Posts Tagged ‘pain’

Fortunate to have a few days off at Christmas time, not charged with any social obligations, I took long walks in the snowy forest, watched BBC TV-series after Jane Austen’s masterpieces, did research for work from the comforting depth of my arm-chair, met with the few friends staying in town for holidays. Was reconnecting to my inner tortoise, one could say. Like Austen’s Emma, I had time to explore the workings of my own heart/mind.  Unlike Emma, I had my yoga practice to turn to for wise guidance on the begun journey into the love-light country. In romantic relationships, as in yoga, we have a chance to meet all sides of ourselves, the ugly and the beautiful, the stuff that makes us shine and that which holds us back.

Here come a couple of my favourite lessons off the yoga mat (but then again all life is one if we do not try to compartmentalize it, right?)

Am I ready?

One of the most profound lessons that yoga has been teaching me about myself and life is that at every moment it can become more than a stretch just as falling for another always has a potential to be a much larger journey than the initial experience of falling in love.  Both can be truly transforming experiences. And as I’ve discovered, transformation is simply not possible without resistance and the underlying fear of change.

As I watch the yoga teacher suspending herself in the air in a beautiful arm-balance, my heart jumps with excitement and I feel the subtle shifting in my own muscles. The next second I catch the Controller in me go, “No-no-no, you could not possibly pull this one off without injuring yourself or destroying the apartment. You certainly should not consider venturing into it without a thorough preparation.”

What I forget is that every pose I ever tried have been preparing me for this next balance. Now whenever I think the pose is too much for me, I remind myself that I don’t need to do it in its entirety right away but can break it down into components to gently and patiently explore each of them. Likewise, in relationships, whenever something feels overwhelming, my beloved and I can break down the larger issue into smaller parts and see what each of them asks from us, one at a time. Suddenly I feel how my own tension subsides, see the face of my beloved relaxing, the first glimpse of smile showing in his eyes.

Throwing oneself into the fire

One of the first things we discover in yoga is the disproportionate restrictions in our body, those tight spots. So the physical aspect of yoga is about cultivating openness in those restricted areas by constantly playing the edge. In his wonderful book on yoga Erich Schiffmann defines playing the edge as “sensing where your edges are and learning to hold the body there with awareness, moving with its often subtle shifts.  Your skill in yoga has little to do with your degree of flexibility or where your edges happen to be. Rather, it is a function of how sensitively you play your edges, no matter where they are.”* I am reminded that there are no such thing as the ideal posture (or perfect relationship for that matter!) but rather each posture is ever-evolving, changing from moment to moment. Sensitivity for me is in the first place about listening for both the words and beyond the words, the ability to drop the agenda (this is how I am going to do this pose or what I am going to say) when I am listening to my own body or to what my beloved says. Even in relationships we can practice listening with the body, as we do in yoga. We can colibrate ourselves to become more sensitive and receive the waves we otherwise might miss.




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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?

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“…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…”


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Unquestionably, there are more subtle and less exotic ways of sending one’s body and mind into a frenzy of pain and confusion known to the humans of today but at that moment it felt as the right thing to do: going on a sesshin once or twice a year is recommended for lay people and it was time for me to have the first hand experience. I was curious and nervous about the whole thing, excited about meeting a renowned Zen master and my co-meditators, wondered how the sesshin would influence my practice. The prospect of experiencing quite a bit of pain and sharing living and silence with a bunch of strangers for about a week on the island nobody seemed to be able to locate on the map did not scare me probably because I simply did not know what it would actually feel like.


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We had a schedule where the 45 min long sitting meditation sessions were followed by the walking meditation in the yard behind the building, in the green area nearby or in a room in the basement. This, of course, somewhat eased the pressure on the body. The walking meditation in the park also made a stir in the little community on Saturday morning. The most curious ones couldn’t help stopping by to ask if we were looking for something on the ground.

Sitting brought a lot of sensations with it, physical discomfort and even pain being one of them. In the middle of day two I was seriously considering to get lost in the cool and murky basement to skip yet another 45 min on the cushion. Yet in a way pain was the easiest guest to face once it was there: at any moment I could turn it into an object of meditation and by God it was a much more entertaining phenomenon to observe than breathing! Not to mention how helpful it can be to listen to one’s body’s signals. Actually, the body talks to us all the time and we have those same sensations every day but are never really there to pay attention to them.


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