scratching the itch

Make it stop!!!

This morning, do a lengthy mindfulness practice, I noticed something I wasn’t noticing: I had stopped itching.

This was a big deal.

When I first began mindfulness practice, one of my biggest distractions was itches, and almost entirely on my face and head. They would range in intensity from mild to “omg get me a belt sander”. The trouble is, that if I scratched one, another would flare up. Not endlessly, but several in a row. Scratching the itches did not get rid of them; it just moved their location.

This is not an issue that emerged when I started doing mindfulness meditation. I remember, as a kid in elementary school taking piano lessons, there were times when you might have though I’d rolled in poison oak before sitting down to play. My teacher would get irritated, although I’m sure he saw similar things from other kids – especially those who, like me, were being forced to learn piano. The itches were obviously psychosomatic reactions to doing something I did not want to be doing.

(Of course, years later when it was too late, I wished I had been able to take advantage of the opportunity to learn the piano. My mother, who played herself and wanted me to play, was incapable of guiding me in that direction. Hell, she didn’t even make me practice; I just had to sit at the piano for the required thirty minutes each day. What a waste.)

The mindfulness practices I use most are by Mark Williams, and he understands, as I’m sure any good teacher would, that as people sit and practice, their body is going to have a variety of discomforting reactions. After all, sitting upright and still as you do with meditation is not a position many of us are used to. He understands that the body can ache, circulation get cut off, and so on. The longer you sit, the more likely to have some kind of discomfort.

Williams advises two options. One, to respond to the discomfort in a mindful way. Instead of simply shifting your weight or scratching your face, you first form an intention to do so. The point of mindfulness is to place your attention where you intend it to be. In meditation practice, that is often the breath; in the midst of some emotional situation, it can be how the body is reacting, what thoughts are present. The point is to have your attention under your control to the extent possible, not simply being dragged along for the ride.

In the case of an itch, if I decide I simply must scratch, I take a moment to form that intention: I am going to scratch that itch. Then I do so as gently but as thoroughly as possible. My intention is to scratch the itch, not relieve the discomfort. Discomfort will return; it always does. I have simply decided to deal with the source of this discomfort.

Williams’ second option is the one that, in terms of mindfulness, is preferable; it’s the one more in alignment with the overall goal of mindfulness. When I feel the itch, whatever its intensity, instead of scratching, acknowledge: “I have an itch”. Don’t quantify or qualify it; simply accept its presence. Acknowledge that it’s irritating. Acknowledge that I hate it. Don’t deny the sensation or my response. Be with it as long as I can.

I did my best to put this into practice. Being clean-shaven helped, but the nature of the mind’s attention is that even something irritating as an itch cannot capture attention forever. By focusing attention on the itch in a mindful way, as opposed to a reactive way (“oh god this sucks”), the mind gets used to the presence of the irritation – and then it gets bored.

This morning, as I followed Williams’ guidance, we got to the part where he spoke about possible discomfort, and that’s when I realized I hadn’t felt any itches to that point. Of course, they began to flare up instantly (as they are now, as I write), but I realized how little they tended to bother me these days. Apparently, I had been putting option two into use more than I realized, and it was working better than I had realized. (Seriously, as I write this, I am having to practice option two quite vigorously!)

As I said, the purpose of mindfulness practice is to allow us to have our attention – our thoughts, our feelings, our intentions – where we choose to put it. It’s easy enough to simply react to life: it itches, so scratch it. But scratching is only a temporary measure, and too much scratching does more damage than the itch. And if there is a constant itch, then maybe there’s a rash or some other physical ailment that needs proper attention and not just scratching.

In my case, the itching is just another excuse, like being tired or “forgetting” to practice. Sometimes I just need to shave, but usually, I just need to be with the irritation. It will be brief, and my mind will have taken another step away from reactivity and towards intentionality. If I can’t do that, then I’m really just wasting my time.

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