One of the most helpful meditation instructions I ever received was to regard thoughts the same way as I do sense perceptions such as sights and sounds. In this way, the car horn honking in the street is equivalent to a painful and emotionally loaded thought. I wouldn’t create a story associated with that horn honking 7 flights down as I sit on my cushion: Is he honking at me? But I didn’t do anything wrong! Who does he think he is? I’m going to go give him a piece of my mind. That would be weird. But the thought “What if I grow old alone” could easily provoke a long, involved narrative – I’m too difficult. No one wants to be with someone so complicated. Why can’t I be simpler? Less emotional. Less sensitive. More easy-going. It’s no wonder I’ll grow old alone… Using this instruction, however, when the thought about my fear of being alone arises, I can note it like I do the horn honking and return my awareness to the breath without attaching a story that simply has no basis.
Recently I had a massage. I don’t indulge myself this way often (enough) so when I do, I want it to be purrrrfect. After my massage therapist began to wrestle the knots in my back into submission, I heard a knock at the door. My therapist made no move to answer the knock and then I heard it again, and again. Soon I realized this was no knock but rather construction work going on in the adjacent room, unaware of the relaxing spa treatment that I was supposed to be receiving. Then came the drill. Oy! Interestingly, rather than hardening my knots with the indignation of my less-than-perfect massage, instead I found myself adjusting my attention to focus on the sensation of the massage. Every time the construction workers hammered or drilled, I noted it, and crisply shifted my awareness back to old magic fingers. I felt I was practicing in real time, not ignoring unpleasant things, but regulating just how much they affected me.
Sometimes when she begins a meditation instruction, Susan Piver will ask us to place our awareness on our left earlobes, then to move that awareness to our right kneecaps. In that moment, most of us are able to shift the object of our attention precisely, crisply, in part because we don’t have a lot of noisy narratives about our earlobes and kneecaps. But when meditating – where body parts and sense perceptions are mixed in with complex stories about who we are and who we aren’t, how we have wronged or been wronged – our awareness can become muddled, less precise.
Because all of these things exist in concert, I have found it useful (ok, let’s face it, I didn’t have much of a choice) to welcome them all, to allow all of my perceptions to come and go with a light(er) touch. I can regard what goes on in my mind on and off the cushion as a total shitstorm or I can view it as a Baz Luhrmann movie – a carnival ride of sensation and perception in which all things are welcome, none inherently better or worse than the other. Whether sense perception or difficult emotion, both help me in my endeavor to understand my mind.
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