This post is the third of twelve in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses chapter six. (4.5 min read)
One of the basic Buddhist precepts is Nonaggression. If you’re like me, when you first take this seriously, you realize how often you are aggressive, and you feel guilty for the times you’ve lost your temper, harmed someone close to you, or you feel ashamed for past behaviors that you now see as hurtful. From the standpoint of mindfulness, however, such feelings of guilt and shame are actually harming ourselves and are therefore considered aggressive. This is when my thinking starts to loop—because then I feel frustrated for feeling guilt and shame! All this makes me feel grumpy, and then I curse at the driver who cuts me off. You get what I’m saying?
This kind of thinking-loop is at the core of all sorts of obsessive thinking, not just about outright aggressive behavior. So what’s to be done about it? In chapter 6, Not Causing Harm, Pema Chödrön tells us to begin with Maitri—loving-kindness toward oneself. She feels it’s vital to confront this aggressiveness-toward-self with love and tenderness. She writes,
The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.
In Buddhism, ignorance does not refer to a lack of knowledge, but to distorted-thinking and misperceptions, that is, not seeing the world as it is. As such, ignorance comes from getting caught in our heads. In her words,
The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see.
When we are genuinely mindful, we are free from attachment to our old stories; free from addictions. As we learned from the past chapters, giving up our usual modes of escape from what we fear takes great courage. From working with clients in the early stage of recovery from addiction, I have come to have great respect and empathy as they face the difficulties of recovery without having their former coping mechanism. Recovery is a painful transition. One young woman coming out of rehab quipped, “Do you know what sober means? Son Of a Bitch, Everything is Real!”
Pema Chödrön also talks about the shock people feel when we realize how blind we have been to ways we cause harm. Because it is so painful it is a journey that only happens “because of our commitment to gentleness and honesty, our commitment to staying awake, to being mindful.”
She then introduces the practice of refraining. Refraining is an approach for dealing with our difficulty with staying in the moment. When we are still, there is the urge to move; when we have an unpleasant emotion, there is the urge to change focus. When things naturally arise, such as boredom, anger, or craving, we often automatically do something to fix it. When we actively refrain from fixing it, we can notice the space between the arising of the desire and our action to fix it. I emphasize that refraining is active because we tend to think of it as passive. In reality, refraining takes effort.
Think of an itch. It can seem that a scratch automatically follows an itch because we feel compelled to scratch. But if, through refraining and mindful attention, we experience that the space between the itch and the scratch is freedom, albeit uncomfortable freedom. It is a space outside of cause and effect that makes us uneasy because it is uncertain, and we don’t know if we can take it. Pema Chödrön tells us that this space is groundlessness*—where we let go of knowledge and beliefs because, though they give us a sense of security, they are not really real.
The practice of refraining is akin to “response prevention”—a behavior therapy technique for dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For example, someone who washes their hands compulsively will be told by the therapist to touch something that they see as unclean, and then they are to refrain from washing their hands. The process is worked out with the client ahead of time and done gradually so as not to overwhelm them. The term “response prevention” means to refrain from responding in the compulsive way when one is exposed to the anxiety that precedes ones compulsion.
OCD is just an extreme form of a common human tendency. A compulsion is an attempt to re-establish a sense of order when one is anxious. Say, for example, that you are anxious about completing your tax return. You sit down at your desk, which is disorganized. You feel compelled to straighten up and feel a sense of relief and readiness once you’ve organized your desk. Each time you sit down to your desk after that, you “organize” it whether or not it is in disorder. You might sharpen pencils that aren’t dull or line up the stapler neatly with the other items on the desk. Over time if the organization ritual continues and expands even as the sense of relief diminishes, you have probably developed a compulsion.
From the Buddhist perspective, our tendency towards obsessions and compulsions is universal. It is pervasive and built-in so that we often aren’t even aware of them. Refraining is a practice to see these behaviors and to experiment with breaking the chain between the anxiety and our automatic responses. Even if we fall short, we gain awareness.
Seat yourself for meditation. Be aware that you are sitting. Next, follow your natural breath for a few moments.
Then scan your body and note anything uncomfortable or annoying such as an itch. If you sit for a little while, you are bound to notice something. When you do notice something you feel the urge to fix, refrain for what, for you, is a reasonably long time. Practice refraining by doing nothing to change anything uncomfortable or annoying such as refraining from shifting your position. Pay attention to the space that you’ve created between the urge and your reaction. Notice what you are feeling physically and emotionally and notice what you are thinking. Also, notice changes in your thoughts or in how you feel physically or emotionally. For example, does the itch feel the same, does it move, strengthen, weaken, or go away? If you struggle and give in to the urge, just respect the power of the compulsion with no judgment of yourself.
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
* For more about groundlessness read Pema Chödrön’s article in Lion’s Roar magazine.
Next Post: The Case for Hopelessness to be published on 5/24/20 and will focus on chapters 7-8.
To find out more about the series or to participate in the discussion, go to Welcome to the Exploring Mindfulness Series