Battling Zazen

Just sitting can be a struggle

So, after often reading about people’s legs going to sleep during zazen… and having all sorts of pain that you have to work through and overcome… in the past couple of days, I’ve gotten to that place.

Legs falling asleep. Ankles aching. Knees and hips stiff and sore and full of pain.

In Living and Dying in Zazen, Kosho Uchiyama says that zazen and old age are the same. That zazen prepares you for old age. And if old age is synonymous with your body doing unexpected things and insisting on its own way, no matter how painful it is and how uncomfortable it makes you, then yes, old age and zazen would appear to be the same.

Old age is a ways off for me, but zazen is right here, right now. And I realize that after having gotten back to it — actively engaging in it once more around the 2012 holiday season, when I HAD to get some relief of some kind, and no other avenue offered me solace — zazen is the path I’m on. Some would say, “Oh, that means Zen,” yet I would respectfully disagree. Zazen (to me) is a practice that can overlap with Zen, and since “zen” is in its name, then you’d expect it to be part and parcel. And yet, perhaps zazen encompasses Zen, as it’s something … other.

Now, I am not an expert in this. No way, no how. And I will very likely never be an expert in “it” — whatever that may be. Probably the best I can hope for is to realize till the end of my days, that I’m in no position to pose as an expert in any respect whatsoever… and that if others seek my help or input in any way, what they can expect from me is not so much expertise and reassurance from some philosophical or theoretical standpoint — rather a free and willing offering of my own experiences and my observations about what I think worked and what didn’t, so that they might avail themselves of my lessons and possibly go about their own full-bodied, mindful experiments in life.

Yes, that’s the best I can hope for, truly.

Anyway, back to the battle.

Yesterday (I can’t remember if it was during my morning, mid-day or evening sit), I noticed that my left leg was feeling strange. It was going through a combination of falling asleep and getting cramped up. And GOD, how it wanted to move! I mean, it was crazy. Every cell in my left leg started screaming to MOVE!!! and there was nothing I could do to get it to shut up. This crazy numbness was taking over my ankle… then my foot… then moving up my calf to my knee… and a heavy, cold ache was radiating out from my foot, as though my foot was dying. And this with 15 breaths left to go (for the record, I count my breaths and go to some number — sometimes 40-something, sometimes 50-something, sometimes 60-something, sometimes 100).

You would have thought those 15 breaths were eternity. I wanted nothing more than to move my leg, to get out of that posture, to take the pressure off, to just stretch. I felt trapped, pinned in place, helpless, hapless, stuck. And in pain. God, it was awful. I tried thinking about other things, but my left leg kept bringing my thoughts back to it, and I had this idea that I was going to permanently damage myself… with only 10 breaths to go… I wanted to speed up my breathing and move through to the “end” as quickly as possible, but that was no good. What was the point of sitting zazen, if I was just going to bolt, as soon as things got tough?

What indeed?

So, I stayed. I sat. I kept my breathing slow and steady and focused on my posture and counting my breaths. In fact, since yesterday was Saturday and I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be, I decided to push myself a little more, and go past my “quota” for that sit. I chose to breathe through the pain and discomfort and added about another 10 breaths onto the end of what I’d originally planned to go to. Maybe I wanted to see if I could do it. I found out — I could do it.

And when I got to the end of my counted breaths, I could stretch.

Funny thing was, though, that when I was finally able to move, I didn’t get the immense relief I was expecting. The pain subsided, but it wasn’t replaced by euphoria or anything like that. In fact, when I stretched out my leg, it actually felt less painful and cramped than in the past. Now, one of the things about this is that I’ve only been able to sit cross-legged in the past six months. All my life — nearly 50 years of it — I’ve been extremely tight, and sitting cross-legged has never been easy or comfortable for me, until I started pushing myself to do it in the past six months. Now it’s quite comfortable for me, when I’m sitting on a cushion. It feels normal, even, which is more than I ever thought I dared ask. But the first months of training myself to sit cross-legged have found me unable to move my legs without sharp shooting pains, after I unfolded my legs from the position. There have been plenty of times when I had to spend a lot of time after my sitting, stretching and massaging my legs and struggling to walk around after getting up.

Yesterday, though, after I unfolded my legs (and was expecting some sort of excruciating pain), there was none of that. Quite the contrary. My legs actually felt normal. And I was able to get up and walk around without the usual pain and stiffness. Strange. I guess maybe the pain “quota” happened up front, so that when I got up, I wasn’t bothered by it.

One thing that surprised me was that after I started to move after this slightly extended sit… after I had done this fairly impressive thing of overcoming the urge to move and get some relief, I expected to feel some sort of elation or pride. But I felt the exact opposite — I felt equanimity. I didn’t feel a rush of anything, either pride or shame. I just felt… steady. Very matter-of-fact. Not thrilled at all. Just … so.

Of course, I was relieved that I hadn’t totally trashed my legs, after I finished yesterday morning/mid-day. But I wasn’t overcome by a rush of emotion — intense relief that I’d escaped some potential danger. It felt more like a little pulse of realization — a silent message that Yes, I’m fine. I’m not hurt. I haven’t hurt myself. In fact, I feel quite well. Not dramatic, just so.

