts of violence against ourselves and others in the name of lashing out at what we perceive to be outside forces—an itch, a mosquito, an angry or hurtful comment directed at us—and every reaction itself causes a chain reaction of more aversion, more pain, more discomfort that lodges itself into the depths of our being.
Why do we learn about geography and the history of war in school, but not about our bodies as a landmass in need of love and care, and about the necessity for kindness in a conflict-ridden world?
If one itch can have such a rippling effect on the body and mind, can you imagine what else is going on inside, from a lifetime of wounds small and big, unconscious and known to us, traumas that we keep piling up as we reinforce them with our anger, fear, confusion, resentment, and so many other self-destructive habits?
Can you imagine how many times you have intentionally or unintentionally hurt others with even one word, and how many times you’ve been hurt in return? And no matter how much we are taught to brush things off and move on, that’s just not how it works. The stories that our minds concoct or receive from others are simply not the reality our bodies and psyches are living. They need us to observe them, with compassion. They need us to help them let go of the hurt, one attentive moment at a time.
It was amazing to find that I’d learned, from one itch, what so many of the great wisdom teachings are trying to impart: to react is to suffer.
I wanted to hold my face in my hands and apologize for scratching it, for leaving this mark of anger on it that far outweighed the itch that sparked it. And that would certainly surface again at some point, in some form or another until the lesson is learned.
If we can just start with one itch, and resist the urge to scratch it, we are beginning on the path of a groundbreaking road to freedom. We have so many imprints embedded in us that it’s virtually impossible to keep track.
Why not, then, at least try to feed our selves with good, kind and loving ones?
Editor: Dana Gornall
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