Meditating on Mosquitoes

Let’s play an imagination game. Pretend you’re sitting in the most comfortable of positions in the coziest spot you can imagine. You’re wearing soft, stretchy cotton, a fleece wrapped around your arms. You’re sitting or laying in a position where you can’t detect a single ounce of pain or tension. You are TOTALLY zen. You’re breathing is soft and even and you feel as if you are one with the world. Everything is wonderful.

But then – you hear it. The sound. THAT sounds. It starts off small, barely an audible whisper. Slowly it grows, raising in its pitch, inching closer and closer to you.

She’s coming for you

You try to ignore it. You’re in zen mode after all. Just notice and move on. Focus on breath. Observe the sensations.

But then you feel the soft shift of air right by your cheek which triggers an uncontrollable shiver through your body and you swat at the air near your head. You’re zen. Focus on your breath. Just notice your experience. Notice the sound. Notice the potential sensations. Notice your reality.

Hello reality, you suck.

Who the hell are you kidding. You can’t get that noise out of your head. You’re getting more paranoid, now starting to feel pinpricks randomly all over your body. You start swatting to the left, to the right. You try to cocoon yourself in your comfy clothes, cinching your hoodie drawstrings around your face. But still – you hear their siren calls and every ounce of you wants to run for the comfort of the indoors, or at the very least, douse yourself in a liberal coating of your favorite bug spray.

This was the exact situation I found myself in this past Saturday evening. I excitedly booked myself a solo getaway – a yoga retreat in a secluded forest lodge – and found myself attempting to remain serene and accepting of the swarm of aggressive ‘squitoes buzzing furiously around my body.

The other yogis and I all chuckled about the experience after the fact. We all agreed that their presence made it infinitely more challenging to focus on anything other then the high-pitched bzzz of their little wings.

Looking for the right answer

On the way home from the retreat, protectively encapsulated from further biting in my 4×4 , I considered the grander meaning of these little jerks and my interrupted meditations. I mean, what IS the right answer? Are you supposed to sit and NOT react? Meditation teaches us to do just this. Notice. Observe. Watch. Listen. Bare witness to the present moment.

In that moment, I bore witness to the sound of a crackling fire in front of me, the rhythmic chirping of grasshoppers, my own breath evenly entering and exiting my body. I bore witness to the smell of the citronella and lemongrass bug spray I had spritzed on my exposed skin, the logs on the fire breaking down to embers. And I bore witness to the feeling of warmth from the fire on my shins, the seam of my coat underneath my fingers, and the sharp prickle of a thousand stingers piercing my flesh. I was being shredded by mosquitoes. That was my reality.

Am I supposed to just sit there and take it? Even given that I happen to live in a malaria-prone region and just happened to forget my anti-malaria meds for the weekend? Is there benefit to allowing yourself to be hurt, taken advantage of, even abused for the sake of “noticing” and “observing”?

In my digging around through various resources, unsurprisingly, the internet is conflicted. I found a timely and appropriate article on Medium in which the author seemed to be pro-mosquito. A few similar forum discussions suggest that you should just be still, regardless of how nature may intrude on your practice. Buddhist monks chime in by saying that if you try to run away from an experience, it will follow you until you’re able to accept it. I wonder where the line gets drawn: mosquitoes okay, but fire ants? Snakes? Scorpions? Lions? I’d like to think that life-threatening situations can be exempt from continued meditation.

Other sources, like the book Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, as well as material from ACT and DBT practices (two therapeutic modalities) suggest that awareness of what’s happening is step one, but action afterwards can be warranted. In most examples, the discussions center around situations in which you have no control. Makes sense to learn to accept what you wouldn’t be able to do anything about anyway. But what if you do still have control? Then, shouldn’t you use it? Provided of course you first notice what’s happening. In that sense, I’d like to think I sufficiently noticed the mosquitoes around me before I then made the decision to end my meditation early.

ACT in particular has you explore whether the action you would like to engage in is supported by your values. This probably makes the most sense when it comes to mosquito meditations. What type of person are you trying to become? What are your overall goals? If you are in training to become a Buddhist monk, practicing non-violence, then maybe slapping at a mosquito isn’t the right call. But if you’re just a lay person like me, whose values won’t be dramatically assaulted should you choose to hide inside, then go ahead and escape. I certainly won’t judge.

Radically Accepting mosquitoes

So – how did I ultimately handle my mosquito fan club? Did I Radically Accept the mosquitoes? Yes and no.

I accepted that I wanted the moment to be different.

I accepted that I wanted to remain peaceful, and still and be focused on my meditative task.

