How do I stop the violence of forcing myself to practice when I experience pain?

Question from Aaron:

Sometimes I do not experience bliss when I practice mindfulness. In fact, I experience a lot of pain. I know from experience that if I continue to practice a lot I will make it through the pain and again experience bliss. So at times, when I am experiencing pain in my mindfulness, I will continue to force myself to practice. This feels violent. And this experience of violence makes my mindfulness more painful. The only place I have found guidance for this experience is in the story of Sona. But in it, the Buddha simply tells Sona to try less hard, which I can’t figure out how to do.

With a smile,

Aaron Riffenburgh-Kirby in Berkeley, CA

Phap Dung

Answer from Thay Phap Dung:

Dear Aaron,

As you search to balance and deepen your practice, it is important to establish the right attitude, approach and purpose while you practice. It is important that we enjoy practicing, or else what is the use? We want to feel pleasant while practicing but it is not always the case that we do, as you have experienced. Ideally, the practice should not be a struggle. It is not about practicing a lot, or for extended periods, so that it makes you feel violent and tense. We should be nourished by the practice. At the same time we should develop our capacity to handle pain and to understand its nature and effects. The joy and bliss give us energy so that we can be with challenging elements that arise in our practice and in our lives. The question is: how can we do this without tensing up and being forceful in our practice?

There still may be, in us, too much intensity and preference for an outcome due to our attitude about the practice. We may be a grasping at one end with a slight judgment on the other. A mother holding a crying baby in her two arms does it tenderly—without tension and force. The crying is the pain that needs our attention. We can slowly rock the baby back and forth, holding our pain close with all our love and acceptance. Slowly we may discover the cause of the pain, or see that by simply embracing the pain, the crying stops or lessens. Over time, we have learned a new way to deal with the pain, with the crying, with less judgment and more acceptance.

A mother holding a crying baby in her two arms does it tenderly—without tension and force. The crying is the pain that needs our attention.

When you experience pain, notice if your pain is physical or psychological. You may like to practice to simply recognize it as it is first, before jumping into conclusions or preferences. With a few breaths, we can call it by its true name, saying hello to it, “Hey I know you; I’ve seen you around before; I can learn to be with you.” We can relax into the pain with each out-breath, as if the tension of the pain is dissipating along with the outward breath. Correlating the dissipation of the pain with the breathing will help bring some ease and acceptance. If the pain in our legs or our back gets too intense, make some adjustments and try to maintain your mindfulness and focus, moving slowly, gently with your whole mind and body fully present to the act of adjusting. There is no interruption. All smooth transitions.

In this way we tend to our pain, doing what needs to be done to alleviate it but with more acceptance and love, like the mother and baby. We do not rush to hush the baby. As the pain persists, you might like to identify its cause. Where is this pain located? As you become more familiar with the pain, we are no longer bothered by it as we were at first. Following the breathing, our careful attention and acceptance is like the sunlight warming the earth. We remain focused, steady and can continue to maintain our concentration even in the midst of a painful feeling. This is the way. We even become aware of how this affects us—a meta-experience of the pain, of not identifying with it. It may be still there but its effect on us has diminished. We know that it is just a feeling of pain.

There are three primary aspects of development in the practice of meditation – right mindfulness, right concentration, and right view or insight. All three need to be cultivated in unison. Mindfulness practice is the mind’s ability to be aware of and present to what is happening in the present moment within our body, feelings, and mind, as well as with what is happening around us in the environment and in other people.

Along with mindfulness practice, we train to develop concentration. Concentration is nothing more than sustaining mindfulness without judgment or distraction. It is the cultivation of solidity and stability in our practice. The practice of mere awareness can help us develop this aspect. We first simply notice the pain as it is—whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral—reducing the thought of like or dislike. We treat a blissful experience with the same equanimity as we do painful ones. It is not passive or indifferent but a peace of mind that is free from grasping and preference. I sometimes compare it to the physical training in sports or in the martial arts. With training and preparation, our mind and attitude will be able to handle the pain and bliss with more calmness and stability. We become more stable, not easily disturbed, and more resilient and supple towards all kinds of feelings and experiences in the practice. Like a well-trained and prepared sportsperson or martial artist, we can handle the pain and challenges with more resilience and calm.

Concentration is nothing more than sustaining mindfulness without judgment or distraction. It is the cultivation of solidity and stability in our practice.

With this acceptance and stability, our mind becomes clearer. We may begin to understand the more subtle energies beneath our experience. We might discover the underlying mental energies, the psychological aspects that affect our practice not just during a sitting session but throughout the day. We may begin to see so many other conditions that contribute to the pain. This is insight developing, a natural effect when mindfulness and concentration are cultivated. All three trainings inter-are with each other.

