Many people, like me, begin their mindfulness journey to reduce stress/anxiety, or to focus better. They start with breath meditation, and whenever they get an intrusive thought during it, they think “damnit, I failed again”.
What I recently realized is that the purpose of meditation is NOT to focus on the breath, but to see what thoughts pop into your head when you’re trying to focus on it, and why. The goal is to understand yourself better, to become aware of what the mind is doing at all times, which tends to have the side-effect of the goal above.
Pain is not suffering
A common saying for mindfulness is “pain is not suffering”. It isn’t the pain that causes suffering, it’s all the thoughts running through our head alongside it.
Recently I had abdominal pain, and I was freaking out thinking it may be appendicitis, wondering if I should rush to the hospital and dreading having to move, since it made the pain worse. It was a horrific experience, even if it turned out to be just indigestion. By comparison, when I have period cramps, I know exactly what they are and that they will go away shortly. I still have thoughts like “damnit, why today” or “this sure is annoying”, but it is a lot less distressing, even if I may be experiencing more pain during them.
So knowledge of the pain removes the distress around it. What if we could accept the idea that pain is inevitable, we will experience it and die, and instead of worrying about it when we get it, we just focus on it with morbid masochistic curiosity? Note that doesn’t mean we should seek out pain, or not seek treatment for it when we do have it. Life is fascinating and we want it to be as long as possible, so take as good care of your body as you can. But when the inevitable happens, accept it as part of the amazing experience that is life.
I take it one step further. Pain is great! It may not seem like it, particularly if you suffer from it regularly. There are various conditions that result in not feeling pain at all, and the people who have them are usually living in severe distress. Imagine having to constantly check your body in the mirror, to make sure you didn’t accidentally slice open a vein, since when you bump into a table, you don’t know if it’s just a tiny bump or you sliced your artery open. Imagine forgetting to look one day, and waking up in a pool of blood from a bad wound you didn’t even realize was there. So thank your pain, even if it may be misguided and annoying sometimes.
Emotions are not suffering
Similarly, emotions on their own are not bad. They have a useful evolutionary purpose. Fear and anxiety are there to give you an adrenaline rush, which gives you that extra boost you need to escape danger. Guilt is there to guide you, and help you learn from your mistakes. Life wihtout any emotions would be not only boring, but truly horrific and much more difficult.
What makes emotions “bad” is everything we pile on top of them. You may experience some anxiety before a social situation. Then you think “oh crap, I am feeling anxious! I’ll surely do something stupid and embarassing because of it”. Anxiety doubled. Then we think “I’m useless, I’ll never be able to make friends, why do I even bother, I just want to crawl in a hole and die”. Anxiety quatrupled.
The initial anxiety, which was there to help us, make us more alert, is now turned into a paralyzing monster. What we do mentally is the equivalent of bumping our toe into a table, and becoming so distressed about the pain, that we grab a knife and try to cut the toe off in order to reduce the pain, and being surprised when that produces more pain.
We seek out emotions every time we watch a movie, but we want to run away from them every time we experience them in real life
Think about it for a second. Many of us watch horror movies or dramas, and we get so absorbed in the movie, we live with the character. We feel the fear of suddenly seeing that alien. We feel the pain of things going horribly for the main character. And we love it so much, we want to see more of it!
Imagine that, instead of a movie, it was an interactable video game, where you can control the main character in their story. You can make them do anything that is physically possible in that universe. Sounds exciting? Welcome to your life!
“But”, I hear you say, “what we do in real life has consequences, unlike in games and movies”. Does it, though? You will die, and everyone around you will die. In about 5 billion years, the sun will die, and in 10100 billion years, the whole universe will likely die a heat death. Nothing you see around you will exist any more.
It may seem grim, but it is also liberating. Allow yourself to enjoy your emotions, like you would when watching a movie. Do the best you can to make the experience as long, pleasant and entertaining as possible for both yourself and those around you.
So that anxiety you’re experiencing? Thank it and talk to it, see what it wants. Be curious and excited about the experience. Monitor it to see how it progresses when you go through with that social interaction. “How curious, my heart is beating faster and I am sweating! Thank you, body, for preparing me for an emergency, misguided as it may be.” See what happens when you think that, and don’t be surprised if your body suddenly starts calming down and allowing you to focus on the social situation at hand.
“What should I do if I get an intrusive thought?”
This is the question that led me to realize all this. I use the Headspace app to meditate, and in it, Andy says “If you get an itch while meditating, don’t go and scratch it. Instead, focus on it, and you’ll be surprised to notice that it goes away”.
In practice, this confused me, and nobody seemed to be able to explain it to me properly. I would sit there, thinking “yup, the itching is annoying. Wtf am I supposed to do, keep focusing on the breath or switch to the itch? If only a burst of wind would come and move that hair away from my face so it stopped itching!”.
The answer to it is focus on whatever gives you the biggest insight into yourself. If the itch is new and distracting, screw the breath, take a few moments to focus on that. What does it actually feel like? What thoughts does it produce? Embrace and welcome the experience, don’t automatically judge it as “annoying and distracting”, and don’t think you’re “failing at meditating” for focusing on it.
After a while, you’ll just feel the urge to smile when it itches, thinking “hello, my old friend”. You will experience no distraction or secondary thoughts about it, because it’s become a familiar part of meditating. At that point, you will gain no new insight from focusing on it, and you will be able to instantly and effortlessly continue focusing on the breath, without getting distracted, eagerly awaiting the next “intrusion” to analyze.
In conclusion, stop trying to control yourself and your emotions, and instead become genuinely curious about yourself and everything around you. Once you fully understand yourself, your feelings become much less scary and are unable to cause you suffering.
Even if you rationally agree with everything I wrote, your subconscious won’t be convinced. You will still feel resistance, a feeling of doom and gloom whenever you experience something unexpected or undesired. That’s only human. Keep meditating and being mindful in your daily life, and test this hypothesis, and, eventually, you will convince yourself of it.
So, the next time you meditate, and suddenly, there’s an intrusive thought or feeling? Be excited for it, greet it cheerfully, note it, maybe spend a few seconds fully experiencing it, and move back to the breath.