The pain of practice

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  • Gukan
    • Nov 2015
    • 194

    The pain of practice

    I’ve been really struggling to formulate this question. Sometimes I have answers, or bits of answers, but they float off and slip away and I'm left none the wiser. And when I read back through it there are bits that scream answers out at me (“Goals! Expectations! Grasping!”) and other bits that are ripe for a “Zen semantics” take-down… and it makes me feel as if I should go straight back to Buddhism 101. But what I know at a theoretical level has become awfully cloudy on the cushion, so I’ve tried to just put something on paper and hope it makes some sense.

    I have for the past couple of years noticed that whenever I increase my practice (or indeed do other things to ‘improve’ how I live) I become considerably more aware – and afraid – of my immortality. I’ve left it too late. I should have done all this sooner. Panic. More panic.

    At an intellectual level I’ve got a pretty good awareness/understanding of impermanence (hard to avoid as a Buddhist, really) but when, for whatever reason, my practice drops off I find myself able to co-exist with this truth quite happily. But as soon as I start to sit regularly, or try to eat better, or exercise, or make an effort in another area of my life I find myself horribly aware of my own end hurtling towards me, and of how insignificant it all is in the long run anyway. I’m going to die, who knows when, and I’ve left it too late to do… er… whatever, and in 100 years it’ll all be irrelevant anyway. A horrible horrible fear of time running out (and I’m only 42 ) combined with a nihilism/fatalism that really doesn’t seem like 'me'.

    And it is so painful! More painful, in fact, than the pain that (Buddhistically speaking) I am supposed to be feeling when I don’t face up to truths about the nature of existence. It hurts less to sit in front of the TV and eat crisps and wish I was a thin PhD black belt and guitar virtuoso than it does to get up and do something ‘better’ and get smacked in the face by the gut-churning fear that perhaps none of it matters anyway or that there’s no point if I’m going to pop my clogs one day anyway.

    So what on earth is my motivation for sitting with this pain? At times like this even the dull gnawing suffering of constantly wishing things were different seems to be a lesser suffering compared to the acute pain I experience when I’m practicing and ostensibly, on some level, happier with things as they are.

    I’m not even fully sure what I’m asking here. I think: why do I find it MORE painful once I start to move in the right direction? And why, WHY, do I choose to continue down the path and not just go back to the familiar dull dissatisfaction of everyday dukkha?



  • Yugen

    The pain of practice

    It seems to me that in either scenario you describe you "face up to truths about the nature of existence." What you do with that knowledge, how you choose to behave in light of this knowledge - is up to you. Eating crisps and being a black belt virtuouso are not binary opposites - in delusion there is enlightenment and in enlightenment there is delusion - they are one and the same. The seeds of one exist in the other - just as seeds of virtuosity exist in eating treats and fear/hurting can also be present in individuals who pack every living moment with self improvement activities. What I'm trying to say I guess is olease try to soften the oppositeness of the choices you describe and be a little easier on yourself! There are days when I will sit zazen and practice karate kata for hours and days when I will eat stinky cheese, French bread and drink red wine like Zorba the Greek. It's all part of the same deal.

    Sitting with pain and angst is not something to be muscled through. Peeling away the layers of the existential onion takes time - build up your resilience gradually, and have a few crisps when the urge seizes you!

    I'm reminded of a bumper stick I saw recently: "eat right, live healthy, die anyway" - while the body is just a collection of bones, fluid and other stuff that we live in for awhile, it is a good idea to care for it somewhat so that our spiritual journeys have a good platform on which to stand. Practice is the rent we pay for the space we inhabit ....

    Deep bows

    Last edited by Guest; 12-22-2015, 06:41 PM.


    • Mp

      Originally posted by Libby
      I think: why do I find it MORE painful once I start to move in the right direction? And why, WHY, do I choose to continue down the path and not just go back to the familiar dull dissatisfaction of everyday dukkha?
      Hello Libby,

      This is a good and deep question, I will try and share my understanding why we choose to continue of a path that "seems" to be causing us more discomfort or stress. Just like the body, the mind too requires a form of conditioning. If we have negative thoughts, we need to work at dissolving those negative thoughts - they don't just fall away by saying, "ah I see you negative thought, now go away". Say you take up a physical sport, this new sport is going to require you to condition your body ... so at first your muscles are going to be sore and tired. This is no different with the mind.

