I often say “you never know what will come up in retreat” – which means, no matter what comes up, retreat gives us the space to work very intentionally with it. If we sit with “how do I practice with this” as a guiding question, we will pretty much learn the lesson that we need to learn. During this past retreat, I had the opportunity to deepen my understanding of what it means to bring acceptance to every experience that comes up. And it was also a continuation of my practice of “living in a body.”
When I first arrived at Spirit Rock, it felt like “heaven on Earth” – such a beautiful space, with perfect weather, heartful people sharing practice together, delicious and healthy food prepared with love, being able to take my time, not needing to rush – really, being supported in every way … And then, toward the end of the second full day of meditation, I felt severe pain in my upper body. It wasn’t the “usual” discomfort of extended sitting periods that I was familiar with – this was a level of pain that felt very deep, like being in the grip of a torture device – almost traumatic and possibly karmic.
The first and only time I had experienced this specific pain was on a meditation retreat I had attended 2 years ago, in a different style of practice that involved 10 hours of daily sitting. I had thought that this pain had to do with the specific conditions of that time and place, and it had not come up since then, so I was surprised and horrified when it showed up here, in this otherwise paradisiacal experience!
My mind of course started spinning about how very wrong this was: I had come for a lovely retreat and instead I was subjecting myself to excruciating pain that actually wasn’t there when I wasn’t in sitting meditation. Maybe this meant I would no longer be able to attend meditation retreats in the future!
So, there was pain, and there was aversion to the pain. I first practiced by attempting to find where wise effort lay for me: neither too much, nor too little, but the middle way of practice. Especially as someone who can have a tendency to over-effort; the stretch for me can be allowing myself to change positions if needed, to sit in a chair, practice standing meditation, or perhaps even practice walking meditation for a while instead. This stretch was balanced with staying attuned to and looking into the pain a little longer at other times, without either tightness or resentment.
While I practiced bringing compassion to myself, sending love and healing to my body, and taking care of my body through stretching and yoga; my teachers reminded me that I was being presented an opportunity to look into the nature of pain. Pain very much brings you into the present moment, making it quite difficult to get lost in other tracks of thought! But of course the mind can become too focused on it, so I also practiced bringing my awareness to other parts of my body that were not in pain, and to sounds in the room, in order to allow more space around the pain.
I was reminded that meditation practice is basically recognizing:
- What is present/arising right now, and
- How am I relating to it?
- What was present was pain – and I had the opportunity to look at how I was relating to it.
With this practice intention in mind, I noticed that even before the pain came up, I felt fear as I sat down to meditate. So the first practice was to hold and calm the fear. To include the fear. Once the fear could just be, without taking over my consciousness, I saw the pain when it arose as a big monster (like in Where the Wild Things Are), who was suffering. Like in the story of Frankenstein, it was a monster whom villagers were throwing rocks and stones at and trying to kill!
I saw that what I thought was having compassion for myself, the wish that I did not have this pain, was really aversion to pain. I wanted it to not exist. Instead, I started offering refuge to this monster of pain, recognizing its suffering, seeing that it did not want to suffer. I became more and more present with it, being kind and compassionate to it. I let it know it doesn’t have to be alone, and I stopped throwing rocks and stones at it (the “2nd arrows” from an earlier post).
For the last few days of retreat, I felt like I had a little sangha (practice community) inside myself: fear, pain, and whatever else was arising; they were all welcome and allowed to be. This allowed each of these elements to be more calm and to suffer less. The combination of practicing in this way as well as the physical practices I was employing really reduced the level of pain I was sitting with. And I actually felt gratitude for what the pain was teaching me, including accessing much more tender compassion.
Tara Brach has said about working with her own physical illness, “as long as there was any undercurrent of a story that I shouldn’t be feeling this – there was no way to have compassion. If you’re making something wrong, there’s no space for that tenderness to arise. If we make whatever is arising [pain, illness, fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, anger] wrong, we can’t come into relationship with it and there’s no opportunity for healing.” This is the practice of accepting what is: to allow it to be, allow it to belong, is the only way we can truly heal and transform it.
My teachers also reminded me that everything is impermanent. Something arises, it changes, and everything eventually passes away (including our bodies and this Earth) – we just have no idea when. After the retreat, I got acupuncture and other treatments. But I trusted that it would heal in its own time and didn’t approach treatment with the level of desperation and the “I’ll do anything, I’ll throw the kitchen sink at it” approach that sometimes can show up when seeking relief. I was able to give it the space to heal in the time that it needed – and this allowed it to take up much less space in my consciousness. My nervous system could still be peaceful and happy as my body healed, by letting go of the aversion and allowing this, too, to be here.
1Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha is a book by Tara Brach that I highly recommend!