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.
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.