      Because we have or/are living a life of delusion and do not see the causes and conditions of our life, that when we stop (sitting) and truly see life through and through just as it is, it can be hard and overwhelming. But the more we practice, the more me face, the more we accept, the easier and more fluid life becomes ... just like the body learning that new physical sport/activity. I feel the key during this process of patience and kindness to oneself. Give yourself positive feedback for taking these steps and walking this path ... it can be hard at times, but knowing you can do it helps along the way. =)

      I hope this rambling has helped ... it sounds like you are doing just fine, so keep at it, share, learn, and grow. =)




      • Rich
        • Apr 2009
        • 2604

        This is just your ego talking. Your being is eternal. As far as practice, find your own rhythm and comfort level. You took 40 years to build an ego, so it may take awhile to observe it totally. Start your day smiling 😊 at simple things like the air, water, plants, animals, sun, moon, stars, your heart, lungs.....
        Outdoors if you can.
        We are all just like you, learning to see through and let go of delusion.

        SAT today
        無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...


        • Dylan
          • Jun 2014
          • 55

          Hey Libby,

          I've shared some thoughts similar to these, so let me assure you that you are not alone at all in your practice, and I don't think there are any clear answers, so your distress (inherently) is nothing to be alarmed at. (I think so, I am young and inexperienced.)

          Now, I'll, if I may, go all fortune cookie on you for a minute; these ideas have helped me when I encounter similar thoughts...

          When waves form in the ocean, there is no discernible distinction between wave and ocean. The wave is clearly visible, yet its nature is not. Every other particle in the ocean has some influence, no matter how small, on that wave, and the entire accumulation is what led to the illusion of there being a wave separate from the ocean. Yet when we sit with the waves and examine them, we see there are no waves, only ocean. The wave is to the ocean what a person (or anything, including the ocean) is to the universe. From the big bang, or creation or what-have-you, to today, every particle in existence, via gravity or radiation or DNA mutation, has influenced you. You are just a wave, and that's a beautiful thing, because it means you are at one with the universe. No, you are universe. So to worry about your death is to worry about the universe ending, which is impossible if we define the universe as all that exists and ending as non-existence. Regardless of what happens to the body called Libby, Libby will be okay, for all is as it is meant to be with the Libbiverse.

          As for choosing to continue down this path... There is no choice. You have no choice. In fact there's no distinguishable you to have or make the choice, and even if there were, there is no path. The "path" is merely your manifestation unfolding itself. Religion is no more inherent to you than the language you speak, it's a hiccup, a cultural accident manifested by your geographic location, culture, and availability of information. You = you = universe = shunyata. "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao, the Name that can be spoken is not the true Name."

          That's why shikantaza (which I have a crazily difficult time with) "focuses" on shunyata, or nothingness, emptiness, or boundlessness... no focusing.

          I hope this helps, pardon the myriad contradictions and please keep in mind I'm just a young, silly practitioner.

          Gassho, Dylan, Sat today.


          • Myosha
            • Mar 2013
            • 2974


            "Knock, knock.

            Who's there?

            Answer to the question . . .

            Answer to the question . . . who?"

            I don't know, Libby.

            But, what IS is Life before birth, living Life (as human experience) and Life after dying.

            What a blessing to worry. It's always a good day.

            Myosha sat today
            Last edited by Myosha; 12-23-2015, 07:24 PM.
            "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"


            • Jundo
              Treeleaf Founder and Priest
              • Apr 2006
              • 39477

              Yes, you are going to die. All of us will, in the coffin, in the ground, ashes to ashes

              Same if you stay on the sofa eating crisps or write a great novel or build a giant financial empire or become Czar of Russia ... dead dead dead.

