You’re sitting down for a meditation session in a room full of serious looking, concentrated people. You take a few minutes to get comfortable and settle into watching your breath. Just as your thoughts are beginning to settle down, something comes into your field of awareness that is so bothersome, so disturbing that it nearly sends you running out of the room.

Wait a minute…what’s that smell? Is it? Could it be…..

Yes indeed, my friend: that’s the unmistakable smell of a stinky fart wafting your way. And because you’ve been sitting now for a few days, your senses are sharpened, so your experience with the odor is even more intense than it would be otherwise.

Your earlier conviction that everything in life can be seen as a metaphor is thrown into doubt.  Should I have qualified that thought somehow to exclude bodily functions?

No, your intuition says that everything is here for a reason. Everything is a teacher if you approach it properly, even (and perhaps especially) the more unpleasant sides of life. Besides, you’ve been meditating on the nature of consciousness and unlocking your family dynamics for days, so it wouldn’t hurt to lighten up a bit and investigate an experience we all have, that no spiritual teacher seems to address (with the exception perhaps of some wily Zen masters ).

 

Yes, even this fart can be a catalyst for spiritual development.

You resist the urge to run out of the room and instead follow the meditation instructions to simply observe whatever arises. Don’t react, don’t judge: just be with reality as it is, even if it is not entirely to your liking.

Right then and there, you’re applying the virtue of patience. You’re persevering through something that you otherwise would flee from. In so doing, you realize that your earlier thoughts of compassion for all sentient beings were actually not as boundless as you thought they were. The line of your compassion was sharply divided between those who committed the sin of farting in a meditation retreat and those who had the courtesy to restrain themselves.

It’s been a few moments now and the odor shows no sign of abating. Digging deeper, you begin to uncover other valuable insights.

The more you just sit with the smell, the more you realize it is just a smell. You see that “unpleasant”, “stinky”, and “foul” are mental labels that you’ve put on the smell, and that those are driving other thoughts like “how could someone have really been so inconsiderate? In a meditation retreat, no less!” It’s the reaction to reality- which simply is- that generates frustration, anxiety, and other forms of suffering.

You begin to investigate these reactions and you see that they originate as a result of past experiences and social conditioning. You’ve learned over time to associate this fart experience with positive or negative emotions. You happen to have been born into a place that taught you how to react this way. Had you been born in another part of the world, your reaction would be totally different. Other cultures have different standards of politeness when it comes to burping, shaking hands, and eating, so why would farting be any different?

The smell has awakened in you the realization that you are thoroughly conditioned being, in all aspects of your life. What you think about sex, how you value your family, the way you drive your car- all of this behavior that seems so normal and natural is actually anything but.  It is impossible to extricate yourself from the contingent net of culture that defines everything about who you think you are. Even the concept of yourself as an individual owes itself to the culture you were raised in.

At this point, you’re even beginning to feel a little grateful to the neighbor who let one rip (you’re now mentally ready to investigate burping). This fart has provided a little reminder of your embodiedness, something you share with every human being who’s ever lived, including the ones you’ve lusted after (a fact you’ve perhaps conveniently ignored).

To counteract sexual desire, monks would meditate that underneath the skin of a beautiful woman lies blood, puss, and shit. There’s nothing odd about meditating on this; in fact, it’s a good way to remind yourself of reality as it is.

The revving of a loud motorcycle engine is just a sound. Anxiety is just a feeling. Farts are just smells. All of these are features of this world whether we like them or not. But we make them all a lot more difficult than they need to be by not liking them, which is compounded by ignorance regarding the true source of our aversion.