Memorable Quote: “An emotion only lasts about 30 seconds. The story that comes with the emotion can last for days.”
Synopsis: JoAnna finds meditation valuable, and in particular meditation retreats, because it is an incredibly “safe” space. No one will steal from you. No one will cause you harm. It is a perfect opportunity to also not cause yourself harm, to be really gentle and kind to yourself. At the same time as you are being kind and loving with yourself, you are also denying yourself the usual escape hatches. You promise not to engage in the distractions that usually allow you to avoid the unpleasant experience of pain.
JoAnna enumerates an extensive list of things we do to pretend we’re not in pain, including: watching TV, being on social media, eating, doing drugs, and drinking. She points out that at times, even spending time with friends is something we do to avoid pain. When she has work to do that she would rather avoid, she finds herself being overly social. We also sleep to avoid unpleasant experiences, or shop, seek out romantic relationships and have sex. We clean the garage, we hope, we remember the past. We blame other, our parents, our past lovers, our friends, for the pain of the present moment.
Another category of avoidance behaviors that JoAnna discusses, which deeply resonated for me, was “planning.” Instead of experiencing the discomfort of not knowing, we often plan, or problem solve. Our mind thinks it is doing us a favor by making a plan, by putting everything is just exactly the right place, so that life will play out in accordance to our wishes. We believe that if only we could “control” the situation, have the house clean, the meal planned, the kids doing their homework. Then life will be “neat,” and super comfortable. But there is always unease below that is impossible to entirely eradicate.
What meditation practice offers us is the opportunity to directly confront exactly the things that we work so assiduously to avoid. Instead of constantly moving to get away from pain and discomfort, we get familiar with, intimate with our edges, our discomforts, our unease. Specifically, we learn to identify the exact physical sensations that accompany our pains and fears. By making contact with our skeletons, we can get to know them, and eventually, realize that they are tamable after all. Gradually, with effort. And more than anything else, we see that running from our fears and pains often leads to much worse consequences in our lives.
I like: I appreciated the extensive list of things that JoAnna puts forward that we do to avoid bad experiences.
I wish: I was hoping that JoAnna would be more explicit about how just being with our physical sensations can help us to overcome deep issues.
More about the speaker: JoAnna Harper has been exploring and practicing multiple traditions since 1999. In 2005, her focus landed on Buddhism and vipassana meditation, which is the premise for most of her current teaching. Although her main focus is on working with youth through her bi-weekly children’s and teen sanghas, teen daylong retreats, residential retreats and work in the juvenile justice system, she is also co-teaching adult residential retreats as well as leading a ‘Year to Live’ practice and teaching one-on-one sessions. Her favorite teaching tools are working in Council and relational mindfulness. Find more of her talks here.