Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Staying In My Seat

Lately, I have been practicing longer sittings, slowly working my way up to full hour. And I have been struggling with physical pain. A lot.

This morning, it became very clear to me I was dealing with two main obstacles:
  1. First was a natural difficulty with tolerating the primary physical pain, that translated into an urge to get up and move, so as to distract myself from the pain. 
  2. Second was the mind thinking about the amount of time left sitting, and anticipating that I was going to remain stuck in the pain. Of course this was a perfect example of deluded mind that leads one into believing in reality of mere concept. 
1) All of life is suffering, due to its inherently unreliable, always changing, and tragic nature. We are to fully know life's suffering, as a precondition for our liberation. This can only be accomplished through concentrated attention, moment to moment, deeply feeling the fabric of existence, starting with breath to ground us. So that we can transform our habitual distaste for suffering, into accepting it fully, and therefore radically change the way we are with ourselves, and others.
2) Craving is the effect of suffering, not its cause. Because of dukkha, and five aggregates coming into contact with dukkha, we are naturally moved to look for ways to escape present unpleasantness. We want to get this to get rid of that. Hence craving, with its attendant army of unwholesome states, symbolized by Mara. Even Buddha, after he had conquered power of Mara, kept being confronted with Mara throughout his life. We are to let go of our craving, abandoning its hold on us, even for discrete moments. We turn away from our habitual surface preoccupation with sense gratification, to face the miracle of life and the reality of death. We cease to be victims of our attachments and fears. That can be accomplished through mindfulness.
3) Next comes the cessation of craving, not suffering. Buddha knew tremendous suffering throughout his life, even after he got enlightened. The traditional distinction between pain and added suffering from clinging is really an artificial one. More relevant goal is not to not suffer, but rather to lead flourishing life. We are to experience life free from craving. That is true liberation, at which point the possibility of another way of life opens up. To be unconditioned means to not be conditioned by the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. Leading us to be free to enter the stream.
4) Next is the Eightfold Path, in which we engage the world in a meaningful way. This is a thread that has never been really developed under the traditional dogma. It says, we have the capacity to be awakened at every moment. Once craving is let go of, and we have successfully conquered Mara, we are no longer blocked from experiencing the path. We are to cultivate the path. We become stream-enterer. We become free from morality as just a set of rules. We become independent, autonomous, and free according to light shining within us. It is an affirmation of our transformation, of what really matters to us in our lives, of what it means to be fully awake.
Accordingly, the antidotes that kept me in my seat all related to the Eightfold Path, particularly:
  1. right view: understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which helped place transient experience of discomfort within larger context of attainable freedom.
  2. right effort: not giving up, instead staying with the experience, no matter how difficult, and finding within myself the energy and fortitude to do so; this was very hard.
  3. right mindfulness: being present for the whole experience moment to moment, including the pain, the thoughts and emotions associated with the pain, and the overall feeling towards the pain, other phenomena outside of painful experience, such as contact with sounds, etc . . . 
  4. right concentration: sustaining the attention on chosen object, whether pain, or breath, or sounds, whatever I found to be most predominant or useful; as with right effort, I struggled with that one as well.
Mindfulness, like anything else, is about practice, practice, practice. Tomorrow morning, I shall sit again, and practice with all my mind and heart.


  1. This is some valuable information, and I appreciate your post. I have had a hard time sitting for long periods due to some physical issues, but I believe keeping these ideas in mind will help me work through the limitations.

  2. Marguerite, did you go to Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's talk at Spirit Rock when he was in the bay area? He had an interesting reply to someone who asked about working with pain. You can get to the talks from here:

    For my own practice, I am paying more attention to two things: what is happening? and how am I relating to what is happening?

    For example, you might want to look at your relationship with pain - in the first obstacle, it seems you wanted to use distraction to avoid the pain; in the second obstacle, you were worried that you would be stuck with the pain. In both cases, it seems that there is aversion or fear of the pain, rather than the pain itself that is primary. Mingyur talked about how often the actual thing is only 5%, what we add is 95%. So, maybe the pain is 5%, but the fear and aversion to the pain is 95%.

  3. Your timing, as usual, is impeccable Marguerite!

    I sat with my local Chan group last night for the first time in six months. We sit for an half-hour, do some kinhin, and then another half-hour sit. During the 'second half' I went through very similar emotions to yourself. I felt a sudden, powerful urge to get up move around and then nagging mind started wondering about how long I'd been sitting for, etc...and then the bell went!

