As one of my yoga teachers is fond of saying:
“We shouldn’t be surprised when a baby cries about something trivial; it’s literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.”
Remember when we were kids, and we were confronted with discomfort? (I’m referring to typical, garden-variety growing pains, not abuse.) We devised — and were sometimes deliberately taught by well-intentioned adults! — all these neat tricks to avoid unwanted thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We could deny reality, or pretend it was different, or distract ourselves with a new bright shiny object. We wielded this incredible power: the ability to “stop” feeling pain.
Of course, life has a way of being pushy and invasive. Sometimes it became enough of a nuisance that it tested our defenses, but we weren’t out of tricks. In the short term, we strengthened our resolve and reinforced our walls. Over time, we developed increasingly complex coping mechanisms that resembled Rube Goldberg machines.
There are a couple of funny things about Rube Goldberg machines, though … even besides how they look.
First, the simplicity of the original problem becomes obscured by the comical complexity of the “solution.” Even if the solution works, it’s largely wasteful, unnecessary, and unsustainable. This leads to the second — and for our discussion, even more critical — characteristic of these elaborate designs:
The more complex the system, the more fragile it becomes.
We keep adding pieces to an inner defense network in an attempt to make it impenetrable, but if any one of these parts fails, the whole system falls apart. Just maintaining this delicate ecosystem is draining, but it’s so habitual that we don’t even understand why we feel so exhausted.
We spend the first part of our lives developing coping mechanisms for dealing with pain, and we spend the rest of our lives dealing with the fallout from using them.
I practice on and off the cushion every day not to “do” things, but to “UNdo” things. For better or worse, we’re wired to avoid pain at any cost. That’s simply what we’ve been given to work with. Mindfulness and insight meditation provide the space and conditions for clear seeing … and doing that work.
The practice always boils down to one question: is this skillful, or unskillful?
It’s not about blame. This is the human condition, and literally every person you know feels this struggle. Your closest relative, your best friend, your worst enemy, global heroes, infamous dictators, and that guy who busted out a tuna melt on the bus this morning; no one is exempt. We were all that crying baby once, and we’ve all been doing our best to deal with life’s curveballs ever since. But what I have found over and over again for two decades is that my practice keeps making my best … a little better.