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Lions Roar : January 2003
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 23 LIKEMANY WESTERNERS, I always assumed that medita- tion was a “spiritual” phenomenon—which I took to mean that it somehow had to do with realms beyond the physical. For a long time I wasn’t aware that I believed this, but in retrospect I see that I did. At the same time, it is also obvious that meditation practice actu- ally tended to lead me in the direction of deeper engagement with the physical. Especially in intensives or on retreat, I would feel a consider- able amount of physical discomfort, which I saw as an unfortunate and unnecessary diversion from what I was “really” supposed to be doing. I thought that if I could get rid of my discomfort, I would be able to progress more quickly in my practice. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what “progressing” might mean, but it definitely did not include physi- cal distress. So I tried a variety of stretching exercises, yoga techniques, body work and other bodily engagements I thought might help me toward my goal of pain-free meditation. Most meditators suffer from two kinds of physical problems. First, we experience specific weak points such as sore knees, lower back pain, a kinky neck, tightness, tension or pain in the shoulders or upper back, and so on. Second, a general achiness comes over our bodies, particular- ly when we sit more intensively: everything seems to hurt at once—our legs are aching, our shoulders and neck are sore, our back is on fire. It came as a disappointing realization one day that while I might be able to alleviate or shift the specific “hot spots,” the general achiness remained. In fact, it almost seemed that the more I was able to alleviate a specific complaint, the more achy my whole body became. I began to suspect that physical pain was just part of sitting on the cushion, at least for me. I found the prospect of endless physical pain dismal and depressing. And then, like many who find themselves in just the place I was, I made a surprising discovery. Somewhere in the timeless terrain of a dathun—a month-long meditation intensive—I had a particularly rough day. My whole body was a mass of pain—my ankles were stiff and crampy, my knees were sore, my legs ached and I had separate and dis- tinct complaints of pain in my lower, middle and upper back. We were in the middle of a long stretch of sitting, and my mind struggled might- ily against the prospect of being trapped in this pain for an indetermi- nate amount of time. My mental state became more and more sore and inflamed and gradually I arrived at a point when I felt that I really could not stand the pain of both my mind and my body another second. I was a nuclear reactor that had attained critical mass and was about to explode. If I have had an experience of hell in this life, that moment of totally claustrophobic pain was it. And then something shifted. All of a sudden I was utterly free of physical discomfort. I had not dissociated—in fact I was much more fully in my body than before—but somehow I let go of my resistance and struggle. I surrendered to the pain rather than continued to fight against it. My body responded by relaxing. I sat in utter peace, feeling the contentment of having a physical body—enjoying my breathing, feeling the pleasure of my heart beating and blood coursing through my veins, feeling the rich, complex, abundant life of energy going on with- in, fully present to the other meditators in the room and to the falling night outside. That moment helped me to understand that the pain in my body was not an independent phenomenon, but was somehow tied up with my mind. When my mind changed, so did the feeling in my body. In fact, it seemed clear that my physical pain was a reflection of my mental state— a mental state characterized by ambition and aggression toward my body. I also realized that our body is our early warning system, signaling us when our ambition is leading us to ignore and override the limitations of our physical situation. It is the blessing of our incarnation that the body can’t be fooled; in fact, it feels the full brunt of our driven behavior. A relatively mild message might be a pain in our neck or a sore back after a day when we are awash in struggle. In more extreme cases, seri- ous disease may interrupt our way of handling our mind. UNDERSTANDING BUDDHISM • REGINALD A. RAY To Touch Enlightenment with the Body In the second of a three-part series on Buddhism and the body, Reginald Ray says that the body is not just a pathway to realization but the embodiment of enlightenment itself. IllustrationbyMichelleLaporte