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Surviving Chinese water torture: a metaphor for our times

Chinese Water Torture - a metaphor for our times
Chinese Water Torture - a metaphor for our times
John K from

It's a mad, mad world. Yesterday alone, Israel invaded Gaza, a commercial plane was shot out of the sky with hundreds of innocents murdered, Microsoft announced the termination of 18,000 employees, and that's just the people most of us don't know.

Within our own personal spheres of dramas and traumas, many of us are having the experience that, if the sh*t isn't hitting the fan at this moment, it will, probably in less than 24 hours. If the wolves in power don't destroy us, and if we survive the gun-wielding nut jobs, someone in our immediate circle - a coworker, a friend, a relative --could snap from all the pressure, and create another high-profile black hole.

If you aren't thinking about these things, it's past time to wake up -you're late to life!

I write this from San Diego with what might be considered exaggeration, locally, out of my sympathy for the people crammed in Gaza right now. The certainty of the next pending shock (violence, bullying, humiliation, exclusion, or any other form of 'sh*t hitting the fan') is enough to drive people to medication (for those of us who have access to it), or extremism (for those of us who don't.) I don't know what the statistics are elsewhere for extremism related to mental instability cause by pressure and anxiety, but 70% of Americans use pharmaceutical drugs, and nearly 30% of American women are on anti-depressants, with 11% of us on anti-anxiety medications.

The dread of the next incoming missile to destroy our stability and everything we love and that we've worked for - it is a great source of perpetual anxiety that stays with us. It's a concept. A concept of a ticking time bomb that's been put in our house. The concept of the ticking time-bomb itself must be defused.

This is why Chinese Water Torture is an adequate metaphor for our era - for the challenges we face at remaining sane, balanced and engaged in these seemingly-apocalyptic times. Each assault to our senses and to our common sense can be likened to a drop of water hitting us on the forehead, one in a ceaseless succession - one that we can see coming, but are powerless to stop. We are trapped. All we have to work with is our perception of what is happening to us.

So, how to remain sane, balanced and engaged when you are essentially being tortured? It's said that Buddhist monks were able to survive Chinese Water Torture by meditating. But even if the metaphor is exaggerated, most of us can't meditate well enough to deal with these 'slings and arrows of misfortune'. So, how to survive our times for the common person?

There is only one way besides meditation that I've found. That is, to deeply appreciate the reprieves, those precious peaceful moments between bombardments. To begin to treasure the breaks to the assaults to our senses. To seek out experiences of timelessness. Timelessness is the key.

When do you lose track of time? For example, is it while having coffee with your friend, while walking with your dog, playing with your kid, painting, writing poetry, golfing, playing piano or ping pong, making love? Think about all the healthy activities that you engage in that leave you feeling alive, free, and somehow eternal. This timelessness is the state of mind which allows you to bear these times of metaphorical Chinese Water Torture.

The monks are said to have survived actual water torture it by entering samadhi, a meditative state of timeless, quiet, eternal, deep, clear, imperturbable awareness, in between drops to the forehead (also the third-eye.) In that moment of reprieve, they were able to enter non-dual awareness, from within which time does not exist. In this space, there is no future, therefore no anticipation of the next drop. There is a sensation of resting in ease, if not bliss. The psyche is relieved. The tension is temporarily alleviated.

At some point, the monk returns to ordinary awareness and the water is still dropping on his forehead. But his experience of the torture is different. The certainty of the chain of continuity has been broken. Anything is possible. This is great news for the beleaguered psyche.

These reprieves - they are our saving grace. It is by valuing and highlighting these moments, the ones that lead us to timeless awareness, appreciating them, deepening them, experiencing them as often as possible, and stretching them out, that we survive the inevitable hard parts coming at us.

How is this different from getting drunk with your friends (or alone) and passing out, so that you forget your troubles, if that's how you get your relief? Well, for one thing, there is no hangover involved in the true timeless sensation. There are no negatives - that's how you know if your method will help instead of harm you and the ones you love.

Enjoyment, whatever healthy thing you may be doing, is key to surviving constant barrages that keep coming. So find your enjoyment, and deepen it every chance you get.

Then, when the inevitable wrench comes flying at you, don't waste your life force and precious energy in rationalization or blame, even if the crime is blatant. Instead, try to get some enjoyment on - something that returns you to yourself. Do your thing, or let the thought of your plans for doing it in the future temper your perspective, to make the intolerable tolerable.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to develop a daily meditation practice! But even without a formal meditation practice, you can train your attention to dwell in timelessness, simply by doing the healthy things you most enjoy with ever deepening awareness.

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