By Jessica Graham
Last week my rib popped out. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know that it’s rather painful. It gives you a great opportunity to work with physical pain in your meditation practice and keeps your chiropractor fed. After a day of having a very easy to focus on spot in my meditation, I went to see my chiropractor. He put my ribcage back together and sent me home with some Icy Hot and the ability to take a full breath without wincing in pain.
A few days later my body was still a little sore, partly from the rib being out and partly from my newfound love for high intensity, burn-your-buns-off exercise. I was also feeling a little down. Nothing too extreme, just a subtle sense of sadness in my chest. I decided that what I needed was a massage. Unfortunately, it was eleven on a Saturday morning, not the best time to procure an appointment with any of my favorite body workers. As I called around without success, that subtle sadness was overpowered with a real craving. A craving to get my way, to make this happen. I wanted something outside of me to fill a longing inside of me. I desired satisfaction from the outside in.
I’ve found that satisfaction “from the outside in” feels shallow when compared with internal, unconditional satisfaction, the simple satisfaction of just being. This kind of satisfaction is not contingent on things going my way. It’s not connected to getting anything at all. Once you start to touch this kind of satisfaction, the more shallow, external version feels, well, shallow. It is deep enough, however, to drown you in craving and grasping if you don’t see it for what it is: an impermanent sensory experience.
I believe that there is nothing wrong at all with indulging in this less “enlightened” kind of satisfaction. I’m not interested in cutting out all the pleasure is my life or living like a monastic. The trick for me is to recognize when craving and grasping enter the scene and to stay conscious of them.
On the day of the massage quest, I found myself submerged in the shallow end of the satisfaction pool. Getting a massage had gone from something nice I could do for myself to a serious mission. I just had to have one. After the fourth call yielded no results, I heard some clear mental talk: “You don’t need to get a massage today. Make an appointment for later this week. Stay home today and watch Big Love and eat snacks.” The part of me hell-bent on getting the knots massaged out of my shoulders promptly told that mental talk to pipe down and get in formation.
Then I heard, “You know you’re just trying to get rid of that subtle sadness you feel. You are looking without instead of within.” With these words there was a feeling of calm in the body, a contrast to the tight feeling of trying to make something happen. But the tight feeling overpowered the mindful and authentic part of me and I made an appointment at a massage chain. The kind of place that has twenty so-called massage therapists and strives to upsell you a membership. I’ve always avoided these places, knowing that getting a bad massage is worse than no massage at all. But not today. Today I was getting my massage no matter what, damn it.
Long story short, it was the second worst massage I’ve ever had (topped only by one that involved a lot of sweat pouring down on me from a stunningly nervous new massage therapist who actually stopped in the middle to tell me that he, “forgot he had to be somewhere”). I walked out down a hundred bucks, shoulders still knotty, and that once subtle sadness verging on tears. As I drove away, regretful thoughts looped in my mind.
Then a moment of clarity hit, and I asked myself “Why am I so upset about this bad massage? Why is my mind repeating the event? Why do I feel like crying?”
The answer was quite simple. I hadn’t listened to what was true for me. Instead of remaining with the simple, unconditional satisfaction, I got caught in the tide of shallow satisfaction. Here’s the thing: when you spend most of your time residing in a place of what is really true for you, it feels awful when you don’t. Self-deception was once my modus operandi, but it’s been years since that was the case. Now even the smallest veer from self-honesty has dire consequences. My practice helps me through those consequences, but still these moments cause me unnecessary suffering. I almost never ignore that clear, calm voice that guides me through every decision and every interaction. When I do, the pain is as obvious and sharp as having a rib popped out.
It wasn’t getting a subpar massage that bummed me out, it was that I fell into an old pattern and let myself stay there. Just as we get distracted in our formal practice, we get distracted from practice in life. One of the first things I say to a beginning meditation student is to gently, without judgment, bring attention back when you notice you have drifted during a sit. Getting mad and frustrated with yourself for not having perfect concentration is going to make it less likely that you will want to meditate at all.
So, as I often do, I gave myself my own advice. I greeted the feelings of anger and frustration with love and acceptance. Soon all the regret had passed and I was able to finally take a moment to feel that subtle sadness that had been the driving force all along. By the next evening, through mindfulness and inquiry, that sadness, which was really just a sense of separation, had transformed into joy and oneness.
When I told my partner about this experience, he joked that if the worst thing I do is get a crummy massage, than I’m not doing too bad. He’s right. I’m not out drunk driving or robbing banks. But for me not doing what I know to be true feels almost as bad, and incongruent with who I am today.
When we get quiet and still and stop doing, the authentic part of us begins to have a voice. The more we listen and encourage that true expression, the easier life becomes. There is a very obvious flow to life, you know when you are “going with the flow,” because things just seem to work out. Even when we are presented with challenges and heartbreaks, when we are going with the current there is an ease to our experience. When we go against the flow and try to force things to happen, life gets hard. We feel drained of our aliveness, stressed out, depressed, and shut down. As we become more mindful of what it feels like to be in the natural flow of our lives, we can align ourselves to it. We can trust it. Each time we notice that we are fighting the current we simply need to gently let go of the effort and return to what that authentic part of us has always known.