Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pain, or One good reason to sit Zen

I did not start meditating in order to develop tolerance for pain, not physical pain.  But you will get that, as a side effect, say, in your struggle for less mental pain.

I've had some striking experiences with pain, not counting last night in bed, as the painkillers and steroids wear off and the heavy drugs (the immunosuppressants) confuse me, and the incision ("the wound") slowly heals.  Then, as now, allowing a nice deep breath felt like a blessing, and following that breath took the sharp edge off the pain.  As for the rest, I lie on my left side - the incision is on the right side - prop my abdomen carefully on some firm little pillows, so there's no stress on the incisions, and sleep in that one position all night. 

Being okay with the residual pain had everything to do with perspective.  I didn't catastrophize it ("This is aful, I can't stand it.")  I knew I could default back to Percocet, I had choice.  I watched the pain come and go, as even pain usually does, but the way I propped it and lay was pretty comfortable.  (Lying on the other side so I could face Tom and talk to him was very bad.)

On my first retreat I sat in a chair, not knowing how to sit with pelvis propped, how to balance alert and relaxed.  My whole back was soon a mass of pain, worst in my neck and shoulders and TMJs.  Tighter and tighter.  Now I know tricks from yoga that I didn't know then - for instance, move out from the pain and soften around that spot.  Or imagine breathing in and out in that spot.  Or change the color of that spot.  But then all I knew how to do was hold myself stiff.  There was a thunderstorm brewing, and the basement we sat in was stifling and smelled of mold.  I sweated, and my legs stuck to the vinyl chair. Nobody else moved.

My mind was an even worse enemy that Friday evening, as it thought frantically about whether I could get Tom to go home the next day - he never likes to leave anything.  Maybe by noon, I thought.  Then I was given 30 blows, as we say:  the senior student called out in a very loud voice, "Sink into the heat!"  The structures of body and mind collapsed like a Tinkertoy edifice.  Even now, I feel myself relaxing at the memory.  All the pain was gone.  Dogen would say, You should think deeply on that.  You should remark the fact that that can happen.   Even bad things change.  Even the heat was not so bad.

My second striking experience came years later in a long retreat, when I could sit crosslegged on a cushion on the floor, which never came naturally to me, but which I loved to do.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, a red bar of pain set up in my right thigh, the kind that makes you gasp.  It was well into the retreat, so instead of being reactive, I set my mind to be with that pain, to focus on it and watch it.  And I both saw and felt it dissolve in a red mist.

Well, this was much better than saying "This, too, shall pass,"  This, too, did pass.  I saw it pass.  That's the experience everything part of Zen.  Your mind has it wrong.  You think pain sets in and just gets worse and worse until it is intolerable.  You think it is only impacted by pills or shots.  Thinking, thinking.  But if you let it, experience will demonstrate that your ideas are wrong.

Harder for me these days is working with a painful mood - yesterday's stalled, slow drab mood, thinking this has been a huge mistake, thinking I'm going to have to go back in the hospital, what if I lose this kidney, and between thoughts, bored to death.  But I knew theoretically that this low mood was a factor of chemicals beyond my control, not exactly real, and that it, too, would pass, and here I am today, about to go have some extra caffeine with Tom.  Coffee doesn't taste great either, but it's still coffee.

[image:  In Grailville, even the grass casts a long shadow.]


  1. Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate reading your blog. Thinking of you today.

  2. Hi Jeanne,

    I love your writing voice. This post was lovely (even though you were talking about pain!) I like how you are able to explain your relationship to pain that is not at all self-pitying. In fact, it's very helpful. We all experience pain at some point and it's comforting to know that we can survive it.

    Be well,


  3. It was an incredible thing the first time I sat through the arrival, progression and disappearance on an incredible itch during zazen. When I realized it had gone away of its own accord, and that in fact, all the random feelings that show up also go away, I almost laughed out loud.

    Thank you for reminding me, and I wish you quick healing.