We humans, over the span of millions of years, have evolved partly due to our ability to recognize harmful situations and either flee from them or eliminate them. Psychologists call this our “Fight or Flight” response. And while this is quite useful for staying alive and propagating our species, it has an adverse effect on making progress in meditation.
Running away from less than pleasurable experiences is precisely what NOT to do in meditation. Responding in such a way to feelings of aversion is part of what got us in to this mess of suffering in the first place*. It’s not that we should be like some unbalanced ascetic who goes looking for pain in order to purify our karma. That’s just as unskillful as running away from unsatisfactory experiences or chasing after pleasure. Rather, what we should learn to do is allow such experiences to come into our awareness and pay attention to what happens. In my experience, when an unsatisfactory thought or sensation arises there are three outcomes that may follow:
- It could go away.
- It could persist.
- It could change.
Now, these three outcomes are true regardless of what I desire to occur. That is, unless I decide to change positions, or get up and stop meditating altogether. But then I’m right back where I started, running away from suffering as if in a game of cat and mouse (and of course, I’m the unlucky mouse). But if I resolve to infuse each and every unsatisfactory experience with mindfulness, I will make progress.
After coming to know this simple truth for myself, I made note of it in the form of a “rule” of meditation. The rule is: whatever is presenting itself in the present is exactly what needs my attention in order to make progress. If I ignore the discomfort and try to dwell on something else (e.g. what enlightenment will be like, or what stage comes next, what I want for lunch tomorrow, etc.), progress gets stunted.
My advice to you, oh reader, is to commit yourself to diving in to whatever experience arises in the moment. If you feel edgy, or tired, or angry, or painful, or anxious, or depressed, or lusty, or whatever else, you must continue to pay close attention to the experience in order to make progress. I know it seems counterintuitive to most every other situation you’ve ever found yourself in. Nonetheless, I sincerely encourage you to give it a try. Do not fight. Do not take flight. Stay right where you are give your fullest attention to what is actually occurring in the present and you will surely make progress.
*According to Buddhism, the three primary causes of suffering are greed, aversion, and delusion.