By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast.
Whenever I teach mindfulness, I see a recurring scenario with a lot of students. They're busy people, and it's difficult to free up a few minutes a day to meditate. They'll do it, but it's difficult and feels like a sacrifice.
That’s completely understandable. We already do so much in life, and now we have to figure out how to cram one more thing — a mindfulness practice — into our day?
We might think, “If I'm going to meditate, it better be good. It better be pleasant, better help me relax and enjoy my day. If not, I'm out of here."
So we sit still and notice it takes us a minute to settle in — or maybe longer than a minute. The body’s uncomfortable. We're tense. We notice we've been carrying a lot of stress. We're achy, and we hurt in places that we didn't even notice until we sat still. If that's not bad enough, we notice the mind's also uncomfortable. It's chaotic. Thoughts are racing, and it feels like our mind is a wild animal thrashing around in a cage. We look at the clock. It's only been three minutes, and it just feels like torture.
This is a really common scenario. We might think, "I want mindfulness to reduce my stress. When is it going to reduce my stress and make me a happier person?” We want our mindfulness practice to pay dividends, but we're confused because sometimes our mindfulness practice is the most unpleasant part of our day.
This is what I want to help you recognize: Our unpleasantness, if we identify it for what it is and if we use it, becomes exponentially healing.
What do I mean by that? I mean that when we notice discomfort in the body or agitation in the mind we can experience it as the release of deep sensation from the bones, from the deep tissues, from our very cells. We can see it as a process of letting go of all this stress and pressure we’ve accumulated.
We might sit in meditation and experience busy thoughts jumping from thing to thing to thing, and we can recognize that the mind is starting to empty itself out, to purge itself of content we just don't need. In certain moments it's like a volcanic eruption. And if we can trust it, we let go of things we've been carrying around forever.
A few years ago, I was deep into a long meditation retreat when out of nowhere I heard an inner voice like a drill sergeant of shame barking in my ear saying: "You're doing it wrong!"
I hated the voice and how it felt in my body. It seemed like every ten seconds for several days this inner drill sergeant was barking in my ear, telling me: "You're doing it wrong! Pack your bags! Go home. You're no good at this practice.”
It was crazy — and so believable. There I was in isolation, in silence, not talking to anybody. There was no shoulder to cry on. I just felt this barking in my inner ear for days and I thought it was going to drive me mad.
Then, one day my body just relaxed. Something really deep let go. There was no memory associated with it, no specific childhood memory I was trying to let go of. It was just that as soon as my body let go, the voice totally vanished and I was in a different space.
It’s an example of how the body and the mind heals itself. How it purges itself of content that’s deep down. And when we actually confront that content — when we're willing to hear it, see it, feel it, experience it fully — we give it the opportunity to be experienced fully. Then, like rubbing alcohol burns clean and leaves no trace, there's nothing left after. There's nothing but nothing. And that nothing is incredibly rich and rewarding.
If we can recognize this process and see that it's going on, we don't get upset with ourselves when our practice isn’t perfectly blissful. Instead we realize that there's something deep in us that needs out and by sitting still and spacious, we can let it out and let it go.
So today I want to talk about a really important aspect of mindfulness that has taken me many years to really detect and notice that it was going on and to appreciate it at deeper and deeper levels: that is the role of healing in mindfulness practice.
Let’s explore the aspect of healing in a mindfulness practice. How can we stay present to a challenging experience? How can we let go? How can we allow challenging experience to erupt, to be felt, and then let go?
Here’s what such a practice might look like.
*Guided Healing Meditation Practice*
Start by settling in to the posture. Let the spine be straight and breathe into the entire physical body, flooding every last cell with oxygen and relaxing deeply with each out-breath. Let go of any waste, anything you don't need.
In this particular practice period, focus on being very still. The body might become uncomfortable, and you might be tempted to move and fix it, to move away from the pain and back towards pleasure. Of course, if you're in a posture that might actually damage your back or your knees, you don't want to sustain such a position. But short of that, I want you to just notice discomfort and see if you're able to welcome it, to feel it, to encounter it.
With each out-breath you can just keep letting go, becoming even softer, creating a space where sensations can arise from deep in the body and release. Imagine that your awareness is like the wide open sky and body sensations — pleasant and unpleasant — are just cloud formations coming and going. Forming and thinning out. And similarly, you can notice thoughts in the mind. Often when we're sitting still, we experience our thoughts as a problem. We wish they would go away. We wish we could have a moment of peace and quiet. But what if you just let thought totally flow as effortlessly as blood flows through the veins? You don't have to dive into a thought or elaborate on it. You also don't have to suppress thought and try to prevent it from arising. You can just let go of the struggle. Let the mind run. Let the mind begin the process of emptying itself if only for a few moments.
Rather than responding to physical discomfort or mental agitation with frustration, you can respond with a quality of recognition, of gratitude that the body is beginning to heal itself at the deepest levels. The mind is emptying itself out. You can just let this happen. You can make space and awareness for this emptying out, this healing process. And if you only have one minute to practice today or any other day, you will be one minute lighter.
This healing process can happen as you practice mindfulness. You’ll find that often times what you interpret to be a problem is, at a deeper level, actually a solution.