“What the heck are chiggers?” Well, if you’d ever gone berry picking in the rural southeastern United States, you’d need no introduction to this virtually invisible demonic insect. Yes, even being the nature lover that I am, I suppose I’m sounding a tad judgmental. But if you’ve ever experienced chigger bites, you’ll understand why.
You see, chiggers like to hide in tall grasses waiting for you to walk by. When you’re close enough, they jump onto your clothing or skin and get quite intimate. They prefer places on your skin that are warm and moist, although it seems any skin will do. I won’t go into the exact details of what happens when they bite you, but suffice to say, it’s not pretty, and the results are red welts that itch beyond belief. This intense itching can go on for as long as two weeks.
To scratch or not to scratch: that is the question.
As you probably know, it would be better not to scratch, for so many reasons. But, boy, how good it feels when you do! Our rational mind yells at us, “Don’t do it!” yet in the first unconscious moment we begin to scratch.
Needless to say, I’m writing to you about chiggers because I’m covered with bites right now. I was so proud of myself for being able to notice and deny the “SCRATCH NOW!” message boldly displayed on my mental screen. “Aha!” I thought to myself. “This Zen training has really paid off.” I noticed the thought as it arose and refused to obey it—or so I believed until later!
Two successful days passed. The bites screamed to be scratched, but I still refused. I put on all sorts of organic curatives, confident of winning the battle. But, late one night as I slept, my hand snuck down under the covers, and before I consciously knew it, I was scratching and scratching. The more awake I became, the more consciously I scratched. I thought about how people who are addicted to tobacco, alcohol, or certain foods find these temptations hard to deny. I once advised a lifelong smoker that the best way to kick the habit was “Don’t put the thing in your mouth!” And yet, here I was scratching my chigger bites and feeling oh so good about it! How embarrassing!
Then it hit me like a satori. If I insisted on scratching these chigger bites, I would do it as consciously as possible, with full awareness of what I was doing. No longer was it a right or wrong issue. It wasn’t a contest to be won or lost; it was simple to scratch or not to scratch while being fully consciously aware of my actions.
The moment I fully accepted the fact that I was free to scratch without guilt or shame, the itching stopped. In that moment of acceptance, the energy shifted. Once I released critical self-judgment and, with conscious awareness, totally accepted what is in this moment, the compulsion lost its energy. The “I have to” became transformed into an “I want to.” This changed everything, especially if I could then scale down the want into a mild preference.
In my past personal experience, every time I felt the consuming energy of something I must do at all costs, I didn’t appreciate that it always came with its shadow. By that I mean, every “I have to” comes with a hidden subconscious “I can’t” that undermines the intention and weakens resolve. I’ve learned to playfully remove that resistance and release performance pressure by turning it into a preferential “I want to.” With the pressure off, I find the most beneficial action easier to accomplish.
By just watching the thoughts and desires that come floating across the mirror of my mind and fully accepting them without self-criticism, to scratch or not to scratch becomes Zen and the art of scratching chigger bites.
Reflections from Turtle Lake,