How Does It Hurt?
– Sam Tullman, MPH
In my previous article, I mentioned three things that come up in our experience when we go to meditate, three things that are so central to our experience living with Diabetes: dissatisfaction (traditionally translated from ancient languages as “suffering”), the constancy of change (impermanence), and our interconnection with all things, everywhere, all at once. These three things are the marks of existence, and they run in and out of our lives with Diabetes. They are at once great causes of pain in our lives, and potential guideposts pointing us to live better. Today, let’s dive into the first — dissatisfaction.
Most of the time, those of us living with Diabetes don’t get to choose our battles, they come to us. Of course, no one really does. But to live a life where from one 30-minute period to the next, your body may (in fact, often does) go from perfectly good health to totally whacked out and in poor health, this kind of stability is life-changing. The more we can learn to be prepared for the discomforts life brings, and poised to respond gently, the healthier and happier lives we can live. There are many ways to support our own stability, but I know few ways other than meditation practices to actually improve this kind of stability.
So, you sit down to meditate for the first, second, or maybe a third time. This is supposed to be good for me, you think. It’s good for my stress, probably will help my mind be sharper, and now I hear it’s good for living with Diabetes, too. The task is simple: count your breaths to nine or ten, and when you get off track, start at one. Sounds pretty boring, but could be relaxing.
As if! What most of us find when we sit down to do such a task for the first time, is that, well, it sucks! Indeed, we sometimes find this even after many thousands of hours of practice! I am sitting down to write this immediately after finishing a morning of strict practice, about 4 out of my last six hours dedicated to sitting without moving, trying to be aware of my breath and body. I can tell you, even with a fair bit of experience, it’s not always fun!
So what’s the moral of this story? Meditation actually sucks? Certainly not. But that, too. It’s not the meditation that sucks, really. It’s our perspective, our mind, that sometimes sucks. It’s the fact that we’re doing something that we so seldom do in our day-to-day lives: we’re meeting with our mind.
We sit down. Our mind stews on something a friend or family member did that bothered us, or an anxiety about work. We begin projecting similar scenarios happening in the future, and the problem in our own head grows. We curse that our mind won’t “stay focused,” and start to feel certain that this isn’t for us, we’re not cut out for it, we’re not good enough for some reason or another.
Or, perhaps we sit down and it is truly wonderful! We feel just how it feels to breathe, just how it feels to be sitting, right now, today. The joy of a bird calling outside, or even, the joy of being totally at peace as cars fly by, and horns honk, and people talk and shout and buzz. How wonderful. It reminds me of that amazing day I had back when ….. WAIT! How long have I been lost in my past memories of sweetness? This always happens. I can’t keep my mind on anything for more than five seconds! I must have the attention span of a mosquito. I’ll never be any good at this.
The most important thing about both circumstances is that together, they make up how your mind is working most of the day. Constantly worried. Constantly causing discomfort. Or if not, thinking about something different, something better than the mundane reality we spent most of our lives in. In the words of an old Zen master, “The burdensome practice of judging” overwhelms us. Stuck in our head, we become literally senseless, no longer responding as well to our own bodies (including when they give us signs of changing blood sugars) and completely isolated in our own head away from the wide world outside of us, often making us distant and distracted, or short with others. Perhaps most importantly, this habit of mind erodes the foundations of actual joy in day-to-day life, and our opportunities to really see the human beings in front of us.
Instead, we could understand thoughts, however annoying, frustrating, or disturbing, as part of a normal life experience. Jack Kornfield, one of the great Western meditation teachers of our time, puts it like this: “Just the way that the heart beats, and the pancreas secretes insulin, just this way we can think of the mind secreting thoughts. It’s just part of the functioning of a healthy mind.”
It sounds nice. But over the course of time we slowly learn that really, we don’t need to own this mind that seems to be spinning, spinning, spinning. It can do its thing, I do mine, and it need not ruin my day based on whatever it’s going on about any given day. With patience, not reacting to our thoughts, we come back to our breath over and over, until we notice that even when our mind wanders it also continues to count, quite aware.
But still, sitting in meditation and walking around in our day-to-day lives, we face discomforts that can overwhelm us. What are we to do then? There are many skillful ways of relating to all sorts of discomforts, each useful for different circumstances. But at the core of all of them is this same, central disposition that we’ve learned from facing our own crazy minds: be patient, do your best to be “unimpressed” (unshaken) by this discomfort, and allow it to be just as it is, without pushing it away. Outwardly, our circumstances might ask us to speak up to someone who has hurt our feelings, or take insulin for a high blood sugar, or straighten out an aching leg. But inwardly, we do our best to remain patient, unimpressed, and receptive to the experience of discomfort that runs through these experiences. The result is that speaking up, we speak out of care, not confusion and blame; bolusing, we give an appropriate dose rather than a rage bolus; and changing posture, we shift gently, not reinforcing our habit of anxiously reacting.
More than most people, our bodily experience is constantly changing in pretty dramatic and often uncomfortable ways. We can make this worse for ourselves, or we can learn how to move through life with Diabetes with grace and wisdom, as Pema Chödrön describes when she says:
“The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite… Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves. There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever. After we have died, the ebb and flow will still continue. Like the tides of the sea, like day and night—this is the nature of things.”