Being With and Turning Toward Afflictive States

Anger, anxiety, boredom, depression, frustration, meaninglessness—these are states of mind we all experience. But we don’t like them, and our first unconscious instinct is to turn away from them, to deny them, to try to change our circumstances so they will go away. Or else we spasm on them—freeze them in our minds by fixating on them instead of allowing them to simply rise up and then fall away again as they are naturally inclined to do. In this way we allow them to become the headwaters for a long meandering stream of afflictive thoughts with many torturous tributaries. But what if we turned toward these states instead? What if we allowed ourselves to inhabit them, to feel them as fully as we could? Doing so might release the considerable energy these states contain and make this energy available to us. Doing so might free us from the sense that these states of mind are afflicting us in the first place. Filling them up with our consciousness, we might find ourselves coming out the other side into a wider, less constricted space.

In order for any of this to happen, we first have to become fully aware of these states, to break ourselves of the habit of pushing them away. A good place to start working on breaking this habit is the mild (or sometimes not so mild) physical pain we might experience in the course of sitting meditation. Perhaps our knees begin to ache as we sit. Perhaps our back hurts. Perhaps our foot falls asleep. Our first instinct is to move our legs, to change our position so that the pain goes away. Or perhaps we decide to just sit there and let the pain lead us on a long and detailed contemplation of precisely how long we might be expected to endure this pain, how it compares to other pain we have felt, whether or not it is genuinely life threatening, et cetera. Perhaps we might spend our time in meditation clenching every muscle in our body and holding on against this pain for dear life until the bell rings, putting us out of our misery. These are all attempts to push the pain away, to get rid of it somehow, either by changing our circumstances so that it doesn’t appear to exist anymore, or by covering it over with a mind full of screamingly painful thoughts.

But what if we were to become the pain in our legs, to inhabit it, to turn toward it as completely as we could? Then, I think, we might not experience it as pain anymore, but rather as simple sensation. We would be aware that these impulses were emanating up from our legs in waves, but they wouldn’t necessarily hurt us. Pain is often the differential between how we want things to be and how they actually are. Pushing pain away indicates that we wish it were somehow otherwise. Turning toward it, being with it, on the other hand, releases us from the pain of it. No longer wishing it to be otherwise, we can enjoy it for what it is, namely pure sensation, pure energy, a momentary impulse-wave. It is enjoyable, it is gratifying, to experience a strong sensation. We feel more fully alive when we do; our life seems more vivid.

Once we are able to transform the simple physical pain we experience in meditation this way, we may wish to move on to the more diffuse and even more painful world of afflictive emotional states such as anger, anxiety, and boredom. When anger arises in our mind, either in meditation or when we are walking down the street, we might accustom ourselves to turning toward it, embracing it, experiencing it to the fullest extent possible, rather than turning away from it, trying to control it in some way, or worst of all, acting on it. Our usual response to afflictive emotional states such as anger and anxiety is either to deny them, to express them inappropriately, or to tell ourselves self-justifying stories about them. The first response, denial, causes serious inner damage; the second, inappropriate acting out, sets off a whole new chain of afflictive states of its own; the third, creating a drama complete with villains on whom we can place the blame, augments and perpetuates the disturbance. But there is another way Getting into the habit of embracing our pain can be the first step toward getting past it by moving from the melodrama of suffering and affliction to a more pleasurable and primary world of impulse, energy, and sensation.