Given that Skill Number Two is "moving closer to experience" and that Skill Number Two arises from Skill Number One, which is "calming the heart and mind," folks can be confused as to why we would want to move farther from experience. Shouldn’t we simply continue to move closer to experience, so that we can understand its true nature (Skill Number Four)? Well, yes and no. Let me explain:
In our practice and life, we want to be with our experience. This means we are present for it. Not repressing or suppressing it, nor are we lost in it and indentified with it. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’re experiencing it for sure, but we know its present. There is something that is knowing the experience that is not of the experience. This is what we mean by being with experience.
Sometimes an experience (of body or heart/mind) will arise that we can’t be with. For whatever reason, the experience is too difficult for us. We’re not able to fully know it, and either push it away or become overwhelmed and identified with it. Being identified with an experience means we think it is us, belongs to us and is who we are. We literally become overtaken by the experience. This can occur when experiences mimic or remind us of very difficult events in our lives, especially events that we have not totally assimilated or understood fully. Examples of this include, relational events with friends or partners that remind us of past relational difficulties, circumstances that remind us of past events when our safety was at risk, such as automobile accidents or physical or sexual abuse, and anxiety or fear that is arising in the moment that is similar to past events of anxiety and fear that have overwhelmed us.
When this is the case, we don’t want to move closer to this experience. It would only overwhelm us, causing us to not be able to be with it, and create suffering for ourselves and possibly others. We want to temporarily move away from the experience at times like these. Yet, we need the tools to be able to do this. The following list of resources begins with the most subtle interventions and progresses to ones that are more drastic. These can be used during formal practice or everyday life:
Becoming aware of your body and keeping the attention on some part of the body that is grounded, like the feet touching the floor. This takes the attention away from thoughts, which is where we usually have the most difficulty, and brings it into a somatic relationship with the body.
While being embodied, paying attention to the breath. Especially the sympathetic (calming) response to the out-breath.
Remembering the common human condition of suffering. Remembering that you are not the only one that feels such things can take the attention off of YOU and YOUR suffering, which can create some space from the difficult thoughts and emotions.
Going out into nature and letting it help hold what you are experiencing.
Moving the body. Going for a brisk walk, bike ride or run. Out of the head and into the body. Moving the body vigorously can give us the message that we are not powerless or a victim and increase a sense of well being.
Reaching out to a friend for support.
Changing the channel. Literally giving the mind something else to pay attention to, like reading or watching something that you are interested and will hold your attention. Once while I was overwhelmed with experience on a retreat, I called my teacher for support and she told me to watch a movie!! I was expecting some detailed description about increasing Samadhi or something like that, but really, that was the best thing.
We want to learn when to move away from experience (when we can’t be with it and are starting to be overwhelmed by and identified with it) and have to tools so that we are actually able to do that. This is not failure or giving up. Our culture can give us the message that to stop trying is giving up, and for whimps. Temporarily moving away from experience when it is necessary is actually good practice. It is a kind thing to do for ourselves, and is onward leading. Meaning it furthers our path to freedom from suffering. It’s a skill that we all need to learn and will need to employ at one time or another.