Itch zapper – one-pointed meditation
7 January 2007 1 Comment
I’ve been plagued for most of last week by a skin rash. I get these and other allergic reactions from time to time, usually when the seasons change. This one, however, coincides with the beginning of my second attempt at writing my thesis after a four month ‘break’, which has triggered a bout of insomnia I haven’t experienced in a while.
I have been enjoying several weeks of ‘regular’ sleep — i.e. being in bed before midnight and waking up at about 8 a.m. — something years of graduate study haven’t really cultivated. It was much more the norm to work till 3 or 4 a.m. and then stagger out of bed at noon, feeling wretched and guilty, only to have the whole cycle begin again. Never underestimate the value of regular sleep: I wake up fresher, meditate better, then I sleep better, and so the virtuous circle continues.
Now it’s back to thesis writing and the wonderful cycle’s gone off the rails slightly. Even though I now stop before dinner, the wheels in my head won’t stop, and the strange and bizarre dreams have begun again. In my case, mainly anxiety dreams, or what I call my ‘travelling dreams’, usually about trying to get somewhere and never being able to make it. In one memorable dream several years ago, the bus I was in changed into a lift (not dissimilar to the one that appears at the end of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and the lift buttons never got me to the right floor (not even halfway as in Being John Malkovich). But worst of all, I’ve become too anxious to meditate and the vicious circle is rapidly taking over from the virtuous one.
Furthermore, fitful, anxiety-ridden sleep is not helped by middle-of-the-night arousals by an intense itching, seemingly exacerbated by the warmth of my electric blanket. I don’t think it’s necessary to elaborate on the fact that mild atopic eczema is sometimes the result of internal stress, just on its external effects. Itching is one of those curious things where the more you scratch the worse it gets, and yet what is an itch but a plea to be scratched? Out of desperation more than anything, I thought I’d try one-pointed concentration meditation, a strange thing to try when half asleep, but the result wasn’t bad at all. I actually managed to fall back to sleep.
One-pointed concentration meditation is a meditation technique that draws awareness to a point of focus, whether it is a candle or the breath. It is often used by people who want to build up their powers of concentration. In my case, it was just to focus on the itch. I recall a piece of advice by Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck — I think it was in Everyday Zen — who wrote about feeling a pain in her knee, and just to feel it without judging it, without attaching narratives of frustration, anxiety and defeat to it, and before long the pain doesn’t so much cease to be as ceases to be a cause of suffering. It worked, sort of. Even in a sonambulist state, I became aware of making a mental note, ‘itch’, and nothing else. I soon went back to sleep.
I’ll see if it improves over the next few days and hopefully without all the fervent scratching, the skin will heal itself, and with it, my own state of mind. Since this thesis sequel is going to take at least another eight months to complete, I have to work out a strategy to clear my mind, or lose a lot of the equanimity I’ve tried to cultivate over the past year. I usually meditate in the mornings but I’m going to try it before bed at night.* Or resort to the River of Tranquility, which I haven’t used in a while, but which has always worked well.
*Incidentally, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and meditation teacher, has co-written an article on the effects of mindfulness meditation on skin conditions.