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Editorial Editorial: The Psychological Itch

Remember when you sat for meditation and you could not proceed any further because of that persistent itch on your leg, hand, or some other part of your body? You perhaps thought that it was some insect that was annoying you or that it was a mosquito that you could not catch in time, or that it was a rash or skin problem, which you did not notice earlier. The problem subsides with some itching and completely disappears when you leave your meditation seat. You go about your work thinking that your meditation was alright except for those distracting thoughts and this annoying itch!

What happened to the itch? Where did it go? How did it come? To understand this, we have to understand what happens during any form of meditation. While meditating, the meditator tries to bring one’s mind and thoughts under control. There is an effort to streamline the process of thinking and then to regulate the thoughts or flow of ideas. This is done in many ways but the whole exercise is meant to bring some discipline to the mind. But the mind is responsible for almost all the actions we perform and excepting the rarest breed of people who have completely mastered their minds, the mind dictates what to do and what not to do, all the time. So, when the mind sees that discipline is being enforced upon it, it very strategically diverts the attention of the meditator to something else, and in the present example, it is an itch. However, if we were to use the word ‘itch’ in a metaphorical sense, we would immediately realise that it can mean many other things where our mind plays tricks on us and tries to divert our attention to things that take us away from our pursuit of controlling or disciplining the mind.

The irresistible temptation to scratch an itch is the mind’s dictate to cajole it.

Let us first look at the causes of a physical itch, the kind that makes us scratch our skin. It is interesting to note that an itch on the skin is caused mainly because of our instinct to survive or protect ourselves, just like the psychological itch created by the mind for protecting itself! The physical itch is caused because we think, that is, our brain thinks that some insect has tried to attack our skin, lay its eggs on the skin, or something else that would risk our health. And so, the brain tells our fingers to scratch that part of the body to ensure that we are safe and immune to attacks by unknown creatures. Itching is a protection mechanism of our neurological system just like pain. In fact, the nerve carrying the sensations of pain and itching are the same.

This psychological itch is used by the mind to protect itself whenever we try to discipline it or try to kill it by annihilating all thoughts, in order to transcend the mind and know our true nature, Brahman. How do we know that itching is psychological? We know that because scientists have successfully caused itching in a healthy human arm that has been fully deprived of any sensation by anaesthesia. So, itching is completely a mental or psychological phenomenon. Other than exposure to certain food, chemicals, unclean clothes, or unhygienic surroundings, most causes for itching, particularly the itching that starts when you start your meditation and remains during the period of meditation, are completely psychological.

What are the other kinds of itching that are psychological but not the kind that creates irritation on the skin? This is a metaphorical kind of itch. This itch is the disturbance in your mind that asks you to do something other than meditation or the controlling of thoughts. For instance, when you are meditating, this itching will impel you to stop meditating and sing some devotional hymns instead. Now, you would consider singing of devotional hymns harmless, won’t you? But, when this singing is done in the midst of your meditation, it is definitely harmful. Or, your mind could tell that you have had enough of meditation—you too don’t like to look at your watch and find the reality that the meditation has been for hardly five minutes— and that you should study some scriptures or the life and teachings of some saint now. The mind has successfully made you believe that you are doing something very spiritual and at the same time obviated the possibility of its being controlled or disciplined. Sometimes, the mind also asks you to get up from your meditation and attend to some work that you had completely forgotten and remembered just when you sat for meditation. This is also a trick of the mind. It could have reminded you of that task before, but it keeps it hidden and brings it out as its trump card, just when you want to discipline or restrain it. Not just that, it creates an urgency and tells you that you have to attend to that task immediately.

Essentially, all distractions of the mind can be called psychological itches. All addictions are also psychological itches, only of the worst kind. An addiction feeds off a psychological itch that you have. One has to identify that itch and go to its roots. For instance, if a person is addicted to a particular video game, then that is only the tip of an iceberg, or more accurately, the tip of a psychological itch. That person has to identify the itch, which could be loneliness, anxiety, the effect of a trauma, or any other mental problem

A psychological itch can turn into a chain reaction. If you scratch your arm, you feel an itch on your neck, if you tackle that, you feel another itch on your face. This chain goes on. The first step to conquer an itch is to break the chain. Relax your mind and body and think of how each itch or addiction is independent of the other. Calm your mind and try to think ennobling thoughts; think about your true nature that is all consciousness and bliss. Try to think what makes you the most anxious and try to think of the worst possible outcomes of that event. By practising in this manner, you can clear your mind of all the cobwebs that cause that psychological itch.

The best way to avoid or get rid of a psychological itch is to ignore it. Do not scratch an itch. Scratching does not help. The irresistible temptation to scratch an itch is the mind’s dictate to cajole it. If a game is drawing you to the point that you are unable to do anything other than gaming, it has already become a problem. That is indeed the definition of an addiction: it entices you to do something that in itself is the reward and so you are unable to do anything else. Thus, itching itself becomes a reward and one gets a pleasant feeling scratching one’s skin. The thrill is in the performance of the addictive habit itself, in scratching the itch itself. It is very difficult to stop scratching an itch, because the itch came into existence in the first place due to the trick that the mind played in bringing about distraction. That is why one has to stop giving any importance to the itch to stop it.

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