On the Struggles of Sitting

Yesterday evening, I returned to formal Zen meditation practice after a hiatus of some five years. I took the twenty-minute walk from the studio to the convent where I heard a weekly zazen (seated meditation) was held Fridays and was directed by the guard at the gate to the second floor of the building immediately to the right.

I wasn’t sure what I expected: the mild suspicion that greeted my entry was certainly not on my list of things expected. On the other hand, I’d dropped in unannounced, and the small community into which I’d abruptly inserted itself was rightfully cautious.

I’ve been away for years, I explained. And yes, I answered in response to another question, I’ve gone through shôken with R.-sensei as my teacher.

Slightly mollified, my interlocutor waved me in and requested the sensei in charge—a tiny nun with a kindly face—to reorient me on the rituals.

Which was useful as I’d completely forgotten the rituals (a lot of bowing is involved).

I’d also completely forgotten, rituals notwithstanding, how unfussy Zen can be. After leading me to an available zabuton (sitting cushion), I was immediately bidden to sit. And meditate. Just like that.

Fortunately, that was the part I remembered. I settled myself seiza-(kneeling-)style on top of two zafus (sitting cushions) and molded my hands into the Hokkaijō-in meditation mudra. And I began to meditate.

It was as if I’d never left. The same challenges were there: the same inclination to daydream, the same tendency to drowse, the same compulsion to “do it right,” the same temptation to question the value of the entire enterprise. What was different was that there was fractionally more ease in staying with the breath (the years of yoga had done that) and significantly less discomfort in kneeling on the ground.

What I didn’t expect, what was radically different, was the emergence—after the first round of walking meditation—of an intense pain in my left upper arm all the way to the crook of the left side of my neck. It was my first experience in meditation of what Jack Kornfield calls “the scales of the body”—the layers of tension stored in the body from years of habitually contracting or tightening in certain ways. I suspect it was all the yoga I did after I first left Zen that finally allowed the scales to come to the surface so quickly and easily.

And the scales stayed. It was an hour of intense agony. I tried every mental trick in the book: observing the pain, pinpointing its location, “embracing” the pain (whatever that actually means), altering my breathing pattern. At some point, my concentration simply shifted to a single mantra: just one more breath, just one more breath, just sit still for one more breath…When the bell finally sounded, I almost slumped to the ground in relief. After the zazen was over, the other members of the community came over to introduce themselves and shake my hand. I could barely register what they said over the throbbing in my left arm.

Unsurprisingly, the pain vanished during the walk back to the studio. It’s amazing what comes to the surface when we simply pay attention; and astounding what can be concealed when we shift our attentiveness away.

So are you going back again? Abbey asked me after I’d told her what it had been like.

I don’t know, I answered honestly. I didn’t like the pain, I didn’t like the feelings of failure, I didn’t like the feeling of not belonging.

And precisely because of those dislikes, I know there’s value in returning.

And I probably will.


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