I also accepted that there were a lot of mosquitoes who seem undeterred by bug spray and in a malaria-prone environment, and for me, the potential gain from meditating in that environment was not worth the potential consequences.

So I quit early. I went back to our lodge, grabbed myself a tea, and read for bit. Firmly establish boundaries are okay. Even in meditation.

Even now I still question that decision. Some part of me, the one who values stick-tuitive-ness over all else or perhaps the part of me who prides herself on being the perfect student, was triggered by my quitting. I find myself criticizing my action. Really? Why couldn’t I have just held out. Can I really not handle the sound of mosquitoes for 10 more minutes? The resulting bug bites I did receive weren’t even that itchy (although in my defense, there were over 40 of them).

This I see is my bigger lesson. Acceptance of experience shouldn’t stop and start like a teenager learning to drive for the first time. Experience itself is an on-going, ever-flowing process. Which means our practice involves continued acceptance, including accepting whatever choices you’ve made, whether they were 5 years ago or 5 minutes ago and accepting how you feel now.

I can be disappointed with my meditative performance. I can feel sad that my self-critic is still loud enough for me to notice. I can be frustrated that such a commonplace situation created a ripple of negativity that hung around me longer than I would have liked.

And I can accept that these emotions are temporary, and like my mosquito bites, will fade.

Why Everyone Tells You to ‘Just Breathe’: And why you should listen

Picture this: you’re getting ready for an international flight. Maybe you’re finally flying home to see family or maybe there’s an important work conference you’ve been tagged to attend. You’re not the best flyer, so you’re already feeling a little anxious about the whole thing. You’ve attempted to prepare as best you can, packing the night before and ensuring that all your essential documents are readily accessible. You call a cab to bring you to the airport, allocating plenty of time to get there, check-in, get through security and even hit the bathroom and grab a snack before needing to board.

The cab miraculously arrives on time and off you go, mentally running through all your check-lists again and again. You feel somewhat relieved in knowing that at this point, you’ve done as much preparation as you can, so now it’s just go-time. That’s when you notice your cab slowing down. You peer out the window to see a field of red brake lights and exhaust pipes. 

What the…?

You pull out your phone. Google maps showed no traffic before you left, but now, to your horror, you watch as it becomes orange, then red. Well shit.

You feel your pulse quicken and your breathing becomes more shallow. Your whole body becomes tense. You suggest to the taxi driver that maybe he could take an alternative route but the car is smackdab in the middle of traffic, and there’s no way he’s moving without all the other cars around him moving first.

Your mind is racing in 1000 different directions. What if we can’t get out of this? What if I miss my flight? What if there aren’t any other flights leaving today? Even if I make the flight, what if my baggage doesn’t? If I can’t get out the next day is my trip ruined? Should I call the airline now and see if I can shift my seat? Should I get out now and try to walk to a different street? Surely it would be faster to walk at this point. Do I cancel the trip? Agh! What do I do?! Why does this always happen to me?!

Want to know what you should do?

It’s fairly straight forward. One of the most common anxiety/stress-relieving suggestions there is.

Ready for it?

Just Breathe.

What? That’s it? That’s Bogus!! That doesn’t fix anything!

You’re right. Breathing doesn’t necessarily fix anything. It won’t magically get rid of traffic and it won’t hold your flight for you. But it will do something I consider fairly magical.

Breathing gives YOU control over which part of your nervous system you want activated. Are you about to face down a lion and need to summon all your body’s resources? Great, then start huffing and puffing. The sympathetic nervous system (aka, fight/flight) is up and running and will direct all energy towards survival.

No lion? Then it’s time to manually take over and get your nervous system to cool its jets. 

Start by focusing on taking long, slow exhales.

Exhaling in general is associated with a slight drop in heart rate, and it brings your parasympathetic nervous system online. Not only will this make you feel calmer and more relaxed, but in this state your brain is taken out of problem-focused tunnel-vision mode and is able to operate more holistically. You can see opportunities instead of just limitations. You’re better able to accept whatever life throws at you, even if that means a missed flight.

Perhaps you see breath work as a bunch of woowoo fluff, and if so, I don’t begrudge you one bit. But the science is there. And for me, there is something validating in knowing that I have some control over how my body is reacting.

Try this at home (or anywhere): Start by breathing normally, whatever that may be for you. Count out your inhale, then attempt to make your exhale a little bit longer. With each breath cycle, try to slow yourself down a little bit more, even pausing at the top and bottom of each breath. 

After doing this for a couple of minutes, what changes do you notice in your body?