Comfort and validation
Helen asked how meditation practice provides comfort and validation. Actually that's a bit of a trick question. On the one hand, in a sense you could say that it does. On the other hand, what it really does is to allow you to be okay without them.
Let me give you an example. This happened maybe a year and a half into my meditation practice. My mother was at home. My father and a friend were there too. And then my father had a really painful attack of some sort and the friend had to drive him to the hospital, leaving my mother alone.
My mother is confined to a wheelchair and can't get from bed to wheelchair on her own. So there she is lying in bed. I should add that I was absolutely used up, because of the ongoing crisis that her care situation had turned into. I didn't feel able to get in my car and drive to her house. So she's just lying there in bed, and if anything goes wrong, it's really going to be bad. And I can't go.
And so I had a panic attack.
I don't think I'd ever knowingly had a panic attack before, although looking back I think I did have one once a long time ago. But this one was interesting. The situation would come into my mind. The panic would start. The introspective awareness I'd been developing in my meditation practice would notice the feeling of total panic, identify it as a panic attack, and then just watch it in awed fascination. And the panic would fade. And with it, the mindfulness would fade, and the situation would once again be dominant in my mind, and the panic would start again.
This repeated about seven times. What finally broke the loop was two things. First, I was getting used to it, and it just wasn't a problem. It was really intense, but I was okay. I wasn't the panic attack. I was watching the panic attack.
The second thing is that when I got into that state of watching the panic attack happening, I had space to think. And what I realized after a while was that the situation was not in my control.
That seems like a small thing, but it's huge. Just realizing that there is nothing I can do, really nothing I can do, and letting go, allowed me to just drop the panic. Because there was nothing I could do, I didn't have to worry. Whatever was going to happen would happen. It might not be what I wanted—it was certainly possible that something bad could have happened to my mom, and that would have been awful. But it was also really unlikely. The house hadn't burned down the previous fifteen years—why was it going to pick tonight to burn down?
This ability to step back is a really big deal. At that point it was really a fledgling ability—it really surprised me when this happened. (By the way, my mom was and is fine, and so is my dad, although that was a bit of a saga). But since then this ability has become so powerful that whenever any kind of unpleasant feeling comes up, I immediately notice and start watching what's happening, instead of getting sucked into the bad feeling. I haven't had a feeling that things weren't fundamentally okay for years.
It's not because of some internal validation. I am really aware that I'm in a world of pain and suffering where bad things happen, and they could happen to me at any moment. And if there's something sensible to be done about that, some risk I should mitigate, I go do that. If there isn't, it doesn't worry me, because worrying about it is useless, and that's just obvious now.
It is a kind of comfort, but it's not the comfort of denial. I can see clearly what the situation is. I don't have to turn away from it. I could be cut down by a meteor in the next second, but in this second I'm fine, and I don't know what's coming in the next second. So why live my life there and not here? This seems obvious on an intellectual level. But my meditation practice is what turned this from intellectual knowledge into my ongoing experience.
I talked about this a bit more on a practical level in a previous article, How To Awaken. But the main point is that meditation practice really can change your experience of the world, and it really can bring about freedom from fear. It's not that you never experience it anymore—it just doesn't own you anymore—it's just useful information to consider, and not the (seeming) end of the world.