This I know in my core but it’s hard to believe that the path to joy and liberation begins with getting into close contact with your suffering. It’s hard to believe if I come at it from a stance of “prove it” or “show me the numbers.” Ultimately, practice has little to do with proving hypotheses or data crunching. Yet when I bring my awareness to my suffering (in all its multi-faceted forms), I am collecting data and testing hypotheses. And, I’m exquisitely aware that the primary investigator often has a strong bias to undermining the project.
In the years we’ve been teaching our courses on skillful ways to meet life (Mindfulness-Based-interventions), I’ve noticed an interesting paradox. People get worse before they get better. Sometimes. Some people get worse and it doesn’t change over 8-weeks but they’re OK with it. I’ve flagged this phenomenon on various list serves only to be greeted with the usual internet version of a blank look. Being very confident in my teaching skills, I just assumed everyone was blown away by my brilliance and didn’t want to venture into deep waters. Right.
And now, there’s actually a Scientific article that shows – with fascinating arrows and circles that would make Google blush – exactly what that paradox is all about! Guess what? Attention to suffering increases psychological distress at the same time as it decreases it through other aspects of awareness.
In their article on “Deconstructing Mindfulness,” Coffey and her colleagues showed that attention had a direct effect on increasing distress. And, it also increased clarity about one’s negative emotion which in turn reduced rumination and psychological distress.
Well. I hate to say I was right. Because I probably wasn’t. All I ever noticed in our course participants is that they became more aware of their physical pain (ratings of experienced pain went up after the course). But the pain also interfered less with they lives (scores dropped after the course) because they were able to discern between pain as the physical arising of pain and suffering as the emotional attachment to not having pain arise. I’m sure all this comes together to buttress some data egghead (like me) somewhere. Out here in Health Care Land, we need these factors of belief which allow us to say, “If you practice, then you will see changes.”
Yet strangely, it seems to increase my faith in the process too. When I feel things are just not panning out and I’m aware of being eyeball deep in my usual septic tank, maybe now I can see it as a call to bring a deeper awareness to the nature of that suffering. And, that is a good thing.