Staying With Neutral (written 2014)
In the practice of yoga we are instructed again and again to pay attention to the difference between discomfort and pain. Physical pain in any pose is a warning not to be ignored and so we move out of the pose, recognizing it is not, at least for now, right for us, and for “this body”. But discomfort means we have reached an edge, and working that edge, staying with it, can mean growth.
In meditation practice, we learn to recognize the feeling tone of what is passing through the mind, whether that be physical sensation, emotion, or thought. We are taught to note whether the content is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. One interesting thing about this process is that we begin to see that we pay attention to pleasant or unpleasant, but we don't even notice neutral for the most part. As the Buddha observed, when something is pleasant we try to prolong and hang onto it, when it is unpleasant, we try to escape or end it. Neutral seems like the place in the center of the swing of the pendulum, just that empty space the mind swings through on the way to someplace else. We suffer to the degree that we strain to keep the pendulum up at one end or the other.
Our lives are full of wonderful activities and distractions to assist us in this aim. Few of us ever truly experience quiet. Close your eyes and listen, wherever you are, and there will be sound...traffic, the furnace or air conditioning, voices, music, machinery of many kinds, the whir of the computer and click of the keys on the keyboard, perhaps birdsong or wind in the trees. But sound. And even in sedentary jobs, we are not still. We rotate our chairs, shift our feet, get up to pour a coffee, reach for items, twiddle with things, shuffle things, move things. Our eyes, our hands, our bodies are in constant mini-motion.
Attention deficit is still identified by educators and physicians as a problem that interferes with learning for children. Yet, the context of this culture promotes a constant bouncing of attention. Texting while walking or waiting, talking on the phone while driving, multi-tasking at work and at home. And even the nature of our entertainments caters to this need with loud sound tracks, flashing lights, and fast action cuts in videos. Pages in magazines are cut up with info-bites and colors and pictures. We speak in memos and text-speak.
I don't mean to condemn all this, but it seems to me that we are frantically swinging the pendulum too far in both directions. For most of us, our lives are lacking in balance, in coming back to neutral, in paying attention to one thing, to allowing ourselves to see through into the peace that is possible in that place. If you keep blinking, you miss it. And we're blinking like Christmas lights all the time.
Recently the Edmonton Journal carried an article with the title “People Uncomfortable Alone with Thoughts: Study”. The article states “A new study has shown that being alone with no distractions was so distasteful to two-thirds of men and a quarter of women that they elected to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit quietly in a room with nothing but the thoughts in their heads.” In other words, we prefer unpleasant over neutral. This doesn't seem healthy to me.
As with all studies there are things one might question about the conclusions, the methods, etc. but I think it is important here to remember a prime directive in looking for truth. Examine your own experience.
If you've taken part in a yoga class, if you've tried to sit in meditation, if you've sat quietly by a campfire or the ocean, not talking and just breathing and being, what do you notice about your mind? It'll wander. The psychologist quoted in the Journal article says “...it's hard for people to direct their thoughts for any length of time.” Hard isn't the same as impossible. With patient and persistent practice, we learn to be there with thoughts as they arise and pass away. To watch discomfort as it arises and passes, and pleasure as it arises and passes. If we do not cling and do not push away, the pendulum swings up and then drifts back, and we experience that space in between. We are on the way to finding a peace that we can carry with us. Staying with neutral, like temporarily resting a strained muscle or a broken bone, allows for important recharging, for healing from within.
Article cited: “People uncomfortable alone with thoughts:study”, by Michelle Fay Cortez, Edmonton Journal, Saturday, July 5, 2014