Skip to main content

Zazen: Emotion and Pain

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/12/2002
In Topics: Uncategorized

Norman addresses issues of physical and emotional pain and how they manifest during zazen practice.

Zazen: Emotion and Pain

by Zoketsu Norman Fischer

except of dharma talk given May 12, 2002, in Vancouver, B.C.

Someone might think that it’s rather boring to spend all this time sitting here doing nothing or just being with the breath. But people who do it know that it’s actually quite interesting. Even though you try to sit there and be with your breath, all kinds of other things are going on. It’s very colorful and spectacular sometimes. Special effects even, once in a while. You would never guess if from reading the Zen literature, but our practice is actually very emotional.

Through our sitting, we experience, and get access to, such a range of our human emotion during the rest of our lives – emotions that we might otherwise not have been open to. We tap into tremendous sadness sometimes, tremendous joy, anguish, delight, confusion – so many emotions come. Still, in the way that we’re all brought up, we have a certain kind controlling idea about our emotions. These are the emotions that are good to have; these are the emotions that are not good to have; these are the emotions that are incompatible with these other emotions, and so forth. We have all these very strict emotional structures that we’ve been brought up with. But when you sit, that’s all out the window. For absolutely no reason whatsoever, you’ll be weeping with tremendous sorrow over the entire world, and the next minute, you’ll be full of joy – with no transition between them. And sometimes you can notice that in the middle of your weeping about your own life and all of the human condition, right in the middle of that, you’re also quite happy. And this doesn’t make sense in terms of your usual structure of emotions. “How could I be happy, when I’m totally depressed about the human condition? It doesn’t make sense to me, but I have to admit that I feel that way at this moment; the next moment, something else.” So, it’s funny that way – the human heart and how it works.

Then, if you train enough on your cushion, and you pay attention, you realize that in the rest of your life, when a moment of tremendous sadness, or grief, or anguish comes along, you don’t have to be afraid of it. You don’t have to say, “Oh, I shouldn’t be feeling this; this is really bad,” or “What if I feel this way for two days or a year?” You’re fearless with your own emotions. You realize that one emotion changes into another, and that emotions are something that we go through. They arise according to conditions, and we can make use of, and embrace, everything that arises in our lives without fear. We learn this on our cushions because our sitting holds us in its embrace through all these changes.

One of the things that happens in this interesting journey of attending a retreat is that the body aches and hurts. You sit, and you follow the instructions, trying to sit up straight – it happens. You start to hurt. The knees hurt; the back hurts; the neck hurts; you could have even special exotic hurts that other people usually don’t have – the throat hurts, the heart hurts, the chest area – every time you take a breath. Headache – you name it; you can have it. And so you sit there and pain comes. Everybody has to figure out what to do about it.

I’ve had moments when I’ve thought to myself, “I will probably never walk again. After this period of zazen, I’ll fall off this cushion, and I’ll be twisted in a pretzel, and that will be the end. I’ll never be able to straighten out my legs.” In the early days of Zen Center, people would do some extreme things; and, actually, there were people who did have physical injuries as a result of sitting. That happened. But we’ve changed the schedule to make it a little bit more reasonable. So now it’s fairly rare for that to happen. Such a thing happening is highly unlikely. Even if you were to do the schedule with your full energy, even sitting when you think it’s impossible, probably you would not get any injuries.

However, you’ll still be afraid of getting injuries. Or, if you’re not afraid on a rational basis, you’ll be afraid because pain is scary, and we don’t like it. That’s a human characteristic, and a good one – not to like pain. But when this becomes generalized through our whole life, it can become quite a problem because we’re afraid of so much in life because it might cause us pain. Much of this fear, we’re not really aware of. We just feel it as a kind of timidity, right in the middle of our lives. Better not try that: it might not work out – I’ll be disappointed and upset. Better not really love him: suppose it doesn’t work out – I’m making myself too vulnerable. Better not really embrace the world as it is: it’s too much for me – I might feel pain. Better not really know myself and open to myself: maybe there’s something about myself that I don’t approve of – so best keep it hidden.

I think all of these things are constellated when we sit down, and we feel pain in our sitting. We feel the huge pressure of avoidance and fear that pain brings up. Usually in life, one can to a great extent, at least apparently, at least on the surface, escape pain by avoidance. Eventually it catches up to us, but it seems as though we could avoid it, avoid pain. But the nice thing about having a pain in your legs during a retreat that you signed up for – especially when the first period of the first day, it starts hurting – is that you cannot avoid it. It is unavoidable, and there is no choice, as there seems to be in life; there is no choice but in the retreat to face the pain, face your fear, and work with it. And that’s not easy.

If you can figure out how to work with it, though, it becomes something that you can apply to the rest of your life. And the way that you work with it is very simple. You stay close and present. When you try to stay close and present, using your breath to support you in that, you notice how strong and how immediate is your avoidance. You’re actually sitting there, trying to crawl away, gradually, from your own body. You sit – the pain is over here – and you notice that you’re going like this [shifting position], as though somehow you could elude it. You could get away. But if you sit there, you really see what actually happens. And then you see that when you just exhale, and you stop trying to get away, then the only thing that’s there is the pain itself. And that’s not so bad.

When we think of pain, what we really mean is pain plus avoidance of pain. Pain itself, suffering itself, is not bad. It’s endurable. And there can even be joy in the middle of it. Pain plus avoidance – that’s a problem. On the cushion you’re forced to sit long enough to see the difference between pain and avoidance, and eventually, out of self-defense or agony, or because there’s absolutely no choice, you get to just be present. Let go of avoidance or let avoidance exhaust itself, eventually, and you just sit there. And it’s all right. And that’s how it is in your life, even if it’s the last moment of your life, even if there’s pain and sorrow. If you can be close enough, intimate enough, it’s all right.