#042 - What is this like?

I recently returned from a meditation retreat on the east coast. I was excited to go and have many days of silence and the freedom to go deep into my own experience without many distractions. Though daily mindfulness practice and meditation are important there exists something special when we can be in deep silence and practice for an extended period of time. Our culture is very much focused on the up feeling, getting high, being excited, the big “Wow.” Those moments are wonderful and leave us feeling the joy of life. But they are also only part of the picture. When we embark on any journey of discovery we must be willing to treat the “wow’s” and the “ugh’s” equally: One to raise us up when we are bogged down, and one to humble us when we think we got it all figured out.

Most of my experience on retreat was of the “ugh” variety. I experienced intense physical pain in my mid-back and around my ribs. Sitting there for extended periods of time with my body doing all sorts of contractions and cramping was very uncomfortable. I literally felt like some internal force was crushing my ribs, and I was just sitting in a chair! I learned that the levels of saying “no” to what’s happening when situations are uncomfortable run deep. I wanted it to stop, I was over the discomfort, and I wanted relief. Which of course is totally normal to want. But I did my best to continue to be with what was, listening to my body for the answer to the question “What is this like?”

This question is a compassionate and neutral inquiry into what is. Leaving out the judgment, longing for resolution, and frustration. I was also asking, “What do you most need right now?” towards the sensation. These open inquiries provide spaciousness, and are not answered by the mind but by the body. They facilitate a deeper listening to what’s happening below the level of everyday consciousness.  

At some point the pain was pretty intense and something switched for me. I could feel the subtle way I was contracting against what was happening in my body. I was actually contracting around the pain; I said I wanted it to pass but I was holding on. This was one of those big moments of realization that is felt deeply. We all know about ceasing to fight what is, and we know it’s a good idea, but the practice of it is another thing entirely.

The funny thing for me was that this awakening of sorts was not the end of my back pain. I actually had some pretty gnarly crushing around the ribs after this moment. What did change was my level of fear; I was less reactive, more open and spacious. I could feel the contractions and cramping, but I didn’t have to do anything about it. I felt trust in the life force energy moving in my body following a path of healing that was beyond my conscious mind. Sometimes healing feels like burning, crushing, stabbing, and totally uncomfortable. And sometimes it feels like awareness, love, and spaciousness.

The question “What is this like?” open us up emotionally and physically. The mind wants to figure out what is happening so it can stop it, but all the thoughts get too confusing. The key is to drop the stories and our formulations about finding relief, but stay with the body sensations and the emotions that are connected to the sensations. For me the crushing and cramping was connected to rage and sadness. So feeling the arising of emotion and saying “So this is what rage is like,” or feeling the sadness and saying “This is what sadness is like” allowed the whole field of my body and emotions to find balance naturally via the process of healing. The ego doesn’t like this process it want to be the one to find a solution. It doesn’t want to trust a process outside of its control. Yet if you begin to experiment with asking “What is this like?” when you want to act out of an addiction, or find yourself going down a rabbit hole of obsessive thinking you will make it through that pattern over time. 

Both of these experiences, the “ugh” and the “wow,” are vital to moving beyond the confinements of our histories, beliefs, and unconscious painful motivations. For today see if you can move into exploration of something that just feels bad, a body sensation, emotion, or behavior. See what happens if you don’t criticize, internally or externally, your partner or co-worker when they do something that bothers you. Experiment with not eating that snack when your not really hungry but just bored. Voluntary take a few minutes to sit with curiosity in relationship to a chronic ache in your body, asking yourself “What is this like?”