For instance, when I first went to the monastery to practice, I had strong upper back shoulder pain during sitting. I made some adjustments with the cushion height and that helped. But the pain returned after a period. As I learned to notice when I would not have the pain, or when it lasted only for a short period, I started to pay attention to my attitude towards this pain. The more I judged it and wanted it to go away, the longer it lasted. I began to see this mental phenomenon of judgment also in my daily interaction and the pain that it caused me and others. I began to see my intensity throughout the day and how that affected my sitting session. I strived too much to achieve, even in small tasks such as washing my dishes or brushing my teeth. There was too much effort. I learned to recognize, accept this and to relax more. The breathing was key. The more I was aware of my breathing the more the pain diminished. I remained calm and attentive with whatever I was doing, keeping ease and relaxation with every move of my body, as I chopped vegetables, as I cleaned the meditation hall, or typed on the computer. My understanding and acceptance of pain helped me become more resilient towards both physical and psychological pain in my daily interactions. The pain came and went, but I maintained my stability and clarity. I began to understand that these subtle forces of striving and achieving came from my ancestors, my upbringing and education, and from my society and culture. I began to see the suffering and pain that this also caused to others—how it contributed to collective tension. 

Even after over two decades of practicing sitting meditation, there is sometimes still pain and numbness in my legs or in my back and neck. It is still painful when I release my legs after a session, but my attitude and acceptance has made this pain almost an old friend. It does not bother me like it used to. It is the same in the mind: when I notice something irritating or upsetting me, I do not react to it like I used to. I immediately see the pain and suffering in the other person or in myself and how I am affected due to my stance or opinion. I have become a little more mindful or clear-headed about the nature of pain, and more cautious not to add more to the pain. It is just a painful feeling and will last for a period only.

I have learned and remind myself continually that the purpose of the practice of mindfulness or meditation is to re-habituate ourselves and to liberate ourselves from these tendencies. We practice to cultivate our capacity to be fully present to whatever it is in front of us in the present moment so that we can understand and appreciate it as it is whether that is pain or bliss. We learn to enjoy discovering the true nature of both the painful feelings and the blissful ones—and their interconnection. As we gain more understanding of this nature—and of our true nature—we can care and love ourselves better. We become a happier person that can continue to contribute more positively to the world. We become more stable and freer in all our engagement, with less striving to achieve success and more acceptance of failures and challenges.

Answer from Thay Ngo Khong:

Dear Aaron,

Thank you for so honestly sharing your experience of practicing mindfulness. I hear you! We practice, we try hard, we read, we study, we put it into practice, and we get pain and suffering in return. That doesn’t seem to be fair. Are we doing something wrong?

Your determination to practice has led you to the story of Sona, in which the Buddha simply tells him to try less hard, and your question is more than legitimate: How to do less and gain more bliss?

Have you heard of this Zen story?

A Buddhist monk approached his teacher and asked the Zen Master, “If I meditate very diligently, how long will it take for me to become enlightened?”

The Master thought for a moment, and then replied, “Ten years.”

The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learning fast. How long then?”

The Master replied, “Well, then it will take twenty years.”

“But if I really, really work at it. How long then?” persisted the student.

“Thirty years,” said the Master.

…and so it continued!

Our teacher Thay explained to us that we can’t force an orange to be sweet. It takes certain conditions, like the right amount of sun, rain, soil and time for an orange to ripen. In the meantime, all we can do is take good care of the orange by making sure that it gets the right amount of these nutriments.

Could that be what the Buddha meant by telling Sona to try less hard?

Our teacher Thay explained to us that we can’t force an orange to be sweet. It takes certain conditions, like the right amount of sun, rain, soil and time for an orange to ripen.

Thay also often asks his disciples to let the Buddha sit or walk for them. He says that the Buddha is very good at sitting meditation and walking meditation. By this means, Thay encourages us to let go of the idea of trying to achieve something, missing the point of enjoying the present moment.

Mindfulness is the nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening within and around us. It does not speak of pain or promise bliss. It is the art of listening deeply to what is alive in us in this very moment. In fact, being mindful enables us to recognize the wonders of life, such as the fragrance of a blooming flower or the laughter of a child, much easier than if we were not mindful. At the same time, we grow more mindful to sensing pain and suffering too. We might become mindful of the disturbing noise of traffic, the hurtful words we hear people exchange, or the dozens of ants we just killed with a mindless footstep.

As mindfulness practitioners we aim to not aim, but to be, to be where we are, in good times and in bad times. We learn to take care of our pain by breathing mindfully, cradling it like a crying baby, and we learn to enjoy feelings of bliss, knowing that both notions are impermanent and changing. It is important to not identify with these feelings. We are not these feelings. 

In Deer Park we often sing this song:

The mind is a clear blue sky,

The mind is a clear blue sky.

Clouds (feelings) come, clouds (feelings) go,

But the mind is a clear blue sky!

Try walking and sitting meditation in this way. Start by letting Thay walk and sit for you and observe how he does it. You can relax and observe your teacher walking and sitting for you. Then, slowly, as you allow yourself to just be you can ask Thay to try it for yourself, and step by step, breath by breath cultivate a loving presence. When you practice and cultivate acceptance, loving kindness and understanding towards yourself, you will see that it doesn’t matter if there is bliss or pain, because you are there—you and mindfulness!

In gratitude and wonder for this moment

Brother Freedom

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