Pain in meditation

Pain in sitting meditation (from ATPII05: A Trackless Path II (retreat) 00:00:00.00 - 00:07:00:10)

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Paul: What should I do when my body's in lots of physical pain from sitting?

Ken: That's an important issue. Whenever I'm asked a question along these lines I always remember sitting in Dezhung Rinpoche's living room in Seattle. And a group of us from Vancouver in the early 70s had asked him to teach us basic meditation. And he's extremely kind. He actually wrote a small manual on shamatha, vipashyna, mahamudra for us and then taught it to us. And when he was talking about shamatha practice he described how he was trained. In the temple all of the monks and tulkus who were being trained were seated on a bench, or on benches, and a string was strung. And everybody sat so that their noses just touched the string. [Laughter] And every time the string moved everybody was beaten. [Laughter] Then he leaned forward--he's a very warm and generous person--he said, "This is not how you learn how to meditate. This is how you learn to sit still."

Now, the way that we sit in meditation depends on actually a lot of different factors, not the least of which is the tradition in which one is training. Soto Zen particularly, the posture is the repository of faith in that tradition, so you just surrender to the posture completely. This doesn't always have good results. The story is told of the Japanese man who was enthusiastically going to emulate Buddha Shakyamuni, and he wrapped himself up in full lotus under a tree in the woods, vowing not to move until he he had attained enlightenment, just like it says in the books. Three days later they amputated both legs for gangrene. So as I say, this doesn't always have good results.

Idries Shah, an Afghan Sufi writer--don't know whether he's still alive--makes a distinction between stretching and stressing, or being stretched versus being stressed. Stretching is good. Stressing is bad. And the reason stressing is bad is you do damage to the system. On a practical level what I have found is that it is okay to push in meditation, not just physically, but emotionally as well, as long as there's some resilience in your work. That is, there's some give, or to put it another way, you can still experience some softness. You follow? Once you harden up, now it's rock against bone. That's where the damage is done. And so it's important to gauge one's practice. If you are simply hardening against the pain you are inevitably suppressing stuff. You're gonna pay for that later.

In my experience it is much better to meditate for short periods when body and mind are clear and comfortable, so you form the habit of being really clear and present in your practice. And that's actually difficult to do when you're struggling and hardening against pain, whether it's emotional pain or physical pain. It's an individual matter and you'll have to gauge it. An one of the reasons I have moved towards more and more, unstructured retreats is to provide people with the opportunity so that they can gauge and develop their own rhythm in practice, rather than being constrained to follow a rigid schedule where everybody has to sit for X number of minutes, or X number of hours and so forth. Because that's where people end up getting stressed. The rock meets bone kind of thing.

Now there are people who, when they meditate, are able to work with extraordinary levels of pain, but they've never hardened up. And so they're able to work very intensely, very deeply, but they never actually move into that suppression even though they may be in great pain.


Don't miss the point

Don't miss the point (from Mind Training Santa Fe (MTSF02) 00:38:33.90 - 00:40:18.40)

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The key principle in all Buddhist practice is to move into the experience of whatever is arising, right in the present. In the Theravadan tradition this is characterized as the courage to endure what arises. Mahayana, we cheat. Everything's a dream. Vajrayana, or direct awareness techniques, sit and be with everything. Never lose attention for a moment. Don't try to make anything different. The mahamudra instructions: no distraction, no control, no work. Means you're not distracted by anything. You don't try to control your experience in any way. And you don't work at to make some kind of experience happen, or some kind of ability happen. You're just right in what is. It's the same right across all Buddhism. Move right into the experience and be there. The whole point of all of these different techniques is to develop that ability. Whether it's Soto Zen, Theravadan, Vipashyana, visualization meditations, Six Yogas of Naropa, dzogchen. It all comes down to that point.


Levels of training

In this session Ken talks about levels of training, or the process of maturation in practice.

Levels of training (from ATPII04: A Trackless Path II (retreat) 00:15:54.10 - 00:19:10.80)

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When we start to practice we learn various techniques or methods of practice. Some traditions train you in just one, and then you learn how to apply that in everything. In others, and I’m thinking of my own training in the Tibetan tradition, you’re trained in hundreds, so you always have these arrows in your quiver and you pull them out.

So the first step is to learn the techniques and learn them well enough so that you really know how they work and you develop facility with them. The second level of training is to train in a fewer number of techniques to the point that they just happen when you encounter certain things--that is, they become second nature. The third level of training is to remove everything inside you that prevents that technique from manifesting when it needs to.

Now as you train in these, you develop a great deal of knowledge about yourself, about how the technique works in you, what works and doesn’t work, and there’s a kind of evolution of what this works means. So as you mature in your practice, it becomes increasingly important to be clear about your intention, because intention itself evolves. And I don’t mean you’ll always have a good reason, “I am doing this because...” That’s at the rational level. As one’s experience of practice matures, it can become much more intuitive in a felt sense rather than the conceptual sense. So there’s “Oh, I need to go in this direction.”'