“…In an appropriate place for sitting, set out a thick mat and put a round cushion on top of it. Sit either in the full or half-lotus posture. Loosen the robes and arrange them in an orderly way. Then place the right hand palm up on the left foot, and the left hand on the right hand, lightly touching the ends of the thumbs together…
…Now sit steadfastly and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Beyond thinking. This is the essential art of zazen…”
– taken from Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master
Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi (1999)
In this highly appropriate place, in suitable silence that included hummering of the busy insects, swooshing of the sea waves and the wind and the soft tap of the afternoon rain on the veranda floor, I was trying to not try too hard to think non-thinking. When it was not hurting that is and hurting it was most of the time. Every period of zazen brought with it yet another constellation of painful sensations in different parts of the body. Experimenting with the posture and the amount of the support on the cushion from one zazen period to another made it somewhat easier but pain was always there, although in different shape and to “sit with it”, to not fight it and what’s more to welcome it was the task that seemed impossible to compelete for someone who was seeing flashes of light because of the sensations in some parts of the body.
In one of the books on Zen I read that where there is physical resistance, there is spiritual resistance. Judging by the amount and intensity of pain I had the first few days I will be ready to join any resistance movement soon. I guess I just need to soften the focus and see what happens but sitting at home 30 to 60 min a day does not have the same potential as to revealing the areas of resistance.
I came up with the solution of dealing with one pain demon at a time: ten inhalations and exhalations into one knee, ten into one hip and so on. By the end of the second day I was certain I had more knees than I knew of and wondered how I had not noticed this before.
On day three it got more lively in the zendo as I started discerning the stifled sounds of sobbing. I suspected the physical pain was not the main reason why some people got emotional and found the courage and confidence to let it out. For once I wished I could cry when there actually was a good reason for it but tears did not come. Pain did. Once again, I tried to accept it and sit with it, allowing the mind to explore it without engaging into the story telling and although I did not cry I did consider screaming on the top of my lungs in hope they would kick me out of the zendo but something always stopped me. I was surrounded by the silent support group and was sharing the sitting with over 40 other people and with all sentient beings In the end. In the end, the perspective of feeling needles droven into your knees suddenly seemed more attractive. I thought I would remember that sensation of a shared sitting when sitting at home alone.
At one point all my pain demons decided to have a joined party and it felt as if the body caught on fire. So all consuming it was that with whatever remained of my clear thinking ability I decided to shock and cool it off by planging it into the Baltic Sea, something I never would do of my own free will under usual circumstances, convinced that this prevelge was reserved for the brave and less temperature censitive decendents of the Vikings. It was extremely liberating to let go of the old mind sets and ideas of my self in practice, to do what Reb called “giving myself to myself”.
Dropping Away Body and Mind
“From the first time you meet a master, without engaging in insence offering, bowing, chanting Buddha’s name, repentence, or reading scripures, you should just wholeheartedly sit, and thus drop away body and mind…” (Self-receiving and enacting awareness).
I was wondering what exactly those words – “drop away body and mind” – meant and how this dropping would manifest itself. At some point on day five I heard the birds singing inside me and for a moment got surprised because I knew they were singing outside. Then I heard the wind go through the trees. Inside me. All of a sudden I was large enough to include it all but there was no sense of joy or any pleasant sensations. Rather a feeling of serenity and freedom and the overall idea that it was the way things are supposed to be.
In the end of the day I wondered if dropping the body was happening by itself when one gave up all resistance to the physical sensations of pain and dropping away of the mind followed after. After all, the two are intertwined. I came to the insight that ahtever I was doing was not helpful relieving the pain and noticing it or working against it required the energy and efforts from the same body. In the end, the body itsel seemed to have settled into the new state, that of discomfort and pain and by the end of the retreat starting softening up and relaxing into the pose.
The mind at this point was more like a forgotten TV early in the morning, with that white noise on the screen but no particular picture. Can it be that it got tired of itself? Entertaining itself for days in a row with the imaginative potential of a whole entertainment industry, it simply started giving up on broadcasting the old favourates and the new were not programmed yet I guess. Although, to be candid, this Mind TV of mine impressed me: it offred a wide choice of the entertainment starting with the heartbreaking scene of Brad and Jenniffer’s separation (???) to the ideas of the special pants for meditators with the soft padding for the knees and other parts of the body to relieve the strain of continous sitting to the phylosophical insights about the inability of a little creature to see a larger perspective and going in circles in hope to find the way out of suffering as I was watching a little creep going in circles in front of me, not knowing where the exit door was.
May all beings be happy, healthy and free from suffering!
(to be continued)