One of the helpful insights from my periods of vipassana meditation practice is seeing more clearly the space between a state or condition and our reaction to that state or condition. When we are not mindful, we treat as almost a single moment both our reaction and that which prompted it, a mistake that increases our suffering
Yesterday was the first day of spring. You wouldn’t have been able to tell that from the weather in the Twin Cities; when I drove into the law school, the temperature was 5 degrees, with a forecast of a high of 20 for the day. Condition: a cold day in March.
The condition was what it was. Nothing anyone felt, thought or said was going to change the fact that it was cold in Minneapolis (and still today isn’t exactly what someone might term spring-like).
There are two possibile responses to the condition. Letting oneself get upset, annoyed, depressed, etc. (When I arrived at the law school yesterday, a quick Facebook check displayed a series of agonized comments from friends in the area: Things like “I am going to skin that lying groundhog alive! 5 degrees!?!???” or “6 in Edina this morning. What’s wrong with this picture?” I hear various versions of similar complaints from many people I saw that morning.) When that is the response, the condition itself seems worse, because now one has to face both the condition and the effect of the reaction.
The other possible response is simple awareness. I can let the day be cold without mentally engaging the condition in a way that disturbs my mind.
Being able to do that requires enough mindfulness to see the separate elements of our experiences. If we can see the separate points in the chain of an experience, we can see that we need not follow the chain. So, when I was sitting doing retreat during hot season in Thailand, where the air was thick and the sweat was rolling down my back, I had a choice. I could sit in misery, thinking/feeling, “Oh this heat is so awful. How can I possibly meditate when it is to uncomfortable…” Or I could simply be aware of heat, note the reaction it produces, and let it go, without getting involved in the reaction to it. Which approach I adopted had a tremendous effect on how I experience the heat. Likewise with the cold of “spring” in Minnesota.
I’m not saying I manage this all of the time. I’ve been heard to mutter a complaint now and then about the cold. But when I stay mindful, I can avoid the complaining mind, which dramatically reduces my suffering.