On entering the pain

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This year I am participating in a yearlong workshop at the Village Zendo called The Path of Awakening, focusing on Zen responses to the Others we create according to race, gender, sexual orientation, and able-bodiedness. We were assigned a reading by Zen teacher Darlene Cohen called “Mindfulness and Pain” and asked to consider an experience of pain. Mindful that emotional pain is quite a different thing than physical pain, but that this story was most appropriate for me right now, I wrote an adapted version of the following:

Zen practice, pastoral work, and my studies have offered me a helpful tool: recognizing the connection between emotions and physical feelings in the body. I can say that before I began my meditation practice, I existed almost exclusively in the more abstract realm of emotions (I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m confused, etc.) rather than in the physical experience that accompanied those emotions. Emotions, we might say with Darlene Cohen (and the Buddha), are aggregates — ideas and disparate experiences in the body all clumped together under one heading (anxiety, joy, fear, depression, etc.) for convenience of naming. It’s helpful to name them, until the naming obscures the experience and we’re stuck on the idea of the experience. Then there’s no motion, no change, and no hope. Cohen offers a challenge based in meditation, mindfulness, equanimity, and facing exactly what is, right now:

What it takes to challenge your own conceptual heaps and piles and consciously replace them with direct experience is being present in this moment and aware.

My partner left me in the fall. This came to light during my first week teaching at a new school. Within a month she moved out. A month after that I made the decision to give up the dog we had adopted — he was too much for me and couldn’t adjust to her apartment. Within a month of that we gave him over to the adoption agency and said our goodbyes. And then I was alone. That was a few days before Christmas.

In emotion-idea world — well, I was often surprised to find that I was, in fact, still alive. I would often speak to myself and say, “I’m not dead yet,” as if it needed to be said out loud to establish its truth. Emotions of sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, regret, defiance, frustration, shame, embarrassment, longing, brokenness, guilt, and all the rest. Once I settled on an emotion, the stories would begin running in my head, on loop, ad nauseum.

When I went to my Zen teachers during this time I was reminded of facing my actual experience, rather than my idea of it. Cohen says: “The vow to return again and again is the ‘settling,’ the ‘being one’ with your pain.” So often, when I noted that I was telling myself for the twelfth time in a row some story about how broken I was, how I’d never love again, how my trust was forever crushed — I would try to stop and breathe and notice what my body was doing. What was the actual sensation like? What did it literally feel like? This was most effective when the feeling was so overwhelming that I just couldn’t ignore it.

I found that it was usually located right in my chest, a deep, sharp pain in the actual heart, living primarily behind the sternum but with a strong, wafting drift over through the left lung, and extending back to almost grip my spine. I never thought of “heartbroken” as being so completely true as when I actually felt my heart like this. It was so strangely deep, deeper than the physical dimensions of my body, like a suck from behind my back such that the heart retreated away from me. When I decided to give up my dog, the most prominent feeling was the sense that I was cutting out and slowly removing my own heart with blunted tools. At times like these I sometimes had to hold myself with my own arms, to counter this undeniable feeling of my chest falling out of my back or torn out of my front.

(Anger, when it appeared, was also in the chest — coiled tightly around the sternum and pointing right out at the world. But that’s for another reflection.)

Sometimes, I would wake up with this feeling that I had a spear put right into my chest, through my heart, and extending out my back — and here I was having to go teach! I knew from experience on meditation retreats that fully feeling a feeling does not exclude functioning. I could feel like my heart was pierced, but also stand up and speak about math and move about and ask questions and listen.

I would just do so with a pierced heart. That’s all there was to it.

And so I would roll up into the classroom and speak a little softer, smile a little gentler at my students and go about the business, one task by one task, and just do what the moment suggested. And as I moved about the room, I felt some warmth return to my chest (oh, that’s right, I was cold!) and some motion too — there was a lightness, and a sense that the piercing spear was not being withdrawn, but was melting back into my body — just another part of me receding as naturally as it had arisen. I could breathe freely again (because, oh right, I was having trouble breathing).

…you begin to feel generous toward your own human tendency to be caught in the cycle of wanting what you can’t have and averting from what terrifies you: bitterness, despair. If you are able to extend your charity to aspects of yourself you know cause you pain, you are developing the broad and generous spirit of letting everything be what it is, including yourself. — Darlene Cohen

That a “broad and generous spirit” can grow out of entering pain is one of the sweet surprises of life. To feel everything we feel suddenly becomes this great gift that we’re given over and over again, if we can let it in, and if we have a little help. And in some cases, it’s a gift when it changes, too.

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