It’s that time of the year when everyone seems to be sneezing, coughing and feeling under the weather. How we relate to being ill is a good example of the way we fight life when it suddenly stops doing what we want it to do. We struggle with being ill simply because it’s something we would never choose to experience, and when we do become sick we try our best to run away from the fact that it’s here.
Being consciously ill which means to fully acknowledge how we’re feeling is perhaps something most of us would never contemplate because we’re afraid of letting go into discomfort and pain.
Seeing what happens if we do let go, with eyes wide open, is the whole point of Mindfulness practice. That’s what Mindfulness is; letting go, on purpose, in order to fully be with this incredible ride we call life, whatever it contains.
This is why Mindfulness is a practice for grown-ups. It’s not about chasing special feelings, or expanded states of consciousness, but about meeting your life as it is, because your life is what you always return to.
We don’t have to like our experience, but we do have to accept it simply because it’s already here, already happening, and no amount of imagination can make it vanish. Indeed trying to avoid what is already happening is a kind of madness. Avoidance seems like a great idea, like it really could work, but it just exacerbates suffering.
It’s what Buddhism calls the second arrow: You’re walking along and suddenly you’re hit by an arrow, and it’s poisonous. You now need to pay attention to it, pull it out and live. But there is a second arrow and it’s more deadly: your own reaction to the situation.
Who fired it? Why me? I knew this would happen! I’m really angry now, this wouldn’t have happened if…
Instead of dealing with the first arrow, we are caught up in our own reactions, all the while dying of poison.
So next time you’re experiencing illness or physical discomfort try the following exercise designed to open up and soften the experience you’re having.
The point of the exercise is to see what happens (as an experiment) if we move towards these uncomfortable sensations, rather than react and try to move away. It works by really allowing ourselves to pay attention to the raw sensations of pain and discomfort (the first arrow) rather than the story about it playing in our head (the second arrow).
These stories may be variations of the following:
I’m ill because…
I wish this would go away because… I hate this because…
This shouldn’t be happening
What if this gets worse?
Drop your attention and interest out of the story and into the sensations themselves. It’s the raw sensation which we want to observe and ultimately, accept.
When this is done with patience and attention difficult sensations can soften, open up and become lighter and more manageable. Sometimes they can appear to become more intense at first, before beginning to dissolve and become lighter.
So sit comfortably, drop your attention into the body and experiment with asking the following questions, listening to your body for any answers. Do it with an open mind, no expectations and a sense of play.
Spend a few minutes with each question, before moving on to the next one:
Where is the pain right now?
What does it feel like? (pressure? throbbing? tingling? etc)
Does it move or is it still?
Is it concrete and hard or fluid like water?
Does it have a colour?
Does it have a centre or a source?
Can you find the edges?
Is there any space or distance around it?
If so can you stay with the sensations of space or distance?
Is the sensation constant? or does it come and go, increase and decrease?
Can you find somewhere in the body that feels good or relaxed?
If so can you switch attention between the discomfort and any pleasant or neutral sensations?
Is the pain or discomfort something you’re actively doing, or is it something the body does itself?
What happens when you direct loving kindness towards the body and the discomfort? (here we can say ‘May you (sensation) be happy, healthy and well’).
What happens when we direct the breath into it, flooding the area with breath, washing it with breath?
What happens when we say “Yes” to it and allow it to be here, as life?
Can you hold the present moment, all sensation, in awareness, allowing it move, flow and be felt, without interfering?
Feel free to either hang out with the experience you’re having, or to return to the questions whenever you feel the need to.