Beyond Stress Reduction: Reflections on Suffering and Practice

It is estimated that 18 million people in the United States meditate — a full 8 percent of the population — and as many as 200 to 500 million people worldwide. Over the last two decades, scientific focus on mindfulness, meditation, and contemplative practice has lauded the stress-reducing, resilience-building, and compassion-creating outcomes. Yet beyond stress reduction, practice leads to deeper wisdom and personal awareness that science cannot measure.

In a conversation during the summer of 2019, Chris McKenna, member of the iBme board, and iBme intern Owen Henderson explored a few of these less tangible insights. As he faced significant discomfort and challenges through the fall, Owen returned to these thoughts to help guide him forward. In this piece, he shares personal reflections on his experience of suffering and practice.

Summer Wisdom

When we discussed the nature of wisdom, Chris used the analogy of the pursuit of wisdom as “looking where to build your house.” He described our experience as being made up of two things: space and content. “Space is the sense of being aware, and content is everything else, like external objects, people, things, the world, and internal phenomena.” If our experience is made up of space and content, then wisdom would be the practice of choosing which place to build your house in order to live with the most peace as possible. But, how do you know where to build your house?

A great mantra of meditation is to trust your own experience, and Chris has learned much from his own experience: “What happens during the moments of fulfillment, deep peace, or deep sense of aliveness and freedom is that space or fundamental awareness switches and becomes the foreground as all of the content of life goes in the background. It’s not like we stop thinking of having relationships but the awareness becomes bigger than those things in a certain sense.”

However, Chris sees a deficiency of this awareness in our current culture: “We are conditioned to think that the content is what matters; since I believe in it, I am trying to build my house in it, but it’s quicksand because it is constantly changing! That produces a constant state of unease. You can be relatively happy, but at one point anything is constantly turning into something that is basically producing a problem for you.”

Fall Suffering

Chris’ words really stuck with me, and they were important and helpful as I faced a difficult period in my meditation practice during the fall. While my practice was the most regular it had ever been, I couldn’t shake a persistent sense of unease. Since this unease seemed proportional to my meditation practice, it caused me much vexation. There seemed to be constant dukkha (suffering) in my life, where my mental state was always okay, but I felt as if I was missing something.

This is where Chris’ perspective on practice really provided me deep comfort: “I think your spiritual path is going to look like a disaster if you’re doing it right. It’s going to bring you to your knees. You’re not going to be able to manage everything in the way that the ego imagines it’s going to be able to.” That’s right, practice eventually takes us way beyond stress-reduction, and things will get messy.

He went on to say, “I think that is actually one of the great faults of the popularization of mindfulness saying that each moment of awareness you are getting more together, and your concentration is getting better. That’s not how it looks at all: it is like a whirlpool. As your concentration and awareness deepens, it’s precipitating deeper levels of conditioning that when they arise they are going to make you feel subjectively worse or disoriented.”

With a bit of distance now, I can understand my suffering a little better: it was becoming evident to me that I could not fully escape my perspective. As I was meditating more, I was becoming more aware of my perspective — and it was becoming increasingly loud. Most of the social wounds of my past were arising, making me quite overwhelmed. To be honest, I was somewhat disillusioned with my meditation practice, however, I diligently kept practicing.

There was something else that was also occurring during the time. I was aware of what Chris would call, “the paradox of wisdom,” which he describes as “the sense that nothing is reliable out there and that there is this deeper reality in here, which actually puts the heart at ease and makes real connection possible. The ground of intimacy is realizing the impermanence of everything. That doesn’t make any real sense to the mind, but according to the practice and my experience it is true.”

This paradox of wisdom starts to increase with practice as a sense of “space” increases. The less attachment that one has to their own life the more they can see the absurdity of their perspective. Everything is impermanent: we are all going to die and our huge attachments to suffering, which result in conditions like depression and anxiety, begin to seem ridiculous in this light. However, in my experience, even though my perspective was beginning to become more absurd, I had built much comfort in this perspective of mine. My whole life was built around this perspective: my sense of Owen.

As the sense of impermanence increased, it was often quite terrifying and destabilizing for me. I found myself trying to hold onto my sense of identity even more; my mind had been conditioned to hold on to the content in my life and that is exactly what I wanted to do in that moment. However, the content in my life was unreliable and forever fleeting: no person, no item, no achievement could reassure me in the present moment. I was often overwhelmed by anxiety and depression and felt as if something was terribly wrong in my life.

Continuing to practice, I thought too about how Chris described mindfulness as “seeing more and more in life the subtle ways in which I sell myself out and identify with things that are not actual sources of happiness.” He said, “There is this constant reminder about where well-being originates, and the world and the culture we live in is horribly confused about that and that confusion is contagious.” In other words, there is this awareness aspect of practice, but there is also “the investigative aspect,” which is what matters to Chris, who added: “It is humbling too! Even if you have been practicing for a long time, there are these spaces where I still ‘believe the hype’ so to speak. I believe secondhand info about what the culture is telling me or what I have received through my family system. The only thing that is different for me now is that I no longer take that so personally, it’s more just an invitation to inquire. If you really want to be freer — whatever that means — you want to see what is in the way.”

Winter Contentment

In addition to reflecting on Chris’ insights, I also attended two meditation retreats since the summer, an iBme retreat and a Vipassana retreat. Combining these two integral experiences with a daily practice is helping me understand the paradox of wisdom more. As my practice continues, I am becoming more comfortable with the unreliable: my sense of anxiety is dissolving into peace. I can further rely on the law of the universe: impermanence.

In another sense, I am becoming more comfortable with my own mortality. I feel the most resilient I have ever felt in my life. As I sink deeper into this acceptance, I also feel more love and more satisfaction with the content of my life: life has become more fun to live.

There seems to be an inherent wisdom in all of us and meditation helps bring it to the surface. Yes, science can help show its benefits, but it cannot show the true and infinitely complicated essence of the practice.


You can read more from the conversation between Chris and Owen here: Letting Go of Being Someone: Pearls of Wisdom from Chris McKenna.