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Working with Disturbing Objects

February 19, 2013

Any object that is disturbing is a good object for meditation.  — The Bad Lama

…whatever occurs in the realm of samsaric mind is regarded as the path, and everything is workable.  —  Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Lion’s Roar

Shamatha/vipashyana meditation is a practice of uncovering our naturally open, relaxed and radiant awareness. The view, or philosophical framework, of shamatha/vipashyana meditation asserts that our awareness is naturally compassionate and full of loving-kindness; if not interfered with, it takes a friendly and accepting attitude toward everything and everyone. Everything can be included into our vast happiness; there is nothing in our experience that has to be treated as an enemy.  It is only a temporary confusion that creates a sense of separation from and antagonism toward our environment. Therefore, this view asserts, even if we find ourselves in a situation in which we feel antagonism or separation, we are capable of resolving that situation into loving-kindness. As Trungpa Rinpoche says in the quote above, “Everything is workable.”

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. ― Mike Tyson

PunchThis is a beautiful and inspiring philosophy, but in our day-to-day lives, we may find ourselves in situations that don’t seem workable at all. We may enter such a situation optimistic and open-hearted, only to find ourselves becoming pissed off and defensive, clingy and heartbroken, or completely checked out and bored. Although we may still believe (or hope) that, in theory at least, everything is workable, we have to admit that we’re not capable of working well with this particular situation right now.

This can be a painful, disappointing realization for a practitioner. We may beat ourselves up when we fail to work well with a given situation. (“I’m a bad practitioner! The Dalai Lama would have handled this better.”) Or we may decide that since the theory says everything is workable, we should ignore our increasingly out-of-control behavior and just keep trying harder. (“Everything is workable, so I’ll just keep on beating my head against this wall.”)  Or we may decide that the principle of “workability” is just theory, not at all practical, and retreat into some comfortable distraction instead. (“This meditation stuff is a bust. Let’s go shopping!”)

In fact, the enemy is the necessary condition for practicing patience..  Without an enemy’s action, there is no possibility for patience or tolerance to arise. Our friends do not ordinarily test us and provide the opportunity to cultivate patience; only our enemies do this. So, from this standpoint we consider our enemy as a great teacher, and revere them for giving us this precious opportunity to practice patience. — The Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness

But even though it’s painful to meet a person or object or situation with which we cannot work well, it’s very valuable. Difficult situations, annoying people and disturbing objects show us where we’re currently having difficulty being open, and they give us the opportunity to practice opening up. If we managed to construct our lives in such a way that we never had to meet difficult situations, annoying people and disturbing objects, we might fall into complacency and believe that we were completely open and free. Then not only would we still be stuck, but we’d be ignorant of our stuckness as well. (And eventually, we would have to meet a difficult situation, and we would not at all be prepared for it.)

It’s good to become familiar with your own style of stuck-ness. Here’s a meditation instruction for that: As you sit, notice when you are interacting with an object that you find disturbing. Such objects might include memories, thoughts, and emotions as well as people, situations and physical objects (including sounds, odors and physical sensations). Notice which objects are repellant, and which objects are irresistible. When you notice a disturbing object, see if you can just sit with it. Don’t try to change the object and don’t try to change your response to the object. Become familiar with your relationships with the various disturbing objects in your world.

Once you have become familiar with your relationship with a disturbing object, you can make a conscious choice about whether you want to change that relationship. You could ask, “Would I like to be a little more open toward this object?”  It’s possible that the answer might come back something like: “No, I would not like to be a little more open. I would like to continue to cherish my resentment towards this person.”  It’s good to respect such an answer, even though it might be contrary to your best aspirations. Don’t try to force yourself to change a painful relationship if you really don’t want to change it.  But do let yourself see that you have the choice to make a change, and that you are deciding not to.  Allow yourself to see this clearly. The decision to continue a painful relationship is very human; when we see ourselves make such a choice it can be funny, and frustrating and tender all at once. If we become familiar with how often we decide to remain stuck in painful relationships, we can develop more compassion for ourselves and for others who are stuck in the same way.

But you might decide, “Yes, I would like to be a little more open.” In that case, you can undertake the training that will help you become more open: you can learn to heal the relationship between your mind and the disturbing object. In this training, your allies are kindness, patience, curiosity and space. Kindness encourages you to heal the painful relationship. Patience allows you to be wherever you are in the process of healing – including deciding that you’re just not able to work with the disturbing object at the given moment. Curiosity brings you into closer contact with the object, and space allows you to retreat when you need to, and it also grants both you and the object the room to grow and change.

