“Soldier, Don’t Itch!”

Dr. Charles Tart


Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 5, Part 7 of 18 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: I think at this point we can open it for discussion about the review, your current experience, the readings – what have you. But do try to stay focused in the present. It’ll make it more fun.

Student: My experience right now is in something that I’ve been thinking about recently. Right after meditation like we just did, I’m much more aware of my bodily movements. For example, sitting in class, I adjust all the time. I think I wasn’t aware when I was adjusting, yet it happens all the time. You just move a part of your body, don’t even think about it. But right after we did that, I moved my arms up to my legs and felt like I knew it was happening the whole time.

CTT: Mm hmm.

Student: That’s it.

CTT: If you look at other people, or if you begin to see yourself, we fidget all the time! Constant movement. You begin to think it must be really uncomfortable to be a human being in a body, judging by how we’re constantly adjusting ourselves to get more comfortable. 😉

And yet when you sit still for a few minutes, it’s not that bad. I mean, there’s the occasional itch that you know you’ll die from, but by and large, it’s not that bad.

I heard that given as an example of the Buddhist emphasis on suffering the other day, that this is one of the subtle signs of how pervasive suffering is in our life – constantly fidgeting and adjusting, trying to make things better. Or maybe we’re desperately seeking the optimal pleasant position.

But if you’re here, in the vipassana sense, it’s not so bad.

Student: During my experience just now, I had an itch that I chose not to go into. However, I have a pretty strong body reaction to itches. There was a time in Marine Corps boot camp when itching was not allowed, and sometimes we’d be standing at attention for –

CTT: Itching was not allowed?

Student: Well, if you’re standing at attention, you –

Another Student: Scratching.

Student: – don’t do anything. So –

CTT: I would think scratching was not allowed. They can’t give you an order not to itch.


Soldier! Don’t itch!


Student: So I developed the ability to legislate that I would not itch, and used my will to do that. I can see a difference between just accepting that feeling and seeing where it goes. So I can see the difference between those two, and yet I still have this intense body reaction that surrounds itching – that seems to be experiential and historical – and I was curious of how –

CTT: Is it like you were traumatized in some way by having to ignore prolonged itches?

Student: Yes.

CTT: Yeah. Maybe you can sue the government on it.


Probably not.

Once you see the many – I want to say the suffering in human life, but let’s make it milder – the many sources of “discomfort,” you can see the usual way of dealing with discomfort is to try to actively fix it. When you have an itch, you scratch it. When you get cramped, you stretch. When you’re tired, you sleep. When you can do things, and they’re effective, that’s pretty good. Most itches go away when you scratch them.

But there are a lot of circumstances in life where we can’t do anything about something that’s bothering us. You know, like we’re all going to get old and sick and die at some point, and not much we can do about it. Not to mention many other discomforts along the way.

So how do you deal with those things? You can deal with them as Bob illustrated in his story, by developing a kind of willpower. “I’m going to power my way through this and not show any reaction!” And that’s a skill, and it develops willpower, and it’s something we all need. Because there will be emergencies where it’s the only thing you can do and it may save your life. You know? Don’t move, because that will attract the attention of the sniper.

You can say, “Oh, but I itch. I’ve got to scratch.” Not unless you want to get killed.

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