Distrations, Mindfulness, and Simple Awareness

M: I have a question on mindfulness and how I can introduce mindfulness to a specific situation in my life. In the evening, my girlfriend and I spend time in front of the television set, sometimes eating dinner at the same time, but always with a quiz-show, TV series, documentary or movie on in the background.

Since beginning to practice mindfulness meditation and becoming more mindful throughout the day, I would love to hear any advice you have on how I can continue to practice my mindful awareness during these evenings with my partner.

I find that for some reason, having the television on makes me very irritable. Whenever my partner arrives home, without even having talked to each other for two minutes, she wants the television on and then we both sit gazing at the box in the corner with very little conversation. Where do I turn my awareness practice to now? My breathing perhaps? What we are both aware of at the time? The television? Or maybe the television AND my girlfriend? Or, maybe just my girlfriend? I have no idea!

Any help would be appreciated Jay! Thank you.

Jay: I can completely relate to your situation. I face the same thing, though it’s not just my girlfriend, as there are other people in her household too.

I’ve tried over recent years to find a way to request less television or restrict the hours or have the other people watch in a different room, other than the living room. There is another perfectly suitable room. But it is clear that for many reasons at least one of the other people really wants to have the TV on in the living room. The other person do to some extent understand how it affects me, but the fact is that all of the forces acting on the other person lead them to want and need to watch the TV in the living.

I’ve faced a couple specific issues in all of this. One is that instead of just holding onto a growing resentment, I’ve taken the risk to communicate. Just as I feared, communicating about my need to have less TV has often resulted in bad feelings, as much as I’d like to say that communicating solved everything in a loving way. I think these bad feelings made me look more closely at myself and my expectations of the other people. Eckhart Tolle gave some advice about either dropping the resentment completely or, if that was not possible, then speaking up and facing the consequences of one’s attitudes.

I’ve also had to face the intense physical discomfort that I feel when I walk into a room with the TV going. As you experienced, it makes me irritable and angry. It feels like an invasion of the nervous system and on top of that is added the thought of how other people could purposely torture me with this noise. Of course they don’t realize it affects me that way.

What does “facing the discomfort” mean? There are all kinds of impulses that come up when I walk into the room with TV going. The impulse to just walk over and turn it off. To ask the other people to please go away. To get angry that the other people are torturing me. To just leave the house. None of these are usually possibilities but they tug at the body back and forth trying to find some release from the discomfort. After years of this there has been some learning that the discomfort usually diminishes after a while. Also, because I only live in this situation half the week, there has been a learning that when I first come here from my quieter private home, the discomfort is worse and after a while there is more tolerance. This has also made me question why my ability to tolerate other people diminishes when I am by myself and to observe this at my own home.

At a 7 day retreat I had this irritation come up once in a very painful way. The retreat is held in silence but one person who was new there seemed to sometime like to whisper to other people. The sound of hearing a voice, in the middle of this silence, was like a knife cutting into me. For several days I wrestled with this seemingly traumatic intrusion, unable to get rid of it and unable to have any peace from it. At one point I heard the person start to whisper again. I felt like I wanted to put my hands around her neck and strangle her. I was full of anger and I felt my hands tense and begin to squeeze (by my side. Not around her neck!) At the moment that my thumbs touched the rest of my hand, the anger and hot feelings completely disappeared. All the discomfort was gone. I can only say that the nervous system – in not being able to run away from the feelings, not distracting itself – found a new way for the energy to move through the system and the traumatic pattern res olved itself.

It is very worthwhile to note that there was no one inside me standing apart from this experience saying, “Hmm, I think I’ll practice with this in a certain way.” There was an absence of any division into practicer and that which the practicer is practicing. This absence of division is what allowed something new and completely unexpected to happen.

So in your situation, rather than thinking that there is some way you should “practice” with this difficult situation, why not just listen into what is going on for you at that moment? Is there discomfort? Is it being compounded by frustrated reactions to the discomfort? Is there a resistance to being swept away by the television? Is there a fear of being seen as impatient, angry, needy?

You wondered if you should be attending to this, this, this or this. You can experiment with it. I find that when what is going on here is entered into deeply, it is not divided up into different objects of attention. There is just a wide open field of awareness that very simply and effortlessly includes whatever is going on. This is a different quality from the usual attention to one or a few things at a time – an attention that jumps from this to that and is torn between this and that. Maybe in the midst of the anxiety that the television situation brings up, you may discover this open awareness that does not need to jump from thing to thing.

Maybe this is a start at responding to your question. I may not have been very clear so feel free to write back.

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