How Bored Are Your Elbows?

It’s a strange question to ask but sometimes wondering how bored your elbows are can be a useful way to break yourself out of a negative loop and get a bit of perspective. It’s not as absurd as it sounds and it does work, not just as a distraction tactic but it also allows us to connect with several different elements of Buddhist teaching.
Let’s start by considering the kind of situations where this question works well. You are sitting in meditation and feel restless; you want to be anywhere but where you are now. You investigate your mind and feelings and the conclusion you come to is that you are bored. You try to sit with it but the boredom is overwhelming and your mind and body are screaming at you to JUST DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING PLEASE, MAKE IT STOP! I have felt this way many times, believe me everyone has. When you feel overwhelmed by a thought or sensation it feels incredibly personal, the mind and even sometimes the body can get overheated and it can feel hard to keep your mindfulness in the face of it. This is the perfect time to investigate your experience like this: turn your attention to your elbows and ask are my elbows bored? I’m no mind reader (or perhaps that should be elbow reader) but I’m almost certain that you will find that your elbows are not in the least bit bored. They are also not the least bit engaged or excited by your current experience, frankly they don’t give a damn, but this is good. Your cool, calm, and collected elbows are just doing their elbow thing and the turbulence of the mind doesn’t bother them.
Suddenly you feel a bit of space and you can move away from the mind’s fixation on being bored, perhaps you even get a bit of your mindfulness back and it becomes easier to watch the feelings and thoughts of boredom impartially. This approach also works with any mental or physical sensation you are experiencing. In the summer when it is hot I often find my mind grumbling about how hot it is and whether I am just about to collapse with heatstroke, but I can ask myself the question ‘how hot are my elbows?’. I wait for the reply but my elbows always remain stony silent on the matter; they have nothing to say about being hot, that is just my mind talking. You can feel like you are very sad, or very angry, or very anything and if you can pull up enough mindfulness then ask your elbows if they feel sad, angry, or whatever feeling is taking over you. Pound to a penny your elbows will not be feeling that way. Now you might be thinking this is nonsensical because of course your elbows don’t have anything to say – they are just elbows, they don’t say anything but that is the whole point; elbows don’t have anything to say and we can use this excellent quality to help us out when things get hard.
So how does this approach work? Well it works in a lot of different ways; one is distraction, which creates a disruption of the flow of the mind and it’s attachment to the feeling that it was caught up in. Thoughts like craving or aversion keep fanning themselves like a fire with a good supply of air, the fire gets bigger and keeps burning hotter because it is getting plenty of air by you repeatedly thinking about it. This distraction tactic is like cutting off the air supply, and as the fire loses some of its heat it is easier to extinguish it.
The second way using this question works is by helping to establish mindfulness in the body. When your attention is all in the mind your thoughts can run out of balance to the rest of your experience, and can seem more convincing or overwhelming than they need to. Switching your attention very deliberately to the body, or a specific body part can help you to reestablish the mindfulness in the body. Now you do need to be careful and this is where elbows are a particularly good friend, some parts of your body are more reactive than others, perhaps for you it is the area around the heart, or down in your stomach where you have the physical experience of emotional states. If you were to switch your attention to these parts of your body when you were upset then they would just reinforce to your mind how you already feel, it is better to focus on some of your less emotional body parts; elbows are pretty chilled out, earlobes don’t fuss very much, the soles of your feet don’t get flustered very easily. Try this out for yourself and find out where your most reliably unflappable body part is; perhaps you have unusually emotive elbows so don’t use them, find out what works for you better instead.
There is one scenario where you have to be particularly careful about using a body part to reestablish mindfulness and that is lust. Choose the body part to focus on very carefully! You might think that in a situation where you are in the grip of lust that mindfulness is pretty well established in the body, it is a very physical experience after all, but really the fire that is being fanned is in your mind, not your trousers. Your elbows though remain largely impervious to sexual desire and your lust can quickly fizzle out once the spell has been broken by switching your attention to something else. How much do your elbows want to sleep with that person? Yes, you guessed it, not even a little bit. Don’t think about their elbows though, that probably won’t help.
The third way this works is by illustrating to us the reality of our experience. Our mind can feel very convinced that ‘I’ feel a certain way about something, and that message from the mind is incredibly convincing at times, to the point that we fully believe it to be true. But in the face of that feeling, if you ask your elbows if they feel the same way and find that they don’t then what you see is that the ‘I’ that so convinced you isn’t as convincing anymore. If you feel like your body is you, and your mind is you, but they don’t agree with each other then who is right? Neither of them actually, but what this shows you is that the experience of ‘I’ isn’t clear cut or certain in any way. Who is this ‘I’ that is telling me that it is bored? Where is it? This insight into the uncertainty of ‘I’ is just enough to loosen your unwavering belief in what your mind tells you and creates a little space where you can start taking your thoughts a bit less seriously, a bit less personally, and let go of them more easily.
The fourth way this works is by allowing us to experience the body in the way that the Buddha recommended that we come to understand it – not as one organism but as a collection of many independent and interdependent parts. In line with the teaching of anatta, not-self, he guides us to understand our body as being made of many different parts and that when we look at them individually we will not see any place that our sense of ‘I’ could come from. It is only when we feel like the body is one entity that we can attach a sense of self to it, create an identity out of it. Your elbows as a part of you might feel like they have some expression of your sense of self in them, maybe you have some fancy elbow tattoos, but when you examine them in isolation you won’t find any of what you consider to be the essence of you there; you will just see bones, skin, and perhaps some ink. When we use this question it reminds us that the ‘I’ that is very convinced that it is bored, sad, or lustful is illusory, and this breaks the hold that the feeling of ‘I’ has over us.
The key thing that makes this technique work though is our own mindfulness and sensitivity to how we feel both physically and emotionally. This is a skill that we need to develop in our practice and is one that comes naturally out of meditation practice. Body scan meditation is particularly useful for this in the beginning, working your way around the body one part at a time to establish an awareness of each part will create a connection between the mind and the body, and ultimately will help the mind to establish mindfulness of the body.
When you first start doing body scan meditations you might find that there are parts of your body that appear to have no sensations coming from them. What is really happening is that the mind doesn’t have enough awareness of that part yet, keep practicing and in time your mind will make the connection. In fact this doesn’t just happen when you first start to practice, this happened to me recently. I done a body scan and I found that I had no sensations from both of my ears and the whole of the middle of my torso. My mind had lost its awareness of these parts of my body, and subsequently I realised that this was a contributing factor to me losing my mindfulness completely. You experience most of your strong emotional responses in your middle so it was no wonder that I couldn’t keep tabs on how I was feeling, and therefore couldn’t counteract it wisely. I just got carried away with my feelings over and over again because I wasn’t in touch with the physical experience, so my mind had free rein to do whatever it wanted. Once I saw that I didn’t have full awareness of my body I made it a priority in my meditations and once it came back to me I was able to examine my thoughts and feelings more accurately.
Perhaps you have been meditating in a method that recommends that you don’t interfere with your experience, that you use unconditional acceptance of whatever comes up for you and that you have been told that trying to make feelings go away is wrong. There are different ways to approach meditation and times when different approaches are more suitable. To me the question comes down to mindfulness – if you are mindful of your experience, not overwhelmed by it, not taking it personally, and able to sit comfortably with it then just leave it as it is. If it feels like it is happening to ‘you’ and ‘you’ need to do something about it then you are not being mindful and this kind of technique will help you to get that mindfulness back, because ultimately meditation without mindfulness is not meditation at all.

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