    The second sit had flown by and now, thanks to your post, I think I understand my responses a little better. I would add, though, that I think a major contributory factor in my situation was fear of embarrassment, of not being 'as good as' the others.

    When I'm at home I usually sit for just an half-hour. Tonight I'll try to sit for an hour and will also "practice with all my mind and heart". I'll let you know how it goes...

    Sincerely, this was a very timely, extremely useful post.

    Thank you!

    wn x

  4. I usually sit for a half-hour although my weekly sittings (once a week) at the local Shambhala center I have been attending are for an hour. I can definitely relate to both the pain aspects of sitting for a long time and even more so with the thinking about the ending of the sitting.

    Lately, I've been going through this kind of experience:

    1. Initial restlessness and discursive thinking (this has been very predominant lately).
    2. A period of settling into the breath and spaces of no mind.
    3. Increased restlessness through what you describe above. Either some sort of physical pain or thoughts constantly streaming through such as 'is this ending soon,' 'my timer should be going off soon,' 'how many minutes have I been sitting here.' etc.

    This can be discouraging especially lately as it seems like my mind is more restless than ever. I try to do the following though:

    1. Go easy on myself. Have some compassion and love for myself and understand that there's not something wrong with what's going on.
    2. Right effort as described above. I still get up and sit every morning even though I have been low on energy lately. There's still something powerful about taking my seat with right intention and effort in mind.

  5. MetalBuddha, you and I both . . . Something about knowing one is not alone with suffering and pain, makes it a little lighter! Power of the Sangha.

    With much metta, and wishing you a practice bathed with ease.

  6. Thank you for mentioning Mingyur Rinpoche, DharmaDancer. Yes, I am familiar with his teachings on pain. You may be interested in this post I wrote after attending a retreat with him last month:

    As you probably know, there is a big difference between knowing in one's head, and applying it experientially, as during a sitting. This is why there is no substitute for repeated practice.

  7. Wes, I so much appreciate you sharing your practice! So much effort and faith there . . . I look forward to comparing notes with you. Again, power of sangha!

    Deep bow to you.

  8. Nate, thank you for sharing. I find it helpful to realize that these difficulties are part of the course. Practice is not easy. If it was, everyone would do it. It helps to predict ahead of time that it may not be difficult, this way the mind is prepped, and when the difficulties arise, there is a recognition and a greater ease.

    I love your dedication to sitting no matter what. The path of practice is not linear, and takes many turns, some of which may seem to take us backwards. But really, it is all forward as long as the right intention is there, and minimum effort.

    My plan is to go for long retreat in near future to help with the effort part. Bootcamp for meditation . . .

  9. Yes, I would love to go on a longer retreat. I just need to make the intention to do so and figure out which retreat I want to go to.

    During my weekly visits to the Shambhala center there are either readings or dharma talks (i really like these) that we do after the sitting. At any rate, a gentleman was giving a talk on intention and he gave some good advice. When we sit we should really be mindful of our state when we're sitting.

    1. What state is our mind in? Are we restless? What are we dealing with?
    2. Really take notice of where we are. Notice the room, the temperature, the surroundings. It's a process of grounding yourself before you begin to start the meditation process.

    I think this is a good habit to form and I really liked that advice.

  10. Hi Marguerite, Yes... instructions simple, doing them not so simple. :-) That's why practice is called practice. Much metta for you!

  11. Nate, yes, checking in. We practiced that during Spring retreat with Gil Fronsdal and Andrea Fella. It is also, as you know part of MBSR protocol.

    A very nice way to settle into meditation, I agree.

  12. dharmadancer, if I spent as much time practicing as I do talking about the dharma I would be quite far along the path . . . :)

  13. When I used to sit at our little center, I used a chair because I have a leg that is riddled with old trauma and arthritis. This helped a lot, but of course didn't alleviate any back pain or other pain. Something about sitting brings up so many things, pain being one of them. It's interesting to work with it, acknowledge it, dance with it, set it aside.

    I've experienced the benefit of meditation, and yet I didn't want to continue. It was kind of driving me crazy, and I didn't have the motivation to work with a teacher to work through that. I'm essentially lazy!

  14. Practice is not necessarily a linear process. There can be many false starts along the way. Nothing gets wasted, however, even seeds planted a long time ago in what was infertile ground at the time :)