One of the central tenets of the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism is that everything that happens to us can be used as a means for waking up. Like most profoundly simple insights, this one can take years to sink in. The challenge, as always, is to keep stripping away what gets in the way of receiving the message.
My favorite realization so far since going back to sitting meditation: pain can be helpful.
No really. And I don’t mean this in the sense of “it’s helpful because it builds character” or any of those other things we tell ourselves so that we can grimly endure the unpleasant until it’s far-too-belated end. So what do I mean?
Today’s Insight: If you can sit, and really just sit, in the presence of physical pain without attempting to do anything to alleviate it, deny it, ignore it or suppress it—it vanishes. Anyone who’s tried sitting cross-legged and straight-backed on the floor for at least a quarter of an hour quickly realizes that meditation can be a literally painful business. Modern human beings have anatomically adjusted to lives padded by such things as chairs and couches. The first thing anyone who tries to meditate has to get accustomed to is the unfamiliar and unwanted sensation of pain coming from achy knees, numb legs, tingly feet and sore shoulders. Then there are the dozens of other trivial discomforts: itches, twitches, rumbles, stings, pricks and tremors. These are unpleasantries that, for the most apart, we alleviate reflexively and unconsciously with hundreds of body movements: scratching, swatting, shifting, stretching, rubbing, pressing, kneading and moving.
And here’s the thing: we do exactly the same with our mental and emotional pains—reflexively and unconsciously dodging, evading, restraining or ignoring them with an endless supply of old and new distractions (food, music, film, literature, alcohol, work, Facebook…).
But the other thing is: much of that reacting is needless effort. If we can endure the discomfort just long enough, it really does pass. And our patient forbearance will cost us nothing while also saving us (and others around us) from the collateral damage that usually arises when we do things in instinctive response to an unpleasant stimulus.
Why meditating helps in discovering this is because if you can restrain the urge to scratch your neck when it’s been badly bitten by a fat red ant so you can keep your hands in dhyana mudra,* you’ll find that after the first few unbearable moments, the sting actually abates and eventually disappears. From there, it’s not too difficult to extrapolate that the same thing happens with mental and emotional pain.
All of which brings an entirely new level of meaning to that phrase often cited to those on the verge of panic: just sit tight.
* This really happened to me today. I got bitten at least five times. By the same ant. Gaaaaaaaaaaaaah.