This is a guest post written by Lucas Moore. After you finish reading, catch his bio at the bottom.
A student asks their teacher, “Is enlightenment something that grows slowly, or something that comes suddenly?"
The teacher responds “Yes. It is.” He laughs, “It is a slow process until it’s not.”
Meditation is a practice in self-discipline. I have been meditating for over six years and my awareness of the connection between mind and body has deepened significantly. Though I’d been developing a better understanding of this connection, it became abundantly clear to me during a period of intense practice—Vipassana, a ten day silent retreat.
This is my experience.
Each day, we meditated from 4am until 9pm, with short breaks to eat. The eating was also done in complete silence, which was such a shock the first day that I broke down crying in my room. The only sounds came from the clinking of dishes as we struggled to silently communicate who would go first in the food line. Why did I sign up for this? Can I actually do this? I doubted.
My mind has a way of spinning itself into a web of thoughts about the past and future, avoiding the here and now. So for the first three days, I sharpened my focus on the breath hitting my upper lip. As the mind wandered away, I gently brought it back, focusing on the breath. Here. Here. Here. Again and again. And again.
By the fourth day, my mind tended to stay where I’d placed it. When the mind trailed off, it seemed to refocus itself without me calling to it. I’d built a new, young habit. The trivial thoughts I usually think had already been thought. Focus returned more automatically. I continued going deeper and deeper into myself.
This is when the physical pain began.
I was sitting for the entire day. I’ve had chronic upper back pain for a while and I needed to take breaks from meditating to readjust myself. The pain was sharp and throbbing. It sharpened with each breath. It was unbearable and my mind screamed for relief by moving to a new position. I can’t do this, I would think and so I would move. I watched this unfold in myself day after day.
We were slowly working up to sitting in “Strong Determination,” which is one hour of complete stillness - no opening of eyes, arms or legs.
Legend says the Buddah obtained enlightenment in this way. He sat under a tree and resolved to not move until he achieved enlightenment. It took months, without moving or eating, but it came. I thought of this story and laughed. I can’t even sit still for 45 minutes.
Pain that arises in the body is a message. As the pain deepens (if I let it), emotions and past conflicts come forth. This is not a coincidence.
The mind and body are deeply connected and pain, in this context, is a manifestation of something unresolved. When the mind becomes silent, I can hear and see how my body takes cues from the subconscious. It is tensing, relaxing and reacting to thoughts, or pre-thoughts that I’m not yet aware of.
As I sit, I think "This is brain surgery."
I go deeper into each session; I am slowing down and observing the patterns of thought crossing my synapses. I see the way I think through the same patterns over and over. As I recognize these patterns, I can go below them like a deep river carving into the soil.
Many patterns have become deep ruts, but somewhere down here, it is a choice. How many times in life does something happen, and I sense an aversion and immediately react? In sitting with this discomfort, I’m learning to stay here, to gather the information my body is trying to tell me. This thought piques a subtle interest in the pain.
By day five, I can’t imagine what is beyond the aching. I can almost sit for the entire hour now, but when the teacher informs us that time is up, my body collapses. I massaged the tensed muscles as I walked back to my dorm room.
Somewhere around day seven, I started to figure things out. As the same old pain started to pump up the volume, I realized I'm able to hold my mind in focus and maintain equanimity.
By disallowing my thoughts to grasp onto the pain, I see that I am separate from it. It surfaces and passes away. "I" am not my pain. I can observe it with an attitude of curious entertainment. I finally felt I was getting the hang of things.
The next day, however, the pain is back again and stronger. The sharp pulsing in my upper back returns so loudly that I can not separate myself from it. So I focus directly on it. I watch it. I explore it with each sharp breath. What are you? I ask it.
It instantly comes to me and I know it’s true. The truth runs through my body in tingling chills. I start to cry. For so long I have been unsure. I have doubted myself, my path and my truth. Over the course of ten days, I caved in on myself again and again because I let myself do it, because I didn’t believe I could do it.
Until now, I have been shrinking myself down to meet other’s expectations and I’ve been too timid to say what I honestly believe. This realization rushed over me in an instant. An open loop is now closed. The pain disappears effortlessly and doesn’t return for the rest of the retreat. I am left floating in complete inner peace. I don’t need to doubt myself anymore.
On this day, at this time, a huge lesson was learned. It was a major breakthrough in my spiritual practice. But it also came from many small breakthroughs.
It started when I decided to manage my stress through meditation six years ago. It continued forward when I read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. Once again, more progress was made when I signed up for Vipassana.
All things are interconnected.
The repeated small steps, like days of sitting in pain, are as important as the big ones. Mindfulness is a constantly evolving process. This retreat was more tangible than an idea; it was direct experience.
The pain is purposeful in the teaching of Vipassana. Everyone feels it. For this reason, it’s a universal metaphor for all thought patterns of aversion, and of all craving.
The mind wants to be comfortable. It will cling to comfort instantly and avoid things that cause pain, but so often that pain is the way of growth.
Mindfulness is the process of learning that the mind can be guided with gentle intention and it is the wisdom of knowing pain results in growth.
When faced with pain, I used to doubt and think it meant I was doing something wrong. Now I know that, like a seed casting off its comfortable shell, pain and suffering is the catalyst for growth. This lesson is to be found in every spring flower.
Hey, I'm Lucas Moore, a web developer and nomad originally from New York. I'm interested in mindfulness and travel. I currently write about completing a Web Development Boot Camp. I am also working on a concept at the intersection of mindfulness and advertising, the radical notion that all advertising should be consensual. Check out my website (TheLucasMoore.com), follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to my infrequent email updates.