              At the same time, we do not quite believe in death. Nor do we believe any moment is ever wasted. So, it is okay.

              Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. There is nothing such as birth and death to be avoided; there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought. Only when you realize this are you free from birth and death.


              There is a simple way to become buddha: When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a buddha. Do not seek anything else.

              Shobogenz-Shoji (Birth and Death)

              Gassho, J

              Last edited by Jundo; 12-22-2015, 08:14 PM.


              • Byokan
                Treeleaf Unsui
                • Apr 2014
                • 4288

                Hi Libby,

                I think there is a process of fear and grief when the boundaries of Self begin to dissolve. We may reflexively recoil from the perceived lack of structure, when the framework we are used to, begins to change. It can seem like the solid bottom dropping out from beneath us.

                It reminds me of the first time I put on flippers and went swimming out into the ocean a little further from shore. Everything was groovy, beautiful, free and fun, but then I looked down and suddenly realized the water was so deep that I couldn’t see the bottom. On top the water was sparkly with sunshine and blue as it had always been, but suddenly I was aware of this deep, cold, grey abyss beneath me! There was a moment of panic and a very real sense of falling, before I realized that the water was still holding me up. Nothing had changed in those moments except my perception.

                Life is life, and the truth doesn’t change whether we sit on the sofa or on the zafu. The choice is yours in every moment. Good luck un-knowing what you already know!

                I don't see The Path as something we step onto and follow, or step off of and back into ‘the regular world’. I think of it more as the path being made by your very own footsteps as you meander through the world. It forms as you go along. This is why it’s so hard to see ahead. ‘Where does my path lead?’ Take a step and find out. ‘How do I move forward?’ Only one way: from exactly where you are right here and now. ‘How do I know which way to go?’ Look behind you to get a sense of which direction seems to work out best, and which lead you into swamps and quagmires before. Read the signs left by other travellers. ‘But I’m tired of walking, I just want to rest!’ That’s okay too. Move on when you’re ready.

                This pain you feel, are you sure it’s pain? Maybe so. Maybe it’s a new sensation that you just don’t have another word for. Maybe you are seeing more, feeling more, experiencing life more deeply, and this intensity is being perceived as pain because it’s a little overwhelming. What if you sat with this ‘pain’ and just let it be what it is, without attaching a value to it either negative or positive. Hold it with an open hand, breathe with it, allow it to be what it is, and allow your questions to settle around it. What does that feel like?

                About motivation: you may have answered your own question when you mention going back to Buddhism 101. This is a good instinct. Whenever I’m confused and lost, I return to the Four Noble Truths. Everything is there. Add in the Bodhisattva Vow and it’s hard to not find motivation and inspiration.

                Bumbling along beside you, please pass those crisps over here,

                sat today
                展道 渺寛 Tendō Byōkan
                Please take my words with a big grain of salt. I know nothing. Wisdom is only found in our whole-hearted practice together.


                • Myogan
                  • Aug 2015
                  • 375

                  Excellent discussion all around. I have been where you are Libby. Awareness can easily drive one to the extremes of hedonism and fatalism. having the balance of the middle way will lead to equanimity but it is not the simple balance of a set of scales, more the balance of spinning a basketball on the finger where numerous actions and events intersect.

                  Perhaps the question is not how to sit with pain, but to acknowledge that it is no different from sitting with pleasure - both are delusion.

                  Marc Connery
                  Myo̅ Gan - Bright Cliff

                  I put the Monkey in Monkeymind


                  • Gukan
                    • Nov 2015
                    • 194

                    Wow, thank you all so much. The time you have taken to respond so thoughtfully is incredibly appreciated and there's so much useful stuff in there that 'speaks to my condition' (as the Quakers say). Don't really know what to say beyond that at the moment. Thank you

                    Except that I've realised my whole post makes me sound really quite miserable when actually I'm generally a really pretty chirpy person (which is maybe why the discomfort jumps out at me at times). So yes, please visualise me as quite contentedly munching my crisps and wishing things were different

                    Deep bows
                    sat today


                    • Kyotai

                      I couldn't possibly add anything better then what has been written above. Thank you for sharing your experience and posting your question.

