Short-Term Irritations, Long-Term Payoffs

by Daron Larson

When you begin to exercise your attention through timed mindfulness practice, you will inevitably encounter common annoyances.

I’m referring to the ordinary irritations that can really trip people up: falling asleep, feeling fidgety, insistent itching, and being riveted by a ringing in your ears that you hadn’t even noticed before but suddenly can’t ignore.

There’s no way to predict which ones will come knocking or in what order, but you can expect one or more of these unwelcome wagon representatives to show up at your door sooner rather than later.

The fact that they are nearly universal doesn’t make them any easier to address. There are big payoffs, however, for not giving up too quickly.

Instead of hiding behind the door with the lights off, turn the porch light back on, and try to smile when you open the door to greet them. Turns out that instead of being dangerous monsters intent on harming you, they’re more like nervous trick-or-treaters. Your fear scares them, but your hospitality might trick them into revealing a few liberating treats.

If you know what to expect, and try not to take these initial attentional challenges personally, they will actually help train you to be more clever about relating to a wider variety of mental, physical, and emotional discomforts.

Sleepiness

It’s no big mystery why so many people fall asleep when they try mindfulness exercises.

More than a quarter of Americans report not getting enough sleep. A third experience temporary insomnia and ten percent are engaged in a long-term struggle with either getting or staying asleep.  

The best way to address this attentional obstacle is to get more sleep. While you’re working on that complicated challenge, it’s good to know that during practice mindfulness practice sessions, there are things you can learn from either giving in to the urge to fall asleep or resisting it.

Look for and question the assumption that one is better than the other. Practice considering both options to be equally beneficial in different ways.

You’ll want to try to decide on one while you’re still alert enough to be intentional, but letting your decision be arbitrary will help you avoid the subtle pressure to always make the right choice.

No choice is always right or always wrong. When it comes to attentional fitness training, the right choice about what to notice is the choice you make consciously.

With practice you will get better at turning every conscious choice about where your attention is allocated into an opportunity to develop self-awareness.  

If grogginess is inevitable, you can yield to it and notice how fatigue blurs into relaxation and how quickly and effortlessly it slides into complete unconsciousness. You might be able to see the value of this approach as training for when you find yourself alert in the middle of the night.

On the other hand, if you think you have been getting enough sleep or you just want to try to stay awake, open your eyes and sit up a little straighter. I’ve found that falling asleep can happen so suddenly that it helps to intervene at the first sign of drowsiness instead of flirting with its powerful seductions.

Here’s something else to consider when working with sleepiness.

An important theme in training your attention is noticing the difference between feeling like a character resolving  story problems versus directly observing life as it is lived in the natural flow of sensory details.

When is the one time that everyone -- whether they are trying to train their attention or not -- intentionally attempts to set aside their internal narrative?  

When it’s time to go to sleep, right?

Doesn’t it make sense that if we begin to practice intentionally suspending our preoccupation with our internal storytelling, that our nervous system will interpret this as a signal to launch the sleep sequence?

It’s so natural and habitual that it’s easy to overlook that we all have decades of experience working with the natural ability to suspend our preoccupations. It’s just that when we do it, it’s most often because we want to fall asleep.

It’s also so familiar that we discount it as a skill and don’t realize that it can be explored in other situations.

You can include your nightly willingness to yield to unconsciousness as part of your attentional fitness training. Turning your conscious attention to this process can train you to relate to a wider variety of sensations with neutrality and curiosity while staying awake.

Payoff: If you are willing to turn your attention toward sleepiness sometimes, and consciously choose to yield to it or not, you can get better at both staying alert and getting more rest.

Restlessness

If you’re not feeling bogged down by drowsiness, you might find that part of the reason is because various parts of your body are begging you to fidget.

Your legs start to ache. Your shoulders insist on a shrug. Your glasses threatens to slip down the bridge of your nose. Each demand promises relief from the boredom or agitation you’re feeling. They plead. They beg. They gang up and try to distract you away from whatever sensory experience that you’re trying to focus on.

The easy, but inaccurate interpretation of all this is that mindfulness meditation causes agitation. After all, none of these sensations were bothering you before you started the timer. Right?

So what’s going on?

