“What are you supposed to do if you have an itch during meditation? Should you try to ignore it or is it OK to scratch it?”
When this question came up during the post-meditation discussion earlier this week in our 30-Day Mindfulness Meditation Challenge, I was surprised it hadn’t been asked in any of my earlier programs. Having an annoying itch is such a common distraction during meditation!
A meditation itch is a POWERFUL opportunity for mindfulness practice!
So what are you supposed to do if you have an itch when you’re trying to keep your attention anchored on your breath? Ignore the itch or scratch it?
When I have an itch I turn it into a game. First I acknowledge the itch, then I bring my attention back to the breath, without trying to resist the itch. Rather than label the itch as “bad,” I consciously let go of judgement and accept the itch as a normal thing that bodies experience sometimes.
In other words, I replace “Damn, I have an itch!” with “Hm. There’s an itch.”
If it persists and keeps breaking through my breath focus, I turn my full attention to the itch and shine a really bright light on it. I get curious about how wide an area the itch covers. I notice whether the intensity of the itch ebbs and flows (it invariably does). Taking my game further, I see whether I can get through a cycle of 10 relaxed inhales and exhales before the itch goes away. Usually the itch is gone by the time I make my way through all of these levels of the game.
Sometimes a meditation itch (or any type of itch) feels like it will last an eternity. As with other sensations (pain included) resistance and negative narrative stretches out our sense of time. By playing this sort of game with the itch, it will go away faster than you expect. Itches are temporary. Like every thought and feeling is temporary. As long as our hearts are beating, however, the breath is always there. The breath is our only constant in life.
Just to be clear: you’re not a loser if you just can’t take it and end up scratching the itch if the game strategies don’t do the trick. You’ve still deepened your awareness and cultivated your ability to pause before taking considered action. Yay you! The good news is that you’re guaranteed to have many opportunities to play the meditation itch game in the future, increasing your skill each time.
And guess what? These same strategies to respond to a meditation itch can be used to shift our relationship to pain. Check out this recent Washington Post article about how the Mayo Clinic is using mindfulness training to help people suffering from chronic pain and opioid addiction: When Pain Just Won’t Stop, A Specialty Program Might Help.
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