discomfort

Finding comfort in my own skin

After tossing and turning through some sleepless nights, Sunada discovered a few things about the discomfort at the root of her insomnia. Realizing that it’s always there on some level, it’s given her something real to work with, day and night.

I turn to look at my bedside clock. 3:18 am. Here I am again, wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Darn it.

This has been happening a lot lately. So I thought, how about trying something different? Why not use that time to meditate? You know, lie in bed, completely present with my body and mind, and being with how it all just IS? You’d think this would be ideal conditions. No distractions. The phone won’t ring. The computer’s turned off. It’s warm and comfy. There’s nothing I have to do. Just rest quietly.

Funny thing though. My mind doesn’t think so. Watching it, it’s so clear. The real problem isn’t that I’m awake in the middle of the night. It’s that I don’t want to be here, and I keep fighting it. I seem to think that somehow — maybe that NEXT shift of position, whatever it is, will be the perfect one that lulls me off to sleep. And of course it isn’t. I’m doing everything it can to avoid facing the fact that I’m awake. The bottom line, really, is that in this quiet comfy place, I’m uncomfortable being in my own skin.

As I lay there, I remembered a story about the Buddha. A king asked the Buddha which one of the two of them was happier. The king had magnificent palaces, a powerful army, beautiful women … everything he could possibly want. Surely he was the happier of the two. Then the Buddha asked him, “Could you sit perfectly still for an hour and be completely happy?” The king thought he could. Then the Buddha asked, “Could you sit for a whole day and be happy? Or seven days? The king had to admit he’d find that difficult. The Buddha then said, ‘Now, I — without moving my body, without uttering a word — can dwell sensitive to unalloyed pleasure for seven days and nights. So what do you think: That being the case, who dwells in greater pleasure: the King or me?’”

The kind of happiness the Buddha was speaking of doesn’t depend on having perfect conditions or feeling pleasure. And here I was, with great conditions and physical comfort, and STILL I was yammering to myself. Pretty pitiful, I thought.

I’m realizing now that this state of being “uncomfortable in my own skin” is something that’s there pretty much all the time. It’s what leads me to distract myself – run around being “busy”, surf the internet mindlessly, putter and waste time. When meditating, it’s that monkey mind that’s so fascinated by the next shiny thing over there. I resist going more deeply into being present, I think, because I don’t want to feel this underlying discomfort. I suppose I could call it anxiety, restlessness, craving for sense experience. Maybe it’s the existential fear that I’m told we all have – fear that if I stop doing things, I’ll somehow disappear. It’s a fear of death. In any case, there’s a real discomfort I feel — a very subtle but real bodily sensation. Especially on those quiet sleepless nights.

The Buddha’s remedy for any craving or aversion is, of course, mindfulness. So I’ve been shining the light of my awareness on this as much as I can.

See also:

When lying awake at night, I turn inward, and bring my awareness to that discomfort itself. I give it my loving attention. Like holding a child having a tantrum. It takes some effort, yes. I try to release my grip on it.

First, relax my body. I do a body scan and consciously let go of all the places I’m holding – a leg, a hip, a shoulder. I imagine sinking deeper into the mattress, giving my body weight over to it completely. I notice how entire areas of my body, like my hips and back, had been holding on tight. It feels good to let them go. I also do the same with my mind. Relaxing places where I feel it gripping tightly to a thought, an idea. Open up, soften, let go, surrender.

And as I do this, there are times when I slowly pass through that wall of discomfort and settle into something different. Where I sort of become my awareness itself. It’s like I’m at a deeper core of myself where I float, separate from my unhappiness and watch it from a distance. When I’m there I feel more anchored by my sensibilities, self-respect, and natural intelligence. I can watch those restless feelings pass through my experience as fleeting bursts of energy. And not take their bait so much. For brief moments, I feel more spacious, expansive, and at ease. Bigger than those tantrums that I was caught up in just a few moments earlier.

Being there doesn’t necessarily get to me sleep right away – I’ve had nights where I’d lie awake like this for two hours or more. But I’m at least keeping myself from indulging so much in the fretting and fighting with myself. And yes, eventually, I do fall asleep. And often the next day, I find I don’t feel so sleep-deprived because I actually rested, even though I didn’t sleep through the night.

I’m grateful for my insomnia for showing me this “uncomfortable in my skin” feeling. It’s given me something real to work with. I see it clearly. It’s sharpened my awareness of how it’s there all the time, throughout the day. It’s given me opportunities to practice staying mindful of it, while waiting in line at the grocery store, eating, driving, just about any time. And not letting it rule me. Working with it, I keep aspiring toward the kind of presence that could sit perfectly content through it all, maybe even for seven days and nights, just like the Buddha.

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Try a little tenderness

grass at sunsetAbout three weeks ago I embarked on a 40 day spiritual programme. It’s a simple thing really –- daily reading, reflecting and writing on the themes –- but the effects have been profound. I’m no stranger to this sort of thing, having spent my twenties engaged in full time study and practice on the lead up to becoming an ordained Buddhist, but it’s been a while since I’ve taken up a such a purposeful, purely spiritual, exercise.

Recently, things have been very settled for me in my new abode –- a couple of caravans tucked away in the fields of rural Devon, in southwest England. I call it the ‘wild field’. My family and I moved here from a nine room country cottage in the neighbouring village a couple of months ago as an experiment in getting away from it all and living more simply. It was quite a downsize and a lot of work, but at last all the moving pandemonium is over. In addition, my husband Pat’s bad neck is much better and my 16 year old son Jamie has recovered from his relationship break up. I have some time to myself again!

