“Mindfulness helps us see how we create our own suffering,” I told a group of meditation students. I had said this so many times in the past that until one of my students raised her hand and queried, “I don’t understand. What do you mean that ‘mindfulness helps you see how you create your suffering’?” I hadn’t drawn from and shared my own meditation experience in a way that would make the statement come alive.
I reflected for a moment and extracted a vivid memory from my own experience. I remembered sitting in meditation on a retreat at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. About 35 of us, all psychotherapists, were nearing the end of a 9-month program offered by the Institute for Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. I was having trouble sitting still, squirming about trying to find a way to relieve the pain at my right scapula and left hip. I began to feel self-conscious and self-critical as old, familiar thoughts spiraled through my mind. “I’m probably irritating everyone. . . Why can’t I sit still. . . Everyone else is probably deep in their practice experiencing profound insights and peacefulness. . . Once again, I am the loser meditator and everyone knows it.” I was in the midst of creating my own suffering.
As those familiar thoughts worked towards their crescendo, I was able to observe them, blissfully stop them, and turn, as I had been trained to do, to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, a fundamental teaching in the Buddhist literature.
The first foundation is “mindfulness of the body.” I dropped my attention into my body to notice where sensation was strongest. To my surprise, it wasn’t in my back or hip. It wasn’t at the diaphragm, where I so frequently experience strong emotion. Instead, the sensation resided at my heart. As I explored the “felt sense” of my heart, it was clear that I was in “heart-pain.” Tight and contracted, my heart was heavy.
Next, I turned to the second foundation, “mindfulness of feeling tone.” As westerners, when we hear the word “feeling” we often think of emotion, but rather than emotion, “feeling tone” asks us to distinguish if the experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. When experience is pleasant, we want to hold on to; when it is unpleasant, we push it away. There was no question, the sensation was unpleasant. I set the intention of staying with my experience without grasping or rejecting, just “being with.”
The third foundation is “mindfulness of mental states.” Our mental states include our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. “What am I believing about myself?” I asked. “That I am less than and that I can’t hide that deficiency,” was the response. “How does this make me feel?” Still connected to the sensation at my heart, there was a palpable contraction. My heart was so brittle and I was so sad that I began to experience my own heart break.
I realized that the judgmental, critical inner voice I was so accustomed to listening to was the source of my heartbreak. If I stayed with that voice, if I believed that voice, I was choosing to break my own heart. I had a choice; I could chose, instead, to find a place in the body where I experienced peace and acceptance. For me, a long-time yogi, that was a return to the ease and sweetness of my breath as it moved in and out of my nostrils.
In this instance, my path to the fourth foundation, the “mindfulness of the dharma,” occurred without real effort. “The dharma” is a broad term encompassing all of the wisdom, understanding, and insights of the Buddhist teachings. As my critical inner voice subsided and I reconnected with the safety of my breath, I experienced my fellow meditators in a different way. They were no longer psychological projections; external critical voices, who were disturbed by my achy, fidgeting body, but, instead, they became part of a bigger, benevolent whole. I could feel my connection to those who sat in meditation with me and their connection to me and to each other – we were present, supporting, caring deeply for one another. My heart, no longer hardened into contraction, was soft and open. The strength of this shift in sensation and emotion took me by surprise; I felt expansive and loving. I settled deeper into my meditation, willing to meet whatever arose next, be it pleasant or unpleasant, with curiosity, kindness, and presence.
This experience occurred in 2014. A profound lesson on my own journey to a greater state of well-being, I have returned to this memory over and over. Always as I return, I experience deep gratitude for the wisdom of these practices. My inner critical voice has not disappeared, but when I am aware and it arises, I say to myself, “Ronda, you are breaking your own heart.” In the choice, between separation and self-alienation – and – interconnectedness and self-compassion, I know the path I’ll choose.
In addition her clinical psychology practice and teaching Psychotherapy and Mindfulness at MSP, Ronda Pretzlaff Diegel, PhD, LP teaches yoga, mindfulness meditation, and the Enneagram.