Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘The first three years I was doing zazen, I didn’t sit through a single period for forty minutes without changing my posture. I hated myself every time I did it because there were always macho guys sitting, guys and women, and I felt like a wimp over here that kept changing my posture until I got to the point after three years where I didn’t have to change my posture. It was during my first sesshin I did at Tassajara, during the middle of the night of the seventh night, that I discovered that, even though I was in pain, I didn’t have to move, and there was something else to do with it. In fact, it began to change when I was able to stay with it. It didn’t necessarily always go away, but it did begin to change, and then some of the precise location of the persistent pain seemed to be related to particular attitudes of mind that I was holding. Sometimes I would discover what attitude of mind that point of tension was expressing. It was sort of like that point of tension was going to stay there until I got the information about the attitude of mind that was causing it. Then it could also relax, and, in the opening of it, the attitude of mind that I had been holding revealed itself. Actually I don’t know exactly how it worked. I just know that there were a number of situations in which particular points of very intense physical discomfort were connected to particular attitudes of mind.

One attitude in particular that I was carrying when I came to Tassajara was spiritual pride. I had quit my good job and I had come down the mountains to be a monk and save the world. I thought I was doing something special. As long as I was holding the attitude that I was doing something special, I had this particular pain. When I saw that I had that attitude, the pain become more and more intense. It was in a particular point in my back. It was kind of pressing me down to the floor, and, at a certain point, I was having a conversation with it. I had a notion that it had to do with pride, and then I suggested something trivial and it just got really immense and I heard this voice that said, “You had better pay attention to me or I’m going to break your back.” I thought I was really losing it, and then I realized that I had this spiritual pride because I thought I was doing something wonderful for the world by quitting my job and coming to the mountains and sitting zazen and being a Bodhisattva, or whatever I thought I was doing. When I realized that that was the thought I was holding, this particular point of pain just sort of dissolved. “I got it.”…

The phrase “Waiting it out” came up. In many periods of zazen during sesshin, I get into the mind set of waiting for the period to end. It brings up the question, “At what point, or points, does pain, and what comes up with it, pass its usefulness factor?” So, it is an ongoing question I’ve had throughout practice.

I think that “waiting it out” has an element of aversion and aggression in it, as if you’re not ready to give it your kind attention. You just want to grit your teeth and wait for the bell to ring, not giving as much kindness to your body as you are capable of.’ (from the Chapel Hill Zen Center archives)

Blanche gave this talk during a sesshin at Tassajara when she was abbess, and I can certainly relate to some parts of it. In my first sesshin at Zen Center, right about 21 years ago now, Adrian, who was on my left, sat solid as a rock throughout the five days, while David on my right did wiggle about on occasion. I felt drawn to sit as well as Adrian, because I imagined that’s what the longer-term practitioners did, but I also understood that there was permission to move. Because I wanted to be seen as a good student, I didn’t move as much as I could have, but then, because I was used to endurance sports (cross-country, long-distance cycling, running marathons), I knew about pushing my body. I experienced a lot of pain.

When I went to Tassajara, and the amount of sitting increased substantially, I had a fair amount of pain for the first couple of years, and I made every effort not to move, as I was still concerned with being perceived as a serious student. When I returned for my second stint of two years, I did find that place of understanding the emotional component of some of the stuckness, and experienced that stuckness releasing on many different occasions. And the pain that remained seemed more bearable. Nevertheless, there were many hours of ‘waiting it out,’ which can be its own kind of practice too.

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