Last week I shared the experience of receiving difficult news, and the challenges of meditating with ‘the elephant in the room’ — that one big overbearing excruciating thought/emotion.
Over the course of the week, I continued to pay attention to physical sensation, and what a series of shifts there were to notice! Before the ‘elephant’ sensation set in, back when we were waiting to hear the diagnosis after my brother’s many scan, tests and biopsies — dreading bad news but also wanting answers — my whole body had been wracked with tension. Of course I did what I could to relax and release it, but the body just kept saying ‘Really?’
Then when I wrote last week’s post right after receiving the news we had dreaded. (Thank you to friends who wrote with concern and I’m sorry to have been so opaque about what is going on, but this is the internet after all, and I was concerned for my brother’s privacy. This week I realize we’re in for the long haul here, since he was diagnosed with metastasized cancer, and though it won’t be the subject of every post — I promise! — it is now very much a presence in my life, and it would be counter to the practice to pretend to ignore it. I also realized that only very close friends and family know who my brother is, so his privacy is not really an issue here.)
Okay, so we get this tidal wave of challenging news, and I notice that the tension that was wracking my whole body dissipated. I was no longer anxious because I wasn’t waiting on pins and needles with worry and not knowing. Instead I was brokenhearted, and felt the heaviness in the heart area that accompanies the strong emotions of loss, grief, sorrow. The elephant wasn’t just ‘in the room’. It was sitting on my chest!
Now because my difficult news still has, after extensive treatments, the potential to turn into good news eventually, the heaviness in my chest lifted more quickly than it might have had the news been of a permanent loss. I say this for anyone who has lost a loved one, either by death or separation. In that case the heaviness may lift and return many times. Or there may be other physical sensations that might be noticed. The main thing is that we practice noticing, staying in touch with physical sensation, because it is such a valuable messenger at a time we may be feeling quite lost. If we feel exhausted, for example, we need to take care of ourselves and not keep pushing. If we keep pushing, what happens? We find we are behaving unskillfully, and feelings are hurt all around.
For all of us dealing with ANY challenges in life of whatever magnitude, it’s tempting to embrace pleasant sensations and push through or ignore unpleasant ones. But in our practice of being present, we do ourselves a disservice by trying to escape our experience. There are no short cuts through the landscape of emotions. When we try to cut through the rough grass to get to some other part of our trail that looks easier, we get scratched, we get ticks, we get poison oak or ivy, and oftentimes we get lost. This, whatever it is in this moment, is the experience we need to attend.
But what if the pain is intolerable?
Sometimes a particular sensation, thought or emotion feels unbearable. But if we cultivate spaciousness, we might begin to notice that there is more than just this one unpleasant experience going on in this moment.
A physical example of this might be a strong pain in the right knee. Instead of getting caught up in a story about the pain, we expand our awareness to notice that maybe the other knee doesn’t hurt, or if it does, that the thigh or the shoulder or the foot is either neutral or is maybe even having a pleasant sensation. We are not running away from what is. We are expanding to include all of what is happening in this current moment, not just the difficult thing.
This is the same with current conditions. We notice unpleasant conditions, but being fully present with it allows us to also notice whatever pleasant or neutral things are occurring as well. Have you ever seen a child surrounded by toys, friends and loving parents, pouting or crying because of one little thing that isn’t to his or her liking? Have you ever seen news footage of a person in a desolate refugee camp commenting on some little thing in their experience that brings them joy? In both cases we can see that we all have choices in what we notice. This is not a Pollyanna prescription. No one’s saying ‘Look on the bright side’. We’re saying, in every moment, cultivate awareness and compassion, and look at ALL sides, or see beyond ‘sides’ and into the vast realm of being alive and awake in this moment. What a gift!
Activating all the senses and enjoying pleasant ones is a way of bringing balance into our current experience. Maybe that’s why there’s often engaging art in hospitals. It doesn’t take us away from the experience but it does offer balance. Yes, this is difficult but life itself is not inherently a horrible experience. Many hospitals also offer comfortable outdoor seating, so that sunshine and plants will bring us solace. This is not avoidance. This is balance.
So notice in any given moment all the sensations — sights, sounds, textures, temperature, energy level, tension, ease, pressure, twinges, aches, etc. — and see if you can simply stay present with the symphony of experience without getting caught up in wanting it to be different than it is.
This is not about fixing anything about ourselves or anything else. We are practicing a skill that has never been encouraged before, so it’s new and challenging. Any self-judgment simply creates more to notice, and more compassion and spaciousness for us to cultivate.