I used to get really annoyed when people would suggest sitting completely still and not scratching an itch that came up during meditation. And even more annoyed when I would try and do it. I find great peace in stillness, and I found I could sit much more comfortably in silence for longer periods of time if I adjusted my seat occasionally and scratched itches when they came up. Then I was not so distracted and aggravated by my discomfort. And could just get on with the peace.
And I like this metaphorically as well…why stay stuck in something that is not working when you have the capacity to easily fix it? Plus, I know of numerous stories of people who messed up their knees and legs by forcing themselves to stay in seated meditation for too long in positions not suited to their body. Sometimes it even set off a bit of a panic in my body. I felt trapped if I couldn’t move.
I saw this discipline as an archaic tradition that I didn’t want to carry on. In theory sure. We can sit through what is uncomfortable. I get that. But in practice not so much. It is too dangerous. Could set people off or injure them. I like to view myself as part of the evolution of the practices, helping translate and adapt them to make them practical to our lives today. And I tend to see too much strictness as a block, enforcing an absolute paradigm on subjective experiences.
And yet, once I had convinced myself that I could move anytime I wanted too, that no one was forcing me to not scratch the itch, that I had the choice…I began to play with not scratching it. Breathing through the discomfort and experiencing the sensation of the itch blossoming across my body.
Sometimes I focus right on the itch as the center of my awareness, in its full blown intensity. Meeting it. Sometimes I utilize the breath as the center of my awareness, a tether that keeps me calm as I experience the cycle of the itch. Often it gets more intense before it starts to dissipate. Sometimes it is excruciating. Sometimes I find myself inadvertently scratching the itch or moving my position before I even realize what I am doing. Other times I catch myself right before I unconsciously scratch, and pause the momentum. Some itches come on really slow and I feel them as if they are coming from far away. Experiencing the itch as it crests and as it passes.
And sometimes I just choose to scratch the itch. Without too much judgement that one choice is better, just noticing the experience and the results. Sometimes scratching the itch brings relief, for a while at least, and sometimes it just sets off every other itch that wants scratching. Each time is a little different. Through time and paying attention I become more adept at discerning when a pain is a signal that I need to adjust to protect myself and when it is just a passing discomfort. And I get better at listening, and more creative at adapting. Cross-legged on the ground is not the only way to meditate.
It’s true, I can always just scratch the itch. If I can reach it. Yet in life I can’t always so easily fix what is uncomfortable. Or worse. And I began to experience how sitting through the itch, by not moving my body right away if my legs get achy or my back gets tired, that I am cultivating the capacity to stay steady and go through uncomfortable stuff when it comes up inside me, in the moment, in the rest of my life. Without having to react. And without having to block it either.
And not just in theory. The practicality of sitting through the itch. Yes, it passes. And also practicing how to go through it while it is still happening.
For if I have to scratch the itch to be alright, I am not free either. And if I have to feel “peaceful” to be truly at peace in any circumstance, I stay a slave chasing my own comfort. Which is not always possible to maintain.
Its not that I can’t scratch the itch, but maybe I don’t have to.
Which is pretty empowering.
I like the metaphor, and the experience, of this too.