During one of the sittings Reb told us, “Samadhi (mental one-pointedness, concentration) can only be achieved by patiently bearing and quietly observing the discomfort of the body.” It is when the mind is no longer trying to fix what is but is quietly observing it. The physical discomfort in the body indeed provided plenty of material to sit with during the sesshin. I could feel the tensions, contractions and pain in different parts of the body and saw how the mind wanted to escape from them by focusing on something else and not feeling. “This pattern on the wall looks exactly like the lamb from “Little prince”. If I connect the marks on the wood I can trace it! ”
When one particular area in the body was shouting for attention, I’d choose to breathe into it until it became more bearable and then include another one. And after a while yet another one. I would be then holding all of them in awareness at least for a while until something else hijacked the attention and I’d start the process again as if collecting the beads from a broken necklace back on the thread. This kept me quite busy most of the time.
In one of the chapters of “Touching Enlightenment” Reggie Ray describes how “we” comes to be as we encounter discomfort and deal with it by tensing, freezing our body against what we are feeling. He contends that the discomfort we experience in the body work can also be seen as a sign of our progress on the path. “We begin to understand that distress itself is an expression of the “wisdom of the body”. It is the body’s way of letting us know there is work to be done and life that needs to be lived – and our discomfort shows us the way in. Discomfort is always a message – that we are holding on too tightly to our sense of self – and an invitation for us to relax, open, and surrender to the fire of larger experience.” (Reggie Ray, “Touching Enlightenment”, p. 82-83)
Again and again I got reminded why I was actually sitting zazen, that looks so peaceful and relaxed on the outside yet the most radical and the most courage demanding activity that I have engaged in, so far with varying level of commitment. Why? Because in zazen I am asked to stop doing the one thing I am so good at – making conceptual maps of reality and instead practice and experience life .
Reb mentioned again and again the tenderising effect of zazen on body and mind. When this happens, when “meat” softens, some people can break out crying and as those tensions get released. Myself, I am amazed how this has to do with the opening up to whatever shows up at the doorstep, how at the point when I can no longer resist it, the body gets settled and I am left with nothing and… everything. The whole works.
Waiting at the highest point of tension not only became so tiring that the tension relaxed, but so agonising that I was constantly wrenched out of my self-immersion and had to direct my attention to discharging the shot. “Stop thinking about the shot!” the Master called out. “This way it is bound to fail.” “I can’t help it”, I answered, “the tension gets too painful”.
“You only feel it because you haven’t really let go of yourself. It is so simple. You can learn from an ordinary bamboo leaf what ought to happen. It bends lower under the weight of snow. Suddenly the snow slips to the ground without the leaf having stirred. Stay like that at the point of highest tension until the shot falls from you. So, indeed, it is when the tension is fulfilled, the shot must fall, it must fall from the archer like snow from a bamboo leaf, before he even thinks it.”
E. Herrigel. “Zen in the art of archery”
In what ways do you deal with bodily discomfort in life? What discoveries have you made on your journey?