As I was walking out of the sanctuary at the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah services I was greeted with a happy New Year hug from David, a friend and fellow congregant. Like me, David finds great joy in both a Buddhist and Jewish practice, (there are lots of us, and we’re typically referred to as JuBus) and today we revisited the idea of establishing a group meditation practice at our temple.
As we discussed what we envisioned, I told him that we’d be better off talking logistics at a later date, because while I felt uplifted by the moving day at synagogue, I was in the midst of developing a really bad headache and wanted to get home to take care of it. David is very wise and kind, and he suggested that when I get home, I sit with my headache and listen to what it might be saying.
“Ask your headache what color it is, what it’s asking of you, and try join with your pain,” he advised. “That often helps,” he added. David has a way about him, like an old wise soul in a young man’s body, and so I figured I’d give it a try.
I got in my car, purposely left the radio off, and as I made my way into the traffic, I began talking to my headache.
“What color are you?” I asked. Wow, my headache really wanted to talk, because he, or she, not sure of pronouns here, jumped right in.
“Earthy forest green,” my headache responded. I looked over to the passenger seat expecting to see a talking head, and then set my eyes back on the road.
“Earthy green, huh?” That sounds environmentally correct, I thought. It made me feel a little less guilty about being at the grocery store the day before and watching my groceries being loaded into lots of paper bags while the women behind me took out canvas bag after canvas bag in preparation for her order. Earthy green, I could live with that. Already I thought I detected a little relief on the frontal part of my head.
“With dark mud weaved throughout and gnarled brown roots cutting across the earthy green,” my headache jumped in.
Oh. I. Didn’t. See. That. Coming.
I wanted to tell my headache, “You had me at earthy green, but you had to keep going, didn’t ya?” When I visualized what my headache was describing, all I could think of was the severed head in a horror flick, moldy green and muddy and awful enough to make me stop eating that handful of popcorn I had readied in my hand. (I mean, as long as I was imagining myself in a movie theatre, I might as well imagine the popcorn too.)
“Maybe I needed a new line of questioning,” I thought as I waited for the red light to turn green. Earthy green. Muddy green with roots.
I traveled through the intersection as my head continued to pound. Trying to remember the line of questioning David had suggested, I continued on.
“So headache,” I asked in my most empathic voice, “What is your pain trying to tell me? What is it you want?” I asked.
“Excedrin,” it answered.
Apparently, my headache has a very Western mind. And in this case, I had to agree. When I got home, I went straight to the medicine cabinet and popped two Excedrin’s in my mouth. A little while later, experiencing great headache relief, I thought about pain and how we come to understand that experience, how we understand the inevitable pain and suffering that is part of life.
In Buddhism, it’s called the Monkey Mind, as our mind jumps from thought to thought, like a monkey, weaving together stories from the past, or imagining stories into the future. Too often, we fail to simply be in the moment and have the experience that we are having right then, with no critiques, or re-writes, or judgments. For example, I can have my headache, and just experience what it feels like having the headache. All things arise and pass away; this is just what it feels like when I’m in the midst of a headache. OR it can become a story creating its own headache. Here is one version of this process:
I have a headache.
I just read about someone who had a bad headache and it turned out to be a brain tumor.
What if I have a brain tumor? Oh God, what if I’m dying?
Okay, get a grip; I’m probably not dying, but what if it keeps getting worse?
How am I going to finish my project for work today if my head is pounding?
My boss is going to be furious if I don’t get it done.
She’s not a very kind boss. Just look at Janet who got fired out of nowhere last month.
Oh God. What if I get fired? What if my headache gets so bad that I can’t even go to work tomorrow, let alone finish the project? And even if I felt better, how can I get the project done when I have all of these errands hanging over me very headachy head?
You see where I’m going with this? We tend to add so much suffering onto our pain that we suffer so much more needlessly. It’s the add-ons that get us.
The Buddha said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” We suffer from the stories we tell ourselves, the fears, fantasies, and fictions that we absorb like facts of our lives when they are, in actuality, fables that live under the earthy green muddy root-filled land we all, at times, inhabit.
I think my friend David was right. Getting to know the experience in the moment, whether it be an experience of joy or pain, is giving that moment its due, without the add ons and the urge to change simply what is. All that arises passes away, and will arise once again. Why not go with the flow, or, as Jon Cabot Zinn says, “ You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.” One wave at a time, moment by moment, breath by breath.