I think the same kind of thing happened during the mid-day or evening sit, but yesterday is a bit of a blur to me, now, so I can’t say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that today, this morning, when I sat, I had the same sort of experience. I was fine and doing well for the first 3/4 of my sit, then at the very end, when my mind had quieted considerably, my left leg started freaking out on me again. I’d spent the first half of my sit with monkeys running around in my mind, jumping from limb to limb in my limbic system and only managed to get myself to quiet down after 20-some breaths — the last 5-7 of them deliberately slow and steady (in fact the deliberate slow, steady breathing preceded the monkeys chilling out, so I’ll have to remember to do that more, ’cause the monkeys are just driving me nuts, lately).

After 20-some breaths, I got into the zone where I was good and fine and feeling much more relaxed and centered… then the pain in my left leg started in, around 30-some breaths. The weird thing was, I suspect my leg had been feeling that way for a while, I just hadn’t noticed it because the monkeys were keeping me occupied. Once I settled in, however, the pain and numbness and discomfort thing started. The overall sense of it was worse than yesterday, with sharp pains and dull throbbing and numbness and a really intense desire to move. Interestingly, however, I didn’t have the same panicked reaction to it that I had yesterday. I was able to sit with it better today. It was like I was familiar with the sensation, and while it wasn’t particularly pleasant, it was just what it was, and I knew it wasn’t going to last forever (or, I hoped so, anyway).

It was still extremely uncomfortable, I have to say. And it was driving me crazy, just sitting there, while my leg ached and throbbed and pained me and felt like it was falling off. It really felt that way, and everything in me wanted to move just to get some relief.

But no, that wasn’t the point of sitting. The point of sitting was to just sit. To sit through it, and not let the sensations dictate my actions and choices. I was the one making the choices in that situation, and because I’m committed to this path, I chose not to move, but to sit with it. Still and silent and counting my slow, steady breaths.

Again, when I got to the end of my breaths, I sat for just an instant longer than I could have, and when I stretched out my legs, I didn’t feel a sudden rush of blood to my legs bringing their dying cells back to life. Nothing was dying. Nothing needed to be brought back to life. And I got up and made my bed and changed my clothes and got into my day. No biggie.

I think what’s happening is that my body is starting to settle into this zazen sitting in new ways. It’s adapting to this posture… I’m slowly moving towards half-lotus… and eventually full-lotus… and this is something new and different that my body doesn’t yet “know” it can do. So, as it shifts and adjusts, there’s going to be adaptation and adjustment in my bones, my ligaments, my tendons, my muscles. My body is going to have to learn to assume this new posture, and some lessons are harder than others.

The main thing for me is to keep steady. So that I don’t lose the ground I’ve gained. I’ve gone from sitting for a few minutes intermittently, whenever I get a chance, to sitting “religiously” each morning and again each evening — and at mid-day whenever I can. I’ve started stepping away when I’m at work to sit for 15 minutes. I’ve taken to practicing that slow, steady breathing while I’m driving, which is helping me to make the most of the commute to and from work, when I can’t be doing anything “productive” with my time.

I’ve been reading, too — Suzuki Shosan and other zen teachers (I won’t say masters), particularly those with a focus on zazen. Zen is fine. Buddhism is fine. But zazen is the main thing for me. I’ll get into why that is in more detail later, but for now, I’m focusing on this pain battle thing.

Yesterday and today when I sat, I felt tremendous pain, discomfort, and pressure. And I triumphed over that. I battled back the desire to move and get instant relief with what I hope is the kind of ferocity that Shosan talks about when he recommends having the energy of a “Vengeful Spirit of the Buddha Dharma”.

That man, born in medieval Japan in 1579, speaks as clearly to me now as I imagine he hoped he would speak to others in his day. It’s my understanding that he felt he’d failed… he was way ahead of his time, probably, and the Zen he teaches, with its emphasis on the vital energy and warrior spirit, also probably has appeal only for certain kinds of people.

I’m one of those people, and I’m glad I found him. All the Zen talk that comes across as mellow and non-confrontational and chill… it just makes me crazy. And while I don’t want to be judging anyone about their practice, I wonder just what people are doing when they’re sitting. It seems to me that sitting zazen is one of the most difficult and challenging, painful and uncomfortable activities a person can engage in, and if you don’t come at it with the stance of a warrior, with a ferocity that emanates from the tanden and radiates through your whole being, what the hell is the point?

Zazen, the way I’ve been experiencing it these past few days — and may continue to experience it for years to come (if I’m lucky?) has been a real battle for me. It’s been a real struggle, to keep level-headed and cool in the face of this overwhelming impulse to just MOVE…  And while I haven’t had this experience for more than a few days, it feels like it’s through and through me a though it’s been centuries in the making. Perhaps it has.

In any case, I’ll battle on. If anything, having it be a battle makes zazen more appealing to me. I’ll explain more later about why having it be a battle is particularly useful in my circumstances — much moreso than having a mellow sit or just sitting in calm mindfulness. There’s a bio-chemical-mechanical basis for this, which has deeply practical applications for the full spectrum of my life.

Shosan said, “Hone your fearless mind and become a Vengeful Spirit of the Buddha Dharma.”

Yes, do that.

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