Humpday Homily #6 — An itch you don’t scratch

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.

Pushkar, India, 2014. Vipassana Retreat

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.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

5 thoughts on “Humpday Homily #6 — An itch you don’t scratch”

  1. (btw, my impression of you – the impression your words and photos leave on me, a guy who does not know you, has never spent a moment with a cup of coffee taking or whatever, but who generally likes the impression despite limitations that really could be mistaken… is that you are generally a kind of cool I admire and have done little to explore. You appear to be a rugged adventurer taking on adventures I both admire at some points and didn’t even dream of at others. I expect you are too fast for me. I sense that talking to you very much would hold you up from being cool and from embarking on something more worthwhile than giving me your attention… Not suggesting you are stuck up at all, please don’t go that direction with this… but that I am old and made of puddin’ and sitting in a comfortable chair while you chase the spirit of the woods or something. I don’t want to spoil that with my input or hold you back from it. And I think you are cool…)

    Okay… now, before I forget what I wanted to say, for my mundane experience, I check out at the grocery store (or Walmart) and invariably stand there waiting for one, two, or three people checking out ahead of me, the price checks, the bagger running to the cigarette counter to retrieve the smokes from lock up, the debit card swipe and security code entry and the inevitable reswipe. Did I mention that the buggy was full of stuff? Did I mention these people are strangers to me and to each other?

    And then there is the perky clerk with the Walmart logo butthole pucker on the back of the vest, the name tag on the front, the optional smile, neck tattoos and piercings, and the haircut dipped in pink or green that they should have outgrown in Jr. High at least 30 years ago. By the time my turn comes, I rely on the cliché communication of this person to ease me through the bottleneck corridor between checkers because I will not have a conversation with any of these strangers nor they with me.

    We are all preprogrammed to share this existence. We get to this 10-20 minute awkward moment every time we shop here, which is 3 or 4 times a week at a minimum. And the corporate security cameras (which presumably are there to keep us honest, to keep the cashier honest, and to record crimes if they occur, wind up being studied by grad students in psych departments late in the night, whose distilled data winds up in the hands of marketing students who study our behavior and then place a gauntlet of magazines, candy, and novelties around the bottle neck to occupy my mind without my permission or even my awareness.

    Then I get home, pull out my paper flavor donuts from a bag, sit at my computer and read what some almost like minded stranger writes on a FB post or a blog, and then I respond to it with a comment – a long comment at that – so that google and Amazon and some anonymous hackers and maybe even terrorists can read what I have to say. I set off key words that then prompt certain kinds of ads to pop up on my computer and send me back to the store again.

    I suddenly realize I am a lab rat on a hamster wheel eating food that isn’t real food, living a life that isn’t real life, and mortgaged up to my eyeballs in it all. Oh… I can get off here and search Netflix for a documentary that features my pathetic existence as a consumer of news, sugar, caffeine, and every brand of fear I can afford in three easy payments of 39.99.

    But at least I didn’t look at PORN!

    And I go to church where unlike cheers, even the pastor doesn’t know my name.

    Ever see The Matrix? Yeah, I took the blue pill.

    Anyway, I have some itches.

    And btw, your post is creating energy in my imagination for a post of my own. Different subject matter, but its the itch that I gotta scratch.

    Thanx for this…

    God bless…


    Liked by 1 person

    1. “….I suddenly realize I am a lab rat on a hamster wheel eating food that isn’t real food, living a life that isn’t real life, and mortgaged up to my eyeballs in it all. Oh… I can get off here and search Netflix for a documentary that features my pathetic existence as a consumer of news, sugar, caffeine, and every brand of fear I can afford in three easy payments of 39.99…..”

      I’m not sure if most people think so deeply (and widely) about the world and the nature of human existence in the modern world. (Or maybe they do and just don’t talk about it much.) In any event, I’m a lot like you in the way my brain works in all the ways I live and move and have my being in this hyper-consumerist era. Ten years or so ago, I was a bit more idealistic and sort of tried to conform myself and the world to the way it should be. Now the world seems a bit too far beyond that. Not that I don’t try to “do my part,” but the vast complexity of things has me a little less stressed about whether or not I can conform the world (and myself) into what it should be. Again, not that I don’t try.

      There’s the concept of “being in the world and not of the world,” but the dichotomy is not so clear. In other words, I’m not sure I can truly be “in the world” and not still be “of the world.” Conversely, if we disconnect from the world and separate (like Fundamentalists try to do) we often end up even more corrupted by the world. (Monks pursuing the monastic calling or hermits dedicated to the spiritual path might be an exception. (I appreciate times of meditation retreat for just that reason.)

      I suppose that as a goal it seems like something to go for — to be in the world but not of the world — even if I don’t usually achieve it, or even if it ultimately ends up being impossible. Some people say to keep your goals realistic, but I’m not so sure. I’ll paraphrase what I read from Jacques Derrida several years back: the impossible is the only thing worth shooting for.

      Thanks for your comment, Agent X.

      “And btw, your post is creating energy in my imagination for a post of my own. Different subject matter, but its the itch that I gotta scratch.”

      Did you end up writing that post???

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not yet.

        So much stuff has come up since I last visited here…. (I keep 3 foster babies in diapers, so nothing stays put EVER). Also, and more exciting for me… one of my heretofore unpublished books is finding traction with some reviewer friends and developing a buzz with me and a couple friends. So that has my attention at the moment.

        But yeah… Your post triggered things for me. I will try to get back to that.

        Your blog does that for me sometimes… Not always, but sometimes. And I get intrigued.

        You know how people in movies sometimes sit in air ports or restaurants and make up dialog for the strangers passing by? Or how they guess the backstory based on appearance and so forth?

        Well, I think I do that with your blog in the deep recesses of my mind. I have conversations that really are with myself, but I have an image of you (I am sure is not like you at all in real life – like I imagine if I was single and had the attention of Sandra Bullock, I would take her to dinner and we would share some conversation that we both care about. Nice person, I am sure, but probably nothing like me – and it doesn’t matter anyway. I am very married so even if… HA… there is the fact I am not available.

        And so I got an itch after reading your post to post on an itch. Different itch than the one you write about, but an itch.

        Not the first time your blog gave me cause for pause. Wont be the last.

        Thanx for asking. I will put it back on the front burner if time permits…


        PS, btw, I took the blue pill. I didn’t even know or worry about eating food that isn’t real until I saw a documentary telling me I should. I had to consume the information about my cancerous consumption before I got consumed with fear about it.

        I am a lost cause, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t write fiction (I have half an abandoned novel from 10 years ago), but Christian stuff of various kinds. I have two major books in various stages of revision. One on “HOME” counterbalanced against homelessness. The one under the scope at the moment is a commentary on St. Mark’s Gospel. However, calling it a commentary, though technically accurate, is misleading, I think. Nevertheless I have called it a “layman’s commentary” But I am thinking of revamping it so that it resembles a commentary even less.

    Thanx for asking. OF COURSE, one writer to another, it’s my life on printed pages. My self pored into the work.

    If you want, check out this new blog Tommy Thompson started as a way of hyping it. (He is one of my reviewers and seems very excited about it.)

    Here is a link:


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