Updated: Sep 19, 2019
Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun, teacher, and author. I have gained a lot of insight about life and transformation from her words. Recently I was listening to a lecture where she compared humans to having a chronic issue in life that can be compared to a metaphor that we are like children with scabies, feeling a constant itch. We can’t see the scabies, but we feel the itch, and scratch it. We know that it feels better temporarily if we scratch, but we don’t know that every time we scratch it makes it worse and spreads the rash. She says the cure to this itch is actually counter intuitive, and is to sit with the itch and learn to stay present with the discomfort and not scratch, giving time for the rash to heal.
This makes sense to me at a logical level, but to play this out in real life is so difficult. She goes on to say that everyone has this itch, and it is like a constant hum in the background. This itch can be dissatisfaction, a low murmur of pain, existential angst, or an intense flare up of anxiety and fear. And given its consistency we almost have a compulsion to seek distraction from it. Pema says there are three ways people can scratch this itch: numb it, have aggression towards self or others, or seek comfort and pleasure.
For me, I seek comfort and pleasure. I want to talk with friends, I have Netflix keeping me company while I do the dishes, I write music to try to find words to capture the itch in artistic medium. I read about being present, I know the research on being present and the benefits on my mind and mental health, yet it is so hard to be still. On my phone, listening to a book, reading about mindfulness all keep me peaceful, yet not present. What would happen if I was still. What do I believe is in the dark abyss that I am avoiding. Most likely I will find myself. Maybe I will find that I am not enough, or my disappointment, or my collected sadness of my life. But maybe I might find that next to those feelings are also the strengths that has kept me going and pushes me forward. Maybe I will find a kind wise voice that is actually who I really need to find.
I recommend the following steps to begin your journey of transformation.
1. Be brave: This is courageous work. You don’t know what you may find when you start, or what new things you may discover. A new journey is always a risk, so congratulations on braving the start of trip.
2. Be willing: On auto-pilot we know the results we will get. It is hard to change habits, especially habits of the mind. But it starts with a willingness to make the efforts it takes. A willingness to look inside. A willingness to face yourself. Are you willing?
3. Reflect and get curious: Ask yourself what are the ways you scratch the itch. What are ways it gives you temporary relief? What are ways it helps you stay stuck? Get inquisitive about your your behavior. The first step is identifying what your patterns are.
4. Stay present: Spend some time every day being present. This can be small moments through the day where you breathe in and out through your nose slowly for 1 minute, paying attention to the cool air coming in, and the warm air going out. It can be eating slowly while actually paying attention to the taste and texture of the food rather than quickly eating while watching a show or talking on the phone. This can be done by walking slowly around the block paying attention to how it feels for your body to move with each step.
5. Don’t judge: Finally, in these moments of reflection and being present, be gentle with yourself. If you cling to either the idea that you are doing well or criticizing yourself for failing, you are adding something extra to the moment, and are no longer present. Our minds are extremely busy, and there is rarely a moment that we will actually achieve this fully present state, but the benefits are in the process, not the outcome. So be in process, be curious, be open, be kind.