                      Gassho, Kyotai
                      sat today


                      • Jakuden
                        • Jun 2015
                        • 6142

                        What a great thread, thanks Libby for asking your question and everyone for their replies. I can go from Supreme Oneness with the Universe to sick of myself and my hamster wheel in 60 seconds flat, but as said in the wise posts above, it's all delusion... it does get easier to ride the roller coaster with practice... "oh yes, this again, no big deal."



                        • Anshu Bryson
                          • Aug 2014
                          • 566

                          Might we contemplate the verse written on the 'han'?:

                          "Great is the matter of birth and death
                          Life flows quickly by
                          Time waits for no one
                          Wake up! Wake up!
                          Don't waste a moment!"


                          -sat today-


                          • Jundo
                            Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                            • Apr 2006
                            • 39477


                            If one is dealing with a psychologically fragile individual, there might be more worry about someone facing such angst, sense of nihilism and such. I do not sense that in what you wrote, and you seem quite strong and resilient. So, I advice you to just be with these feelings.

                            Our Buddhist Way is not "nihilism." There is some Profound Home which transcends and embodies life and death. We also say that our way is not "eternalism", because all is beyond change or no change, time or no time ... and we are thus cool with the every ongoing flow of change before our eyes (and our changing eyes too).

                            Here is a Koan for you:

                            There really is no difference between sitting on the sofa eating chocolate cake vs. eating veggies and exercising. There is no death, and the long and short of lifespan is just a measure of the mind. Every moment of time contains and expresses all moments of time. Getting up off the couch or staying, living or dying, all the same. There is no "long" vs. "short".

                            On the other hand, best to eat healthy and exercise, because it will leave you healthier and tend to let you live longer and stronger. Though death may be like a dream, no need to rush it!

                            All of the above true at once.

                            There is no difference between playing video games and building a rocket to mars, doodling and writing the great novel of the century. Nothing can be wasted. There is nothing in the universe which is fails to fully express the universe, no place in the cosmos that is not the center of the cosmos. There is no place to go for every instant is Total Arrival.

                            On the other hand, since nothing can be wasted, might as well do something that calls to your heart and leaves your life and this world better, and the road starts underfoot.

                            All of the above true at once.
                            So, maybe for the New Year, get off the sofa, put down the chips and do that project you always meant to do.

                            I happened to see this story today from South Korea ...

                            South Korean "mock funerals" seek to ease life's stresses

                            Tuesday's service drew 16 people. Before they climbed into their coffins, they listened to a lecture on life and death, watched a TV documentary on a woman dying of a cancer saying farewell to her family, and wrote their own wills.

                            "I'm so sad. I feel sorry (to my family) that I didn't do anything on my third wedding anniversary and missed a party at my daughter's kindergarten," said Kwon Dae-jung, one of the participants, choked with tears.

                            Many who join the mock funerals seek relief from the stresses of modern life in South Korea, whose suicide rate tops the developed world. There is widespread tension, especially among young South Koreans, over highly competitive college entrance exams, job searches, long working hours and widening inequality.

                            Many who join the services seek respite from modern life - but not all is peaceful and contemplative in the mock funeral business
                            Gassho, J

                            Last edited by Jundo; 12-23-2015, 07:01 AM.
                            ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE


                            • Geika
                              Treeleaf Unsui
                              • Jan 2010
                              • 4980

                              The Little Duck

                              By Donald C. Babcock

                              Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.
                              It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
                              No, it isn’t a gull.
                              A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
                              This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
                              He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
                              There is a big heaving in the Atlantic,
                              And he is part of it.
                              He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
                              But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
                              He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
                              He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
                              Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.
                              And neither do you.
                              But he realizes it.
                              And what does he do, I ask you. He sits down in it.
                              He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.
                              That is religion, and the duck has it.
                              He has made himself a part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it
                              touches him.
                              求道芸化 Kyūdō Geika
                              I am just a priest-in-training, please do not take anything I say as a teaching.