Buddhism and the Itchy-Scratchy Distractions of Meditation

One of the least heralded benefits of meditation is the realization that, besides any insight or ‘calm abiding’ that might occur, all those little itches and distractions will simply go away if left unanswered. And this might seem like a small side benefit, if it’s even a benefit at all, but for me, it’s huge! But let me first state that the most obvious benefit of meditation for me is the systematic effect of ‘reboot’ that I get immediately afterward, like that same effect when restarting your smartphone or laptop, and maybe just like a good night’s sleep, admittedly, but that’s something I rarely get.

And that’s predictable and probably even measurable, but pales in comparison to this other effect that I’ve never seen discussed, or even alluded to, but quickly comes up with any Western meditators on how we can emulate the much more successful Asians, most monks and many laypeople, who can apparently sit (e)motionless like statues for hours at a time, while we all get the ‘itchie scratchies’ and it shows in our poor meditation habits ( I’ll avoid the word ‘performance’). The revelation is that those little distractions will simply go away if left alone, and that’s not by ignoring them, but just the opposite.

But first a little backstory. By birth I am the most compulsive obsessive creature in God’s creation, if judging by my childhood behavior, such that I doubt that I’d still be alive today, if that could not be corrected. I would often eat myself sick, simply because I couldn’t stop, but that was hardly the worst of it. The worst of it was the summer season in the poison ivy country of the American Deep South and the added fact that my family lived surrounded by woods.

So, at the worst, when I’d come in contact with the dreaded plant, not only would I scratch, I’d scratch until my eyes were all swollen shut, and any soft spot on my body would be deformed grotesquely, red and rash-like and ready to ooze its venom for any and all sightseers. The Elephant Man had nothing on me (remember him? From the David Lynch movie? David Lynch is now my weatherman on KCRW, btw). But I digress. This was a horrible situation, and my parents didn’t believe in medicine, so I was pretty much left to my own devices on how to deal with it.

The answer is simple, of course. Do nothing. Literally, absolutely nothing. Especially, don’t scratch it! Ever. For any reason. So that’s what I learned to do. Yeah, but I must’ve missed those beautiful Mississippi woods, right? Wrong. I built a cabin in those same woods only a few years later, and guess what? That’s right. You guessed it. I never got poison ivy in five years, not even once. Call it what you want: will, self-control, or mindfulness, but the upshot is that my life was changed by the process, rather than consumed by it, and I’m a better person for having gone through it.

And I didn’t do that by running away from it or pretending that the aggravation didn’t exist. I did it by staring it in the face and staring it down in the process. And that itch is a good metaphor for many of life’s obsessions and temptations, of course, such that the lesson therein can be applied across the board, or to the extent that you so desire. Ah, desire, but that’s another level of temptation, now, isn’t it? Bottom line: just because you have an itch doesn’t mean that you have to scratch. Maybe I should meditate now. Now what’s the Pali/Sanskrit word for ‘reboot?’ Right, re-buddha…