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Meditation Practice, Straight from the Tattoo Parlor

I recently went to get my Avalokitesvara tattoo colored in. It hurt a lot.

Early on I decided to view the pain as an object of meditation, like I'd observe my breath or a thought. When the storyline appeared, I'd let it go and rest with the sensation. Easy, right? I'd feel the sharp, burning buzz of the needle, very quickly find myself in my head going holy shit this hurts, then letting go. Any distraction sent me back into my storyline, or into further distraction––hey, look at that skull on the wall... I think I need to pee––and then back to oh my god this hurts. 

This went on for many rounds––pain, attention, distraction––when I started thinking about the image being etched onto my arm. Avalokitesvara, “the one who hears the cries of the world.” I read somewhere that he has four arms (or a thousand arms) because his arms move so rapidly to benefit others that it seems like there are many of them. Like the Road Runner's legs. It's a lot to live up to, that kind of commitment. I want that kind of commitment.

I chose to lean into the pain, and each time I found myself avoiding it, I brought myself back to it. I am reminded of how I often retreat from pain and suffering and how little relief that gets me. The other night I was having a really hard time with something in my life. I was alone and left to my distractions, but I kept coming back to a heavy, painful place in my heart. I kept trying to let go of the storyline, and it kept coming back. After a couple of hours, I'd had enough, and I had a drink. It numbed me quickly, the storyline subsided, and I went to sleep.

The next morning I realized my error. Numbing myself to avoid pain is not who I want to be. It's not who I am. Nothing was accomplished; I simply avoided what was going on in my heart. And I thought about all the ways I numb myself to avoid the unpleasant, how busy I make myself in order to not be with what is actually happening.

I remembered all of this during the tattooing. What does Avalokitesvara stand for? How quickly can those hands move when I'm numbed by work, by drink, by television? I've been wanting a Harley this week. I don't know whether I'll buy one or not, but I am wary of the distraction; what's this desire masking? Will getting a new bike truly make me happy? Or will it simply distract me from what's really going on.

I'll head back in a few weeks to do some final touchups on my beautiful bodhisattva. I'll work hard to lean into the pain again, and maybe this time I'll be a little better at it.



“...the next time you lose heart and you can’t bear to experience what you are feeling, you might recall this instruction: change the way you see it and lean in. That’s basically the instruction that Dzigar Kongtrül gave me. And now I pass it on to you. Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weakness, we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the stories that we relentlessly tell ourselves. This is priceless advice that addresses the true cause of suffering – yours, mine, and that of all living beings.”

- Pema Chödrön

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Leaning in...

I've been thinking of similar things of late, having embarked on a "meditation challenge" that demands a lot more time on the cushion. Accompanying the extended practice has been a lot of discomfort of thought, and I keep trying to get around it rather than lean into it. Thank you for the reminder. Can't wait to see the finished tattoo.

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