Recently I was at a short meditation retreat and one of the themes raised by the teacher was how practice can increase our capacity to “be with” our experience. I will admit to a bias toward wanting to grow my capacity to “be with” the biggest, most difficult things—otherwise, why bother?
This particular retreat, coming in January, means several retreatants showed up sniffling and coughing. Admittedly a bit of a hypochondriac, I briefly considered bailing on the whole thing. However, the retreat leader (an MD) talked me off my ledge, rightly pointing to my own fixation about germs, and also suggested that I wash my hands a lot and keep my hands off of my face. I had already been single-handedly consuming the retreat center’s Purell supply and redoubled those efforts. But then I also decided to make "not touching my face" an object of my practice. Could I do it?
It’s hard, much harder than you think. I invite you to try it for one day, or even a few hours. Eyes itch, noses twitch, we imagine a crumb here or a piece of dirt there, and up go our hands to our faces way before we’ve had time to think. So for the remaining 2 days of the retreat, I made it my practice to notice this. The itch would start and I would first tell my hands to stay put. Then I would bring my full attention to the sensation. This is a common instruction in meditation, but not too often applied to an impulse that is so bothersome as a highly itchy itch. What I found time and time again is that as I surrounded the offending spot with all of my attention, the sensation changed. It wasn’t itchy any more, it was twinge-y, or ticklish, or painful. And then it just disappeared. Every single time. And what I noticed even in that short time is that I became more able to do this. It became easier. My capacity to hold space for the itch and resist the urge to respond to it increased.
This is such a small example! But it illustrates how growth can and often does occur. Through making a very small shift in how we respond to something that is different from our habitual reactions, and doing so repeatedly, we can increase our capacity to act and be in a new way.
What small shifts have you made to support a change in your life lately?