I’ve had some epic spiritual experiences in my life, big Grand Canyon moments that changed the course of my life, but when I look back on my spiritual journey, I’d say that it’s the small things that have really made the deepest, most lasting change. Epic experiences are deeply powerful, and they’ve change the direction of my life, putting into focus what’s important and what’s not, but addressing more and more I think that it’s the little things that have helped me deal with my deep-rooted ego-issues. I’ve shed tears at the rim of the Grand Canyon, on the cusps of a major life change, but I think that there’s been more power in understanding an itch.
When I first started meditating, nearly a decade ago, I could hardly do 5 minutes. So, that’s all I’d do. For some reason, the idea of meditation deeply resonated with me, but when I actually sat in stillness and tried to watch my breath, it seemed unbearable. By the time a few minutes had passed I felt like every molecule in my body was screaming at me to move, and when the timer finally went off, I would practically leaped from my seat, like I was jail-breaking.
Rather than discouraging me from the practice, I realized how much I needed it. It wasn’t until I actually sat in stillness that I realized how reactionary I was, constantly responding to desires to fidget and shuffle, impulses that seemed to grow into fever pitch. I’d always thought of myself as being composed and serene, at least as compared to most people, but when I started meditating, I was humbled, so much so that I felt like a complete neurotic. Over the years, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that this neurotic aversion to meditation is just a human thing. It’s also something that can be dealt with.
I continued meditating and gradually my time increased and my body could relax (more or less) for longer periods of time. It was as though my mind and body gradually came to grips with the fact that stillness was okay.
My first retreat was hell. I had been meditating, daily (with religious discipline), for something like four or five years before I did my first real meditation retreat, a 10 day Vipassana (Goenka) retreat in Pushkar, India, but it really kicked my ass. We would meditate for 10+ hours a day, all sitting meditation, with some sessions several hours at a time. My mind would spin out in crazy directions, my muscles and joints would hurt to the point of having to limp from place to place, and most of the time it was all I could do just to contain myself long enough to finish a sitting.
It was extreme, for me at the time, but this mental boot-camp continued to teach my mind that it was okay to relax. Or more to the point, that I didn’t need to react to every impulse or urge to move. I could simply watch it, with mindfulness.
On this point, nothing is more intriguing to me that when I feel itchy. Settle in to meditate for a good amount of time, and you’ll invariably feel an itch. Even after years of practice, I still find myself compulsively scratching. But sometimes I catch myself.
It’s one of the things that all Vipassana meditation teachers teach: observe your sensations, understand all the nuances of what you feel, as deep as you can, at the most subtle molecular level.
It can be intense, but it really is possible to carefully observe the intense sensation of an itch. The sensations are all concentrated on one little spot, and there are actually nuances that can be mindfully understood and analyzed.
All this detailed analysis may seem like extreme overkill, but speaking for myself, I’d say that the payoff has been huge. Again, it’s the epic spiritual experiences that inspire us to do great things, but it’s the little things and the daily hard work that give us the tools to accomplish the great work. Having the composure to observe an itch translates into being able to withstand the daily barrage of distractions and stress points that launch us into angry reactions, compulsive impulses, prideful judgments, or self-centered frames of mind.
There’s even a common metaphor for all this. We talk about “the itch you need to scratch,” when describing an impulse that we can’t control. In many ways, that’s a metaphor of the human condition: lacking the ability to mindfully observe life and respond with rationality and compassion, we feel ourselves pulled along by our impulses. The end game, when taken to its extreme, is complete psychosis and neuroses. It’s a bitter human irony that the more we put ourselves in motion to satisfy our compulsive desires, the closer we get to a complete neurotic shut-down. The end-game of all the motion is mental paralysis.
Compulsive behavior is part of the air we breathe, in our culture of uber-consumerism, but true happiness seems to be found not in satisfying our impulses and urges but in learning not to itch the scratch. Or more to the point, to watch the itch and to understand it. Over time, this kind of mindfulness actually changes the composition of our brains and we can experience a form of deeper, lasting peace, something perhaps like “the peace that passeth understanding,” something almost mundane and ordinary, an inner sense of chill, perhaps.