To describe meditation we could use the phrase touch and go. You are in contact, you’re touching the experience of being there, actually being there-—and then you let go.  — Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Dathun Letter

In your training with disturbing objects, you can use the technique that Trungpa Rinpoche, in the quote above, describes as touch and go. You can touch the object and then let it go and give some space to yourself and to the object. For instance, if you were working with a physical pain, you might touch into the pain – allowing yourself to be with that sensation as directly as possible — and then drop that contact and allow your awareness to open up to your whole environment. (Or, if you prefer, you could bring your awareness back to your breath.)

stay or goWhen you’re working with the technique of touch and go, a question will arise: “How long should I touch and how far away should I go?” Remember the dictum “Not too tight, not too loose.” It’s important to monitor your state of mind during this process. If your mind is becoming very agitated or dissociated, your training may not be helping – in fact you may be reinforcing the habitual relationship that you’re trying to loosen. The intention of the exercise is to be able to rest with the object in such a way that it is no longer disturbing. If you find that your mind is becoming too wild, drop contact with the object and give yourself space and time. When your mind is settled again, you can return your awareness to the object. It is up to you to decide how wild is “too wild” and how settled is “settled enough.”  You can learn to ride that line like you might learn to ride a bicycle — learning this balance is part of the art of meditation.

Here are some suggestions for how to work with disturbing objects.  We’ve arranged them in order of disturbing-ness, where #1 is overwhelmingly disturbing, and #4 is not particularly disturbing at all:

Run AwayRun Away! This is appropriate for addictions and obsessions that you find overwhelming. If you feel powerless in the face of the object – if it feels that the object compels you into action — just don’t go there. If you’re in the presence of that disturbing object, leave.  If you’re about to make contact with that object, refrain. Give yourself the physical space and time you need to recover from your addiction. This strategy is classically called renunciation. Renunciation doesn’t completely resolve the relationship with the disturbing object, but it may be the best option you have right now. As the force of your addiction diminishes, you can approach the object more closely.

Break contact, but stay in proximity. This is appropriate for situations where you are likely to lose control if you don’t exercise care.  For instance, you might be in a conversation with a family member, and they’ve just said something that has triggered a reaction in you, and you’re about to launch into an old familiar fight. At this point, you can use a “mindfulness speed bump” such as counting to ten or taking three long breaths to interrupt the speed of your emotional disturbance. Shift your focus away from the object and toward your internal experience. Notice your emotions and physical sensations. Feelings are impermanent – watch your emotions change. When the emotion has receded to a manageable level, come back into contact with the object.

Stay in contact and include more.  This is appropriate for situations in which you can feel some emotional disturbance, but your emotions are still manageable. In the example above, at this point you’ve already used a mindfulness speed bump. You’re not about to launch into the fight, but you’re still a little pissed off. Stay in physical proximity with your object, and open your focus up to more aspects of your experience.  Let your awareness include your body and your physical environment as well as the disturbing object. Get curious about the whole picture, not just the irritating part.

MergeIncrease contact.  This is appropriate for objects that have been disturbing or might become disturbing, but are not too disturbing right now. Enliven your curiosity about the object.  Draw closer to it. Dissolve the separation between you and the object.

In the course of an interaction with an object, you might find yourself moving between levels. Allow yourself to be fluid.

…the practice of meditation involves a basic sense of continuity.  The practice of meditation does not involve discontinuing one’s relationship with oneself and looking for a better person or searching for possibilities of reforming oneself and becoming a better person.  The practice of meditation is a way of continuing one’s confusion, aggression and passion – but working with it, seeing it from the enlightened point of view. —  Chögyam Trungpa, The Path is The Goal

Our first meditation instruction – our most basic instruction — is “just sit”.  In the process of trying to “just sit”, we notice physical and mental habits that get in the way of “just sitting”. Then we have a choice: shall we strive to let go of those habits?  Or shall we just sit with our habits – in other words, should we just sit with the fact that we are not just sitting? Both choices are valid — they represent two sides of our practice. When we have become familiar with the habits that prevent us from being open to the objects around us, we may find that, out of kindness for ourselves and for those around us, we want to actively confront our confusion.  Then we decide to take up the training necessary to let go of our negative habits.

Well, when you get stuck, it is a beautiful situation. You have more chance to relate with the textures. Let it be that way, rather than trying to get unstuck. — Chögyam Trungpa, The Lion’s Roar

Our training with disturbing objects should be contained within our practice of “just sitting.” That practice is a radical acceptance of who and what we are right at this moment. In this practice, as Trungpa Rinpoche says above, we agree to “continue our confusion.” If we’re stuck, we can just sit with and experience our stuck-ness. We can even be interested in the texture of the stuck–ness. This is a truly non-aggressive approach. We remove the pressure of “I have to make this better” and just sit with the painful way things are. In this way, we can develop the capacity to sit with any level of disturbance.  We can become familiar with how we perpetuate and amplify our own disturbance. Then when we find ourselves in an overwhelming situation, at least we don’t freak out about being overwhelmed. We might instead become interested in the experience of being overwhelmed.

Q: I know the point is not to get rid of your depression or anger, but do they wear out, like distractions?

A: No promise, my dear. Wait and see. Have more patience. — Chögyam Trungpa, The Lion’s Roar

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