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.