In Buddhism we often talk about remaining fully present and mindful in the midst of unpleasant sensations, thoughts and emotions. Most people understand this, but actually sustaining presence beyond noting and momentary awareness is often quite challenging.
When we’re in the midst of difficult feelings or sensations, we may transition from avoidance into full presence for short bursts of time. That’s an important step. But with especially intense discomfort, it’s all too easy to quickly re-engage with external stimuli and old stories to blunt the intensity. Somehow it feels safer than stepping over the edge and letting go, where it seems the discomfort may swallow us.
I’ve found a practice approach that helps me sustain attention when I need a little extra encouragement. I look for simple, even playful ways to increase my capacity to stay present long enough to counter my ingrained resistance. What I’m doing is interrupting the flow of mental formation long enough to create a gap.
I discovered this practice at a time when I was so upset and miserable that the last thing I wanted was to increase my discomfort by feeling it more fully. This very resistance was a clue – time to face it, not run away. But my mind was like a wild horse, rearing and bucking, ready to run. To redirect the energy I asked myself what this horrible sensation tasted like. As someone who especially enjoys food, this question stimulated my interest and interrupted an entrenched reactive pattern. My resistance went down a notch; my mind stilled a bit. If you are more auditory or tactual, look for a specific sound or touch instead.
The key here is that you are engaging in direct experience, what’s actually present, no analysis or stories added. Just find a visceral taste, touch or sound. The answer to my own question was mud and manure – that’s what the discomfort tasted like. Really unappetizing and not even food! This lightened me up a little and engaged my curiosity. After the first few moments of really tasting mud in all its dark grit, the present wasn’t overwhelming anymore. I could stay with it. As I let go, the last slivers of separation and resistance dissolved into immediate experience. The mud dissipated on its own.