(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)
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Sometimes when I meditate, it’s like every nerve in my body–it’s like my soul is on fire. But, I’m relatively comfortable. I’m just sitting there, on something soft, my back unsupported. I’d give anything to sit back, relax, do something else; that would stop the pain.
And it’s a peculiar sort of pain. Get lost in it, give in to it–soul on fire. Try to push it away–soul on fire. There’s this peculiar posture, this peculiar middle distance, not too close, not too far. (Daniel Ingram describes the metaphor, your palm on the surface of undulating water: you stay in contact with the water as it moves; you don’t let the back of your hand get wet.) That peculiar inner, dynamic posture seems to minimize this phantom pain, this bizarre, impossible, but, I’m just sitting, here, pain.
I think this is one of Shinzen Young’s many brilliant contributions, identifying and explicating this experience:
“The Icky-Sticky Creepy-Crawly It-Doesn’t-Really-Hurt-But-I-Can’t-Stand-It Feeling”
“[…] suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance (S = P x R) […]”
“[…] though it doesn’t hurt much, it seems to cause a lot of suffering […]”
“You are experiencing almost pure resistance […]”
This experience fascinates me. Resisting urges, surfing urges without giving in, seems to evoke a very similar sensation. Ditto for choosing to engage in something aversive. It doesn’t happen when you white-knuckle through something, a brute force override. (Apparently, System 1 doesn’t learn as much when you’re brute-forcing, when you’re not paying attention .) But I do experience it when I softly, gently, consciously, compassionately, steadily, deliberately, mindfully (for once I think this term is appropriate) do what my body is screaming, screaming for me to instead do the opposite.
There is great energy in those moments. I feel very alive. Everything is brighter.
I am the captain of this ship: http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=791
System one is extremely smart in some ways and extremely stupid in other ways. System 2 is extremely smart in some ways and extremely stupid in other ways.
It’s usually much smarter to use System 2 to prevent these sorts of System 1 override situations from even coming up. (Like, don’t even buy the cookies.) You only get like one or two big System 1 overrides per day, though you can build up this muscle.
And, geez, I say this all the time, but with great power comes great responsibility. You should be really, really, really, really sure that this isn’t one of those times that System 1 is being brilliant, not stupid. Otherwise, you hurt yourself if you override repeatedly. (Like, maybe you should eat those mixed nuts, because maybe you need that selenium–and people typically lose weight eating nuts, anyway–but, yeah, that selenium. System 1 is brilliant, in its own way.)
And there are certain games where System 1 always wins in the end, like with sexuality. You use System 2 to constructively engage with System 1. Otherwise, System 1 will eat you alive. It’s like the alcoholic who somehow convinces themselves that walking into the bar is precisely what they need to do to keep from having a drink.
For some things, System 1 always wins in the end, if you fight it head on–a very dangerous long-term game to play.
More on this another time, but tools like Focusing, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Coherence Therapy, etc., can help you decide how to effectively collaborate with both System 1 and System 2.
(Check out the two links in this post! They are classic. They are excellent.)
 Abramowitz, Jonathan S., Brett J. Deacon, and Stephen PH Whiteside.Exposure therapy for anxiety: Principles and practice. Guilford Press, 2012.
Hat-tip Saturday morning interlocutors for inspiring this post.
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