In learning to work with grasping – taking hold of opinions and views – we can learn to receive, accept and acknowledge another person’s mood, to know and be aware of it, but recognize in addition that we have a choice, a bridge we may or may not cross: ‘Do we choose to join in with that person’s mood or to leave it alone?’ It’s very helpful in these situations to develop body awareness, using our physical sensations. It’s the same when someone upsets you or you’re irritated by someone, or when you’re being attacked, criticized, misunderstood, misrepresented. These are prime opportunities for practice.
It takes a lot to be mindfully misunderstood or misrepresented, because you want to jump in and say: ‘No! It wasn’t like that! That’s not what I think. I’m not that way. I didn’t do that. It wasn’t me. No! You don’t understand!’ But as I believe Confucius put it: ‘Those who justify themselves do not convince.’ The very energy of self-justification feeds that same kind of contention.
We can use physical awareness when we’re attacked, when we are being mistreated or misunderstood. Rather than letting the mind go into verbal reactions or some kind of escape strategy, we can instead bring the attention into the body and feel: ‘What’s it like, this sense that I’m being attacked?’ The attacker doesn’t need to be present; you can do this when reading an email in which someone attacks you, or criticism of you or your community, or when you hear criticism through a third party. Rather than letting the mind buy into that self- justification, that spluttering, self-affirming habit, come back into the body and ask: ‘Where do I feel that? What’s it like? What’s its texture? What’s its position? What’s the place in the body where I feel that sense of indignation, fear or threat?’ It’s very helpful to explore where in the body we feel these different emotional states and then to develop mindfulness of the body, bringing the attention to that part of the body and fully knowing that feeling of being frightened, under pressure or criticized. I should stress that when we look at the physical sensation of this kind of emotion, when we allow ourselves to feel it, it’s not pleasant, so we habitually try to get away from it by telling a story or burning off the energy somehow. But when we focus the attention on it and let ourselves feel that fear in the belly, the breathlessness, the choking in the throat or the dagger between the shoulder blades, my experience has been that it isn’t that bad.
It’s not as painful as a migraine headache or a toothache. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s only like being out in a cold wind or having a small discomfort like a twinge in the knee. The urgency with which we try to get away from that feeling far outweighs the felt experience of the discomfort. So working with a painful feeling has a lot to do with engendering loving-kindness towards it. That doesn’t mean trying to like it, but recognizing that this is what it’s like when we’re outraged, upset or feeling grief. We bring the attention to it and have loving-kindness for it, a clear, open-hearted acceptance of the feeling of grief, threat, falling apart.
But then… to stay with it is really difficult.
The most difficult thing is not to do anything with it, because we immediately jump into thinking: ‘It’s an unpleasant feeling. How do I get rid of it?’ That’s the immediate reaction, and that urgency to ‘get rid of’ creates the causes for the feeling to be intensified, and made stronger and more real. This is because the mind is saying: ‘This is a real thing that is in the way. If I got rid of it I would be happy.’ Reasonable enough, in theory, but when we act on that reaction we intensify the causes of the feeling. Instead, we can go to the feeling and let it be known: ‘This is the cramp in the belly, this is the tightness in the throat, this is the knife between the shoulder blades. It feels like this.’
That very open acceptance of it as it is, without trying to ‘do’ anything with it, that very act of awareness, is the transforming agent. When those feelings, those painful sensations are held with a genuine, open, unbiased awareness, that’s when letting go, genuine relaxation can begin. It’s a relaxation based not on trying to get rid of, but on recognizing: ‘Why am I doing this to myself? Why do I hate this? Why do I fear this? Why am I tensing up against this? This is hard work.’ It’s a non- conceptual realization. A little intuition murmurs: ‘Why am I doing this to myself? I don’t have to do this. Lighten up.’ And the system softens on its own. The quality of awareness itself is like a heat lamp on a knotted muscle. After a while there’s a sense of ease which is hard to put into words but I think we all know that quality of softening. We learn to trust that quality of awareness, letting it rest on the place of tension, the place of discomfort, and we stay with it, letting the presence of loving, attentive awareness loosen the tension. Then we see for ourselves that this is another way of tracing back the radiance; it’s a way of coming back to the source and realizing: ‘It’s really not that big a thing. It’s just a feeling. Why do I do this to myself?’ And then we relax.
This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from ‘I’M RIGHT, YOU’RE WRONG!’, pp. 99-104.