So I’ve been glad to re-establish my coaching, meditation and writing practice, loving the retro 70s caravan I use as a studio. I’ve been waking up every day, looking out over the peaceful meadows, feeling my wonderful family close by me and counting my blessings. What a fantastic, beautiful, quiet, retreat-like haven of a life-style! Almost without realising it, I’ve been dropping deeper and deeper into the richness of my inner world.

And so its not surprising that the spiritual programme is biting. I recognise the pattern. At first there’s excitement and inspiration at the juicy wisdom being studied. Then times of uncomfortableness and resistance because an unenlightened part of me feels threatened, usually when I’m hanging on to some ingrained and unconscious way of being that’s really not necessary or useful any more.

After feeling tense and unhappy for a while, which can be hours or days, it becomes clearer what’s being challenged and what needs to let go. It helps to allow myself to feel my upset emotions (have a rant or a cry or whatever) and talk to someone who understands the process or write it all down in a journal without judgement. Eventually the realisations come and I end up feeling cleansed, renewed and aligned with a more peaceful, happy way of living than ever before.

I’m reminded that at the uncomfortable times the best thing you can do is simply accept ourselves just as you are –- and without needing to analyse why you are feeling out of sorts. A great exercise when you feel like this is to write a long list of “I love me when…” and finish each sentence. Write about loving yourself — the good and the bad — until you have a feeling of accepting every last part of yourself unconditionally. Even if you don’t feel it to be true at this time — write it down as though you do. For example “I love me when I’m inspired”, “I love me when I’m depressed”, “I love me when I know what I’m doing”, “I love me when I’m confused”.

Unconditional acceptance of oneself is always the beginning of the end of unhappiness. It’s so simple. Even when you are feeling utterly wretched it is possible to step outside and look back upon yourselves compassionately (just as you would look upon a crying child who has broken a beloved toy). The trick is to remember to do so! Once, when I was upset about something and unable to feel compassion for myself, Pat fetched a mirror and tenderly held it up in front of me. Looking at her poor, crying face in the mirror I felt rather sorry for the girl and my heart melted!

I think Eckhart Tolle‘s masterful book, The Power of Now, captures the simplicity of this awareness and acceptance process beautifully. I always say that the Power of Now is one of my ‘desert island books’. I have read scores and scores of spiritual and personal development books over the years, but this one captures an essence of them all. If I was stuck on a desert island with only a few books, I’d want this to be one of them. I thoroughly recommend it.

There’s also a brilliant loving kindness meditation that I learned many years ago and still practice and teach with relish. It’s a Buddhist meditation called the Metta Bhavana, or cultivation of loving kindness. (Not surprisingly, it seems to me that most spiritual traditions have similar contemplations or prayers.) The meditation begins by cultivation of love for oneself, then a friend, then a stranger, then an enemy, then the whole world. In my experience it is deeply transformational as well as gently nourishing, no matter what state you are in when you begin.

Really understanding what love is all about is the core of my inspiration and practice. And I have it on good authority that love is important. Once, when Jamie was a baby and could hardly talk, I said to him, jokingly, “Oh Jamie, what is the meaning of life?” “Love” he answered immediately and emphatically. A baby Buddha! Through parenting, I learned I should embrace love even if it meant also opening myself to loss.

When I was talking to Inspired Entrepreneur Nick Williams, he asked me what the principle of non-attachment means.  In response I quoted William Blake’s poem which, to me, captures the spirit of non-attachment and unconditional love:

He who binds himself to a joy;
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies;
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Writing about all compassion and love has cheered me up no end! I guess “I love me when I’m deep in challenging process” and “I love me when I’m writing inspiring stuff about love”! A little tenderness does the trick.

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A student asks: Sometimes when scanning my body during mindfulness practice, I come across some pain or discomfort…

A student asks: Sometimes when scanning my body during mindfulness practice, I come across some pain or discomfort. Do I try to stay with it until it goes away? And if it doesn’t go away, do I move on?

Sunada replies: Well, first of all, if the pain seems to be an indication of something wrong –- like an aggravated injury –- please do something to address it right away! You’ll have to be the judge of what’s really going on, of course.

But otherwise, mindfulness is about getting to know ourselves and our world better, not to escape into a feel-good state or to get rid of unpleasant/painful things. It’s a useful practice to stay with our discomfort, make it the object of our concentration, and observe what happens as it waxes and wanes. If we just let it be, in many cases, it will pass away on its own.

But other times it won’t go away — like chronic physical conditions or emotional issues like depression or anxiety. So yes, it’s a good question — what to do when it doesn’t go away?

Let me share my experience of walking outdoors recently on a bitterly cold New England winter day. My body’s natural reaction to being out in the cold is to hunch up my shoulders, cave my chest in, and get into a protective sort of posture. But as I was observing myself, I realized that my responses were doing nothing to make me feel warmer or more protected from the cold. It was just making me tense up (shoulders up around my neck, for instance), and if anything was making me feel worse –- not so much from the cold but from all the tension I was carrying around. I also noted that if I dropped my shoulders and stood up straight and faced the cold, it really didn’t feel that bad. And if I brought my attention more closely to the raw sensation of the wind on my face, and setting aside any judgments about how cold it was, it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I had thought it was. So I’d say at least 75% of that feeling of “cold and uncomfortable” was an inflated judgment I had made up in my mind, and was not the reality.

I think this is one of the lessons of mindfulness. If we stay with our experiences, we can begin to separate out the bare reality from what’s a fabrication of our minds –- in this case, exaggerated thoughts of discomfort that served no purpose other than make me feel worse! Being mindful of my discomfort didn’t make it go away –- I couldn’t make the cold weather go away, of course -– but I WAS able to find a way to be in the cold without piling unnecessary suffering on myself. That realization alone made the coldness much easier to live with.


Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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