Yesterday, I learned something new. I was sitting, listening to a guided body-scan, when the guide said:
Let the breath breathe itself. There is no right way to feel. This is what the practice is about: seeing the patterns that take us away from the present moment.
When I practice meditation and body scans, I often find myself sitting with an uncomfortable ball of anxiety that has been in my belly for as long as I can remember. I have tried all sorts of techniques to figure out what is the root of this suffering so that I can let it go. I say "let it go" with some teacherly poise, but what I quietly yell inside my head is: "get rid of it!"
Picturing a blue sky has been a helpful tool for me in my mindfulness practices. I imagine distracting thoughts as clouds and let them drift across the blue sky and out of view. However, being so desperate to be rid of these thoughts, I would often get frustrated while trying to clearly imagine the blue sky. It is a perfect paradox: grasping for a solution only pushes it farther away.
If I asked you to give me a piece of the sky, what would you do? How would you decide which part defines the sky? Is it the blueness? The freshness of the air? What about grey skies, the clouds that form and the nourishment it pours down on the earth? How can you add the echo of thunder to your presentation? Is the sun a part of the sky? If not, how do we separate the sun's rays from the sky itself?
Even if we could agree on a definition of what the sky is, how would you hold it? In what way can you capture something that is so vast, so intangible, and yet in constant interaction with us? You might give me a jar of rainwater, or air that you collected while flying in an airplane. But even these things would only be metaphors of sky. If I give you an impossible task, there can never be a solution.
Instead, learn to ask yourself the right questions and the answers will come without effort. I could ask you to tell me why you loved the sky, and then I would learn so much more about it than studying the contents of a jar. We can learn to bring this attitude to our mindfulness practices. By observing our own dark places with curiosity, we can learn so much more than by wishing these things could be contained and disposed of with the minimum of fuss.
The guide went on to say:
Peaceful stillness does not arise because the world around us is quiet, or because the mind is quiet (without any thoughts). The stillness is nourished when we allow things to be just as they are for now, in this moment. Moment by moment. Breath by breath.
Reading this now, you might be feeling warm and cosy, but what about when you sit down to be with your own discomfort? To sustain ourselves through mindfulness practices, it is essential to be kind to ourselves. Noticing distractions is, in essence, waking up and coming into the present moment. Sitting there, with yourself, feeling unsure, try holding your own hand, throwing a comforting arm around your own shoulder. Give yourself the warmth and understanding that you would give another. Instead of changing how you feel, change how you respond to that feeling.
By asking yourself a new and better question, so come answers and an increased sense of freedom from suffering. And so we continue along the path of ever increasing peacefulness.