The difficulty is related to a subtle, yet pervasive happiness agenda that assumes we should never be physically, emotionally, or mentally uncomfortable. The micromanagement of low-grade discomfort operates on autopilot. It attempts to steer us away from unpleasant sensations and tries to find and sustain pleasure.

When we attempt to sit relatively still during mindfulness practice, we temporarily swap out the default happiness algorithm and replace it with neutral observation.

This hands-off approach results in discomforts being allowed to run their natural course. They were present all along, but we’re taking a break from masking or resolving them. The agenda becomes about allowing them to play out. Sometimes in the foreground of awareness and other times in the background.  

So once again, you have two options. To move or not to move, that is the question. Neither option is nobler than the other. What matters is that you attempt to make a conscious decision.

Why does it sound like I’m trying to let you off easy even though I’m not?

I think it’s because we’re used to playing games where there are correct and incorrect answers. We’re used to be tested and judged.

Mindfulness practice isn’t a test of your abilities. It’s a way to develop your capacities over time.

In this context, discomfort isn’t a problem to be solved, but an aspect of reality to get better acquainted with over time.

What would happen to an athlete who approached each training drill as if she were competing in a tournament? What if a musician carried out his warm ups and drills as if they were all being recorded and scrutinized.

The pressure would not be sustainable. They could easily wear themselves out, give up, and find something less draining to pursue. 

Skill development requires a ton of repetition with an emphasis on proper technique.

If you train yourself to consider all irritations as opportunities to hone your technique, you will increase the odds of suffering less in the midst of challenging life circumstances.

Increasing the number of conscious decisions about where to put your attention during timed attention practice improves your technique.

When restlessness appears during practice, feel free to obey its requests. Take a few seconds to be clear what the demands are and how they are being communicated.

Are there specific sensations in the body that are broadcasting agitation or boredom?

Are there verbal thoughts related to the urge to move?

Are there any mental images related to how much better you’ll feel after you move?

If you are able to detect any of these perceptions, notice what happens to them when you slowly comply.

Do your restless legs relax after you’ve moved them?

Does the tightness in your shoulders release after a slow, intentional shrug?

Do the alarm bells diminish after you’ve pushed your glasses back up your nose or taken them off?

The instructions for what to do when you decide not to move are similar. Simply try to draw out the above exploration while staving off the impulse to intervene. In this case, try to get curious about how not taking action plays out. Does the restlessness increase or decrease over time.

After hanging out with this challenge for awhile, you can decide again whether to move or not.   

Regardless of your decision, when you notice that a specific instance of restlessness goes away, turn your attention to the restfulness left in its wake. If it’s replaced by a new distress signal from somewhere else in the body, you have yet another opportunity to decide how to respond.

Isn’t this fun?

Believe it or not, this all gets better with practice. Just like learning to drive gets easier with experience. Changing the way you relate to discomfort can free you from a lot of internal friction in unexpected areas of your life. The capacity is built into your nervous system and just waiting for opportunities to be developed.

Payoff: If you are willing to turn your attention toward restlessness sometimes, and consciously choose to move or not, you can interrupt the impulse to wrestle with everyday discomforts.

Itchiness

Itchiness is actually a close cousin of restlessness. The biggest difference is that an itch can have a more precise location and a higher level of intensity. An itch can really grip your attention.

There is nothing wrong with scratching it. Just make a conscious decision to do so and take it as slow as possible. Really enjoy the intervention itself by witnessing the relief by bringing all of your available attention to the slow motion scratch. Prepare to savor the relief fully.  

If you decide to observe the inch for a while instead, there’s a powerful twist that you can introduce if you’re interested. You can try to detect the emotional discomfort tangled up with the physical one.

You can alternating between examining aspects of the itch itself with the aspects of your emotional reaction to it.

When feeling your way around the itch itself, ask yourself:

Where is it located?

How large of an area does it cover?

Is it flat or three dimensional?

Does it have boundaries?

How intense is it?

Is the intensity stable or does it change?

Does the shape change or stay the same?

When feeling your way around the emotional response, ask yourself the same questions while allowing for the responses to be different.

For example, the itch might be the size of of a quarter or a pebble and very intense and increasing while the response to it might be spread over the face and chest with waves of varying intensity.

Give yourself credit for any and all attempts at this, even if you change your mind and decide to scratch.

Developing the ability to make a distinction between a physical discomfort and the emotional response to it that you can detect in your body can be liberating.

