When I go grocery shopping I never get a cart. I restrict myself to one of my supermarket’s large baskets, which limits me to essential purchases, and ensures that whatever I do buy will fit into the two nylon bags I bring with me.
Most of the groceries I buy are particularly dense items: tofu bricks, fruit, bulk nuts, tubers and the odd condiment in a jar. I don’t buy boxed cereal, lettuce, chips, or anything else that would fill up the basket without offering much nourishment. I end up with two bags so heavy that plastic wouldn’t do. My car is a two-door, so the bags ride beside me in the passenger seat.
I rent a condo in the city’s most densely populated area and I depend on street parking, so sometimes I have to march the mega-bags a block or two to get to my door. When I do my shopping on the way home from work, I also have to carry a backpack, a suitcase-sized GPS, and a big laptop.
I load up as evenly as I can, close the door with my bum, and begin my half-kilometer farmer’s walk. Often it’s in extreme heat or cold. Eventually, straps begin to slip, my shoulders and fingers begin to burn a little, and it invariably becomes more uncomfortable the longer I have to walk. There are two doors and two steps along the way
I used to really hate this particular part of my life. In my old apartment I had a reserved parking spot so the walk was never more than fifty paces and one or two steps to climb, but it was such a worse experience than it is now. I used to dread it. It was like a final kick in the chest after working all day.
Now, it’s like water. For a while now I’ve known that the way to deal with physical discomfort is to open up to it, rather than close up to it. I used to grit my teeth and, in my mind, lean toward the moment when I can drop the bags onto my table and the discomfort is over. This does not defend against pain, but it’s what I always did and what most people seem to do.
I now see all instances of minor physical discomfort as a chance to get better at being relaxed. I relax into the discomfort, I let it hang out with me. When you first try it it’s an exhilarating experiment — to voluntarily open up to minor pain when that’s what the moment brings you, to refrain from listening to the impulse to cringe or harden. It feels like you’re walking freely in an area you thought you weren’t allowed to go.
It’s relatively easy to do with minor discomfort. Life gives you endless minor discomforts, all of them opportunities to retrain this impulse, and then when tougher things happen, the impulse is still there. Instead of cringing, you release and allow. You look right at it. Nothing else makes sense.
All needs are preferences
The present moment is the only concrete reality you will ever have to deal with. Sometimes it contains pain. We prefer that our realities don’t contain pain. But that can only ever be a preference, because ultimately we don’t have control over the present once it becomes the present. If you truly needed reality to be something other than reality, your head would explode that instant. But it doesn’t. You prefer it to be one way, but don’t need it to be. Ken Keyes Jr wrote extensively about this phenomenon — the possibility of recognizing that all your apparent needs are actually just preferences, and the peace that comes with reframing them as such.
When we convince ourselves that our preference is a need, pain turns to suffering. The mind goes into an emergency state. It shouts. It hates life. It needs the pain to stop, and often it can’t. It needs the impossible, which is for reality to be different right now than it is. Nothing good and positive can be perceived at this point except for relief from that pain, there is no possibility for relaxation or gratitude. This is a bad place to be, and you could potentially live most of your life in that state, even if it’s due to a relatively minor source of pain, such as the bodily strain of carrying heavy grocery bags.
Whatever happens, by the time pain or discomfort is happening, it is reality. The way to minimize suffering is to practice turning towards pain the same way you turn towards any other reality when it happens.
Turn towards all realities. Let them be real. Relax into all realities, as a rule. Practice this consciously with light discomforts so that you can make this your reflexive response to everything. The habit of relaxing into physical discomfort leads naturally to a habit of relaxing into mental discomfort. Once it becomes a pretty consistent habit, you start fielding more and more that way, including major physical pain, and psychological pains such as loss, uncertainty, bad moods and self-disappointment.
It amounts to insisting on patience through pain. Patience is not the same as tolerance, which is characterized by quiet resentment and tense faces, patience is the willing acceptance of an unsettled or dissonant point in time.
This practice has to start with minor discomforts: heavy grocery bags, chilly temperatures, hunger pangs. Human beings are way too reactive to get anywhere trying to respond this way to genuine trauma before they can learn not to suffer from minor things. But I believe we can reach a point where we respond to almost every emerging reality with real-time calmness, followed by a rational action in response, if one is necessary.
The end of good, bad and ugly
All of us already open up habitually to pleasant realities, and those who experiment with mindfulness know how to open up to neutral realities. When you learn to open up to unpleasant realities too, then you’re giving all realities the same treatment. Then something amazing is allowed to happen.
Your mind stops dividing incoming realities into good and bad, which has the wonderful side effect of dissolving the background fear most of us carry of bad things happening. It’s hard to explain until you’ve experienced it, but because you know you’re game for all realities, the hyper-vigilant state supplied by moment-to-moment fear isn’t a lot of use. This creates a sudden sense of physical freedom. Your body relaxes, and you’re always ready to return to that relaxed state as soon as you notice you’re reacting to something.
You’ll continue to have thoughts though, some of which can convince you again that you truly need reality to be the way you prefer. Your ability to relax into all realities comes and goes in phases, as your overall level of consciousness rises and falls LINK with the tide of circumstances in your life. I frequently have periods where I totally lose that reflex and I’m too reactive to figure it out again. That’s okay. We all have long arcs of lowered consciousness now and then, where you feel unable to be mindful about anything.
Even during the times when your mind is generally unfettered, you’ll still have wandering mental images about potential bad outcomes in the future. As a policy I recommend using these thoughts about bad scenarios as a reminder to picture what a good alternative scenario would be like, if only to remind you that you don’t yet know what the reality associated with that thought will actually be once it arrives, if it does at all. Treat sudden pessimistic thoughts like you would treat an internet troll (close the thread, leave the bait untouched, find something else to put your mind on.)
Don’t worry that you’ll lose track of desirable and undesirable, or right and wrong. Whether an event is desirable or not is still obvious, and you can still make moral assessments, if you want to, after you accept the newly emerged reality. But in the mean time you don’t get yanked around by attraction and aversion nearly so much. You still feel them, but they’re just signals rather than orders.
Relaxing into an emerging undesirable reality is as much a physical reflex as a mental one. At the first sign of cringing or clenching, you let the tension out of the face and solar plexus, the legs or wherever it gathers in you. This will become a familiar feeling and it takes less than a second once you’re used to it.
There are great practical side-effects of this habit. You no longer need to control everything, so you become less tense all around, as your body realizes there is much less out there in the world that is of absolute importance to have your way. Therefore you find fewer reasons to resent others for their behavior, because you don’t need it to be a certain way. You will still always try to get what you prefer, and you’ll be much better at it because your actions are conscious. You also begin to see your own shortcomings more clearly, because it’s harder to distract yourself with blame. You realize the state of your life is all on you. Nobody else will ever be responsible for it. Evasiveness in general seems to become less useful and less rewarding — as time goes on there is less and less out there that you don’t feel like you can simply walk through. There is a domino effect of personal growth.
The great news is that minor discomfort is everywhere. Start with grocery bags. Or a room that’s a little too warm. Whatever the moment is like, you don’t need to think of it as pain that you’re turning towards. That’s just a mental category that will lose its relevance once you’re generally responding to everything the same way. Use each chance you get.
Then when the real bombshells drop, whether you can stay composed or not, you at least have an idea of where you want to be mentally: calm, conscious, and exactly where you are.