Your breathing slows, thoughts scatter into nonsense, and tension seeps out of your tired body. Finally. Sleep. You sigh and sink deeper into the pillow and turn your face a little to the side. Finally, you breathe, as you drift off.
Someone’s knocking at the door. Or is it the window? A drip, drip, drip from the bathroom faucet turns into a loud cricket that got in your bedroom somehow. Or is it the roof creaking in the wind?
It’s something behind you. Something’s poking you in the back. Something sharp and small. You move a little, trying to get away, but it only gets bigger. Must be a bug.
Suddenly, you know what it is—your back is itchy.
Awake now, you try to ignore it, but it only gets worse. But if you move to scratch it you’ll really wake up. So you try to ignore it, but it’s unbearable.
You rub your back against the mattress a few times. No go. Finally, you throw the blanket off, sit up, reach back, and give it a good scratch. Relief.
You fall back on the pillow. But you’re itchy again. Sit up, scratch, do a better job, and lie down. But it doesn’t stop. You rip your T-shirt off, stretch your arm around your body like a contortionist, and you scratch. And scratch. Finally, it goes away.
And you’re wide awake at 2am.
Some other time, you head out to lunch with your office pals. You’re a fast walker, so you take the lead for two blocks as everyone follows, single file, on a jammed downtown sidewalk.
It’s hot, you’re sweaty, and your ass starts to itch.
Yeah, right there. Feel it? Right in that spot—or somewhere near it—that most of us don’t dare scratch in public.
It’s so itchy you can’t stand it. You squeeze—think Kegel exercises. You do the fastest set of Kegels you’ve ever done in your life. You squeeze your buttocks together a few times, trying to get rid of it. It’s so itchy you could scream, and you hope you’re not walking funny as you try to keep a normal expression on your face.
Half a block away from the restaurant, the sidewalk clears out a little, and everyone walks in a group again, laughing and chatting as you grit your teeth.
Suddenly, someone walks toward you with outstretched arms.
“Hey, Tanya! I heard you rocked that presentation this morning!” Mitch, your old partner who now works at a competing company, stands right in front of you, grinning as he pulls you into a big hug.
You smile. You’ve really missed his enthusiasm.
“Wow, you’re really going somewhere, aren’t you! Let me buy you lunch,” he says, still smiling. “Your friends won’t mind, will they?” He glances around.
You’ve forgotten all about that itch, haven’t you?
If you haven’t, you’ll forget sooner or later. There’s no way to scratch it—the restroom is jammed, in case you were headed that way—so you have to endure. Finally, something distracts you, and you completely forget about it.
Where did the itch go? It’s gone, and you didn’t scratch it.
I did some thinking about itches a few years back, when I had to get an MRI of my head—just as a precaution, since I was having headaches and had a skull fracture years before that.
I was lying in that machine for two hours, in three different segments. One of them was 45 minutes long, and I got itchy—or noticed itches—like never before. But I wasn’t allowed to move much less scratch until they said I could.
With no choice in the matter, all I could do was endure. I began to observe. An itch would start on an arm, a leg, my face, and it would spread. I could almost envision the pattern of nerves in my skin—it was like lightning in a thunderstorm.
But in each case, the pattern was the same: a tiny spot of itch, a predictable spread of itchy electricity, and then finally it got quiet again, as if the itch had expended all its energy.
I realize there might be some extremely itchy situations that go along with skin diseases or disorders. But I’m talking about your average, ordinary itch. The kind anyone gets once in awhile from dry skin or a scratchy sweater or sweating and what-have-you.
Itches are like thoughts.
Just like an itch, we can scratch our thoughts—react to them in some way even if just by engaging them—or leave them alone.
We can also simply observe our thoughts just as I observed itches in the MRI machine. We can choose to do something in reaction to our thoughts—scratch them—or not.
If we’re resting, meditating, or falling asleep, it’s relatively easy to not do anything active about our thoughts except simply observe them and be aware of them as they flit by. We can engage them, if we choose to, by focusing on them or even jumping out of bed or quitting our meditation—scratching them.
Or we can focus on our breathing and just let them be.
Soon enough, one thought leads to another and, before you know it, they don’t come nearly as often. Or they get quiet altogether and we simply rest, sit, or go to sleep as the case may be.
But what about while we’re interacting with people, when we’re busy and moving along through our day at work or at home?
The same principle applies.
We can be aware of our thoughts, and we can decide whether we’re going to react—scratch them—or not.
By remaining aware of our thoughts—consciously knowing they are thoughts—we are more able to be aware of our actions and reactions. We can be more present and alive in our current activity, whether it’s doing the dishes, driving a car, speaking with our spouse or children, shopping for groceries, or interacting at work.
By becoming more aware of our thoughts, we can know when we are getting lost in our thoughts, becoming absorbed by them, and reacting to our thoughts without conscious choice.
This is mindfulness.
If someone is walking in front of you on a street, and he (or she) begins to furiously scratch his ass, we might be taken by surprise. I know I would.
In most western, developed countries—as far as I know—this is not usually considered acceptable behavior. I doubt it’s acceptable anywhere, as a general rule.
In some situations—maybe the locker room for football players—nobody cares if you scratch your bum.
But in public, if someone scratches his ass with a complete lack of inhibition—I mean really digs deep until the itch is gone—people will wonder what’s up with that, at best.
Someone scratching his ass in public is probably not aware he’s doing it or is unable to control the impulse, though there could be other reasons.
Have you ever driven somewhere in your car and hardly remember the drive?
Most of us have. That’s because we get so wrapped up in our thoughts that we aren’t mindful. We’re not consciously aware that we’re thinking, and we don’t consciously choose to drive mindfully, with full awareness of our actions and our surroundings.
We’re on autopilot.
If we aren’t mindful, we drive only to get somewhere, and we aren’t really driving—we’re lost in our thoughts, perhaps anticipating the destination or going over worries or an argument with someone in our heads.
We’re thinking, not driving. Scratching our thoughts. Scratching our asses.
But I love the idea of a “mindfulness day” as Thich Nhat Hanh describes in The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation (not an affiliate link).
He suggests setting aside one day a week to practice mindfulness all day, from the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep. It almost sounds like a spa day or a retreat, but we can do it right at home.
Do all activities in a calm and relaxing way, each movement done in mindfulness. Follow your breath, take hold of it, and don’t let your thoughts scatter.
There’s more to it than just that, but I imagine he wouldn’t mind if we at least practice half a day once a week, or a full day once a month. The idea is to practice mindfulness when we don’t have to.
That way, when your ass is so itchy it’s almost impossible to resist scratching—ever hear the expression “got a bug up your ass?” when you’re being crabby or unreasonable?—you’ll be better equipped to choose how to react. And to react mindfully.
Comments are always welcome.
Photo credit: Keith Roper