Most people don’t realize that this is even possible. They try to let things go which usually means trying to convince themselves not to care.

The ability to observe the physical aspects of your feelings is not a conceptual solution. It doesn’t involve changing your attitude or trying to impose a different emotion. It is a palpable awareness that responds to exercise that makes it possible to experience your emotions more like weather patterns. When you literally feel your sadness in your body, for example, the experience goes from feeling like a sad person to feeling like a person who has the capacity to feel sadness work its way across the landscape of your body.

Payoff: If you are willing to turn your attention toward an itch and consciously decide to scratch or not, you can learn to detect the physical aspect of emotional experiences.

Tinnitus

If you are practicing in a quiet or silent environment, it’s possible that you will become aware of ringing or buzzing in one or both of your ears.

This is called tinnitus. It’s accurate to pronounce it "TIN-a-tus" or "tin-EYE-tus”, but either way it’s annoying. It’s a symptom that’s difficult to treat, but it isn’t a disease.

The sounds people report hearing vary, but it’s considered to be a subjective noise meaning that you’re the only one who can hear it. Lucky you, right? Lucky us. I started noticing a ringing in my ears several years ago. The good news is that I’ve been able to customize mindfulness strategies that have made it easier to deal with.

It’s very common. More than 50 million people in the United States report symptoms that qualify as tinnitus. It starts to show up as you get older and is associated with hearing loss. It’s easy to worry about it as a sign that you are losing your hearing entirely, but this is rarely the case. My ENT says it’s something to monitor annual, but it’s just a part of working with old equipment.

He also says that his patients really get discouraged when they find out there’s not much that can be done. It’s easy to wage a losing, internal battle over it. The parts of the brain that assess danger interpret the sound as a potential threat. Mindfulness exercises allow the more sophisticated areas of the brain to take a more accurate read and convince the troops to retreat.

I recommend getting a hearing test to get an accurate read of your situation. Fear thrives in ambiguity. Addressing your concerns with an expert will help you be better able to respond to your subjective noise as just another sound.

You can exercise your options with this one, too.

One option is to include the sound in your exploration. This could mean listening to the variety of external sounds in your environment at any given moment and treating the ringing in your ears as one of them. Mindfulness practice involves trying to suspend preferences and get fascinated by the raw sensation itself. See what happens when you bring this exploration into your life when walking, watching movies, or listening to music. In each of these examples, try to include the ringing in your ears as part of the scope of external auditory activity.

The other option is to focus away from the sound. When the object of the mindfulness exercise you are working with does not include external sound, try to allow the tinnitus-related sounds to be part of what you’re allowing to operate in the background.

Neither option is better. What’s better is making the when you’re not in autopilot mode once in awhile.

If tinnitus is a chronic or intense challenge, check out this eight-week Mindfulness Based Tinnitus Stress Reduction program to discover other effective strategies to explore. 

A cool thing I’ve noticed about working with the ringing in my ears is that it can be a doorway to observing restful states in the mind. You only have a limited amount of attention to allocate at any given moment. When you pay close attention to external sounds, you have fewer attentional resources left over to listen to your inner chatter.

During timed practice, you can sometimes get enough momentum going that you’re able to hear the quiet in your mind where the verbal thoughts usually play out.   

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But it’s a natural, trainable ability that most people haven’t heard about. It’s not at all about turning your thoughts off. It’s about becoming so curious about all of your perceptions and how they interact and eventually catching yourself savoring an aspect of peace that was there all along just waiting to be noticed.

Payoff: If you experience ringing in your ears and you're willing to sometimes listen to it as just another sound, then you can learn to detect when the mind becomes relatively quiet.

These lessons take time to learn. They teach you the importance of persistence, and they equip you with skills for responding to daily discomforts by taking them less personally and intensifying them less often.

The challenges you encounter will increase without warning at times. They will also ease just as unexpectedly.

Try to respond to these contrasting possibilities with curiosity.

Give yourself time — weeks, months, years — to cultivate it.

Think of this as refining your technique rather than defining your character.

You won’t always be able to predict when irritations will come knocking. They aren’t known for calling ahead. But with curiosity and practice over time, you might even find yourself feeling eager to invite them in.

Maybe not every time.

Not answering every time opportunity knocks matters less than throwing open the door without hesitation every now and then.