The other night I experienced the itchiest of itches. At first, I got up to get something to scratch it with but then I decided that it would be fun to simply sit with the itch. I noticed that what I was calling “an itch” was actually something a lot more fluid. At first the sensation of a kind of prickliness dwelled in one place on the surface, then it moved deeper. At one point it became a kind of pulsing and at another it disappeared altogether, only to reappear a little while later. Was it really all the same thing? As I brought my attention, awareness and curiosity to my itch, I recognized that it offered a wonderful opportunity to explore the meaning of impermanence, space, awareness and conditioning.
We are conditioned to chase pleasurable experiences and avoid discomfort and unpleasantness. Without being a biologist, I’m guessing that it’s hardwired into us and has been incredibly adaptive for surviving. When faced with discomfort or pain we often seek relief immediately. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with seeking relief from pain or discomfort. It is not masochism that we’re after. But what if our discomfort or pain had something to teach us about who we really are? What if instead of reflexively seeking relief from one’s discomfort, one became curious about it? What exactly is pain or discomfort anyway? Sometimes we do not have the luxury of being able to relieve our discomfort or pain. What happens then? I decided to look into what this simple discomfort could show me. For me, the itch became the opportunity to look deeply into reality. It was perfect because it was not so difficult as I imagine chronic or serious pain could be and I knew that I could stay with it and glean valuable lessons about fluidity and the changing nature of phenomena. Something as seemingly insignificant yet “stable” and consistent as an itch was a doorway for insight.
As I sat with the ever-changing itch I became less aware of it as an “itch” per se. A big space existed and in it was this “movement” which was traditionally labeled “itch”. There were sensations; pressure, tingling, sharpness, shifting. Soon the desire to scratch the itch disappeared and soon after the series of sensations I had been calling an itch disappeared altogether too. In a way it was a beautiful microcosm of our lives. The itch was born, lived for a while and quietly disintegrated into nothingness .
Our minds try to give the world a sense of continuity and stability but at some level nothing is as static as it seems; it is changing all the time. It is all born anew each moment but for our mind which strings it together.
So the itch was physically uncomfortable but could it tell me something about emotional discomfort or pain? When one experiences emotional pain what exactly is it? Does it stay the same over the course of five minutes? an hour? a day? The next time one is feeling emotional pain, what happens if one sits with it for a few minutes? Is it constant ? Do other thoughts/feelings enter one’s mind/body? what is the story that is being told? What is the texture of the pain? What is the mechanism by which it keeps going?
It seems that emotional pain must rely upon our minds re-telling the story over again and resisting what is going on right now. It is common to seek relief from the pain by re-hashing what “injustice” or “difficulty” or “problem” one is experiencing. It’s as if we think by re-telling the story it will come out differently, or we can soothe ourselves by dwelling on the details but does that really have the capacity to bring sustained relief? What if instead of circumventing the pain by telling stories about it, what if we focused on the pain itself? — where it hurt? what it felt like? (not the story about it – but what it felt like in the body/mind) what it might be trying to tell you? What if you weren’t even trying to get rid of the pain but instead, just letting it be there? It is like somewhere we were told that pain is bad and therefore we must get rid of it. But is that really true? It seems to me that pain just is. What happens to one’s sense of self when one allows the pain to simply be there? Who or what is it that can watch the pain being felt?
Frequently when one experiences emotional pain one adds the layer of “I” should not be feeling this way” but where does that come from? Who says one should not feel that way? The fact is that one IS feeling that way and to argue with what is will always cause suffering. In fact, it probably is the definition of suffering.
Clearly emotional pain and discomfort are similar to the physical discomfort of an itch in many ways.
Observing the itch also offered me insight into addiction. Ultimately, addiction at some level, is rooted in a false sense of self. With an addiction, the addict identifies more with that which they crave, rather than see what they crave as something that passes through who they really are. I am reminded of how powerfully compelling behavior is often likened to “itching to do something”. Yes, one may want the object one craves but so what? What happens to YOU if you do not get it? (Now I am leaving aside physical addiction to something for a moment – but even in those cases, ultimately what happens to one if one does not get the object they crave? It may feel unpleasant or painful or may perhaps even be deadly but why is even that not ok? I do not mean that to be morbid. Who do we know/feel ourselves to be both in the absence of what we crave and in its presence? When I felt compelled to scratch the itch, somewhere I had dialed into the back of my brain a story about my discomfort. Perhaps it was that my discomfort would never end if I did not attend to this itch or that even if I managed to avoid scratching now I would certainly scratch later. Somehow the itch felt enormous and bigger than me and it crowded out all else. Really that is a flip-flop of reality. With addiction our sense of identity becomes so narrow that we define ourselves through our addiction and we are unable to relate to the world except through the craving. Dissolving an addiction seems like it would require a reimagining of oneself, a rue recognition of ourselves.
Ultimately, we are the space that contains the itch and the pain. We are the observing of the itch and pain. In that space the itch came, morphed, and dissolved into the sweet no-thing-ness. So will we.
But to quote Eckhart – only the eternal in you can recognize the impermanent as impermanent.