To start I want to recount a situation I had early on in my sitting practice, after a few short retreats I decided to go on a week-long Sesshin. My typical sitting pattern was 20 mins a day but I realised when being at the monastery they would sit for around 35 mins per Zazen session and then move into Kinhin for around 10 mins. Therefore, for a few weeks before the Sesshin, I increased my sitting to twice daily sessions of around 30 mins.
At the Sesshin, during the first day, where we sat multiple sessions of Zazen, I was really struggling with back/knee/hip pain...to be honest there was not much that did not hurt and I really really struggled to settle. By day 2 ,I was really contemplating whether I could make the 7 days, my mind went into overdrive and the pain seemed to get worse. On day 3, I asked for some time with one of the monks and he was really understanding, he sat with me and took me through a myriad of stretching ideas and how to be more flexible in my sitting, but it was the mind where he really focussed his attention, which threw me a little. He explained that unless I engaged with the pain (of course without injury) then I would never be able to accept it and let it go....sounds very similar to what we are taught with our thoughts when sitting.
This was the point at which things changed for me, I would not say it was easy, but by engaging and listening to the pain it begun to subside. My sitting became more relaxed and less stressful and by the end of day 3 and through the 7 days I sat well and felt a strength and relaxation I had not experienced before, in fact I would say I had some of my very best sitting sessions.
If you experience pain while sitting in zazen (and we all do), try to incorporate your awareness of the pain into your practice by breathing into the pain, without judgment. Be sensible however about your body’s limitations—if pain continues after zazen, you may need to adopt a different sitting position. If you really do need to adjust your position during zazen, move gradually and mindfully, particularly as we sit often with others.
Many – if not most – meditators experience physical discomfort during seated meditation. This discomfort ranges from restlessness to pain. It’s worth exploring how to sit more comfortably, because otherwise you might be inclined to sit less, or even to stop doing seated meditation entirely. There are practical things we can do to decrease the discomfort of meditation, like changing what we sit on, or altering the position of our legs. It’s valuable to recognize, however, that any physical discomfort we experience (and not just in meditation) has both a physical and a psychological component as I shared with you in my Sesshin experience.
There is a tendency – particularly for us in the West – to think of body and mind as separate things. Many of us are likely to feel our discomfort in zazen is purely physical, we then either fix the discomfort by changing our position or fidgeting, or endure sitting as a kind of mild torture concluding our body isn’t up for sitting which can lead to some stopping practicing.
However, mind and body are not two. Some of us have experienced this first-hand in the middle of a long meditation retreat as I explained earlier in this article. You might figure that, if you feel mild discomfort during a 30-minute period of sitting, longer periods of seated meditation would kill you. Amazingly, it doesn’t and sometimes it can be quite the opposite. That’s not to say there aren’t periods of considerable discomfort, but at a certain point – and maybe it’s the fact that you’re soaking in the relaxation response so much – the pain doesn’t get much worse and can even go away.
Dramatically, a decrease in physical pain based on what you do with your mind is something you might experience within the course of a single meditation period. I’ve had parts of my body screaming with excruciating pain – a knee, or hip, or my upper back – and I’ve been counting the seconds, cursing for the time to end. On occasion, if I am able to stop fighting the pain. I just relax and let it be. I make the choice to sit still even if it kills me, and settle into wholehearted acceptance. In gassho, Heiryu
(to be continued)