REFRAINING

by on October 18th, 2014
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buddhaOne of the basic Buddhist precepts is Nonagression.  If you’re like me, when you first take this seriously you realize how often you are aggressive and you feel guilty for the times you’ve lost your temper, harmed someone close to you, or feel ashamed for past behaviors that you now see as hurtful. From the standpoint of mindfulness, such feelings of guilt and shame are actually harming ourselves and are therefore considered aggressive.  This is when my thinking starts to loop—because then I start to feel incompetent for feelings guilt and shame, yet the feeling of incompetence is a kind of shame.  Of course all this makes me feel grumpy and then I lose my temper with my wife.  You get what I’m saying.

This kind of thinking-loop is at the core of all kinds of obsessive thinking, not just about outright aggressive behavior.  So what’s to be done about it?  In chapter 6, Not Causing Harm, Pema Chödrön tells us how to do this beginning with maitri—loving-kindness toward oneself.  She feels that it is so important for us to confront this aggressiveness-toward-self with love that she writes, “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” She goes on to say, “The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see”.

            She talks about the shock people feel when they realize  how blinded they are to some of the ways they cause harm.  And right away, how painful it is to face it. This is why courage is needed.  She sees it as “a journey that happens because of our commitment to gentleness and honesty, our commitment to staying awake, to being mindful.”

            She then introduces the practice of refraining.  Refraining is an approach for dealing with our difficulty with staying in the moment.  When we are still, there is the urge to move;  when we have an unpleasant emotion there is the urge to change focus.   When things naturally arise such as boredom, anger or craving we often automatically do something to fix it.   When we actively refrain, from fixing or shifting away we can actually notice the space between the arising of the craving, or whatever, and our action to shift our fix.

Think of an itch.  It can seem that a scratch automatically follows an itch, because we feel compelled to scratch.  But if, through restraint, and mindful attention we experience the space between the itch and the scratch, what had seemed like cause and effect is actually not cause and effect.   It is a space outside of cause and effect that makes us uneasy because it is uncertain and we don’t know if we can stand it.

She tells us that this space is groundlessness, the fundamental nature of things in Buddhist philosophy.  Things are not entirely predictable because everything is impermanent; nothing is solid.

OCD To Do list             The practice of refraining is akin to “response prevention”—a behavior therapy technique  for dealing with obsessive – compulsive disorder (OCD). For example, someone who washes their hands compulsively will be told by the therapist to touch something that they see as unclean and then they are to refrain from washing their hands.  This is worked out with the client ahead of time and done in a gradual way so not to overwhelm them.  The term “response prevention” means to refrain from responding in the compulsive way when one is exposed to the anxiety that precedes ones compulsion.

            OCD is really just an extreme form of a common human tendency.  A compulsion is an attempt to re-establish a sense of order when one is anxious.  Say, for example, that you are anxious about completing your tax return.  You sit down to your desk which is disorganized and feel a sense of relief and readiness once you’ve organized your desk.  Each time you sit down to your desk after that you “organize” it whether or not it is in disorder. You might sharpen pencils that aren’t that dull or line up the stapler neatly with the other items on the desk.  Over time if the organization ritual continues and expands even as the sense of relief diminishes you have probably developed a compulsion.

From the Buddhist perspective, our tendency towards obsessions and compulsions are universal.  They are pervasive and built in so that, particularly the subtler behaviors, we aren’t  aware of them.  Refraining is a practice to see these behaviors and to experiment with breaking the chain between the anxiety and the automatic response.

 

Exercise:  

 

Seat yourself for meditation and follow your  natural breath for a few moments.

 

Then scan your body and note anything that is  uncomfortable or annoying.  An itch, your positioning,  the way your leg is.  Remain seated for, what for you, is a fairly long period of time.  Practice refraining by doing nothing to change anything that is uncomfortable or annoying—e.g., refrain from scratching an itch; refrain from shifting your position. Pay attention to the space that you’ve  created between the urge and your reaction.  Notice what you are feeling physically and emotionally and notice what you are thinking.  Also notice changes in your thoughts or in how you feel physically or emotionally.

 

 

If you have already accepted an invitation to be part of the discussion go to: DISCUSSION

Next Post: 10/25/14

This is the third of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapters six through eight. To find out more or to ask to be of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.

 

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