Learning to sit with pain – meditation with Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

I am sitting on my knees in a small room with several other women, silently breathing. Incense makes me want to sneeze, but it is also soothing. I close my eyes and concentrate on my breath. Pushing out my abdomen, I fill my lungs full, then push the air out until my lungs are desperate for air. Breathing in, I feel the warmth of oxygen. Like waves on the shore, air flows in and out of my body, reminding me I am alive.

I haven’t felt alive in a long time. That is why I came to practice zazen with Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. I heard her speak on a podcast over a year ago and there was something about her voice that made me look for her. She is an ordained Zen Buddhist Priest who teaches and lives in Oakland, California. We’d met one other time for a conversation and the advice she gave back then helped my life and practice. So when I heard she was doing a one day retreat, I had to go.

But when I was there, sitting quietly and breathing, I wondered why I’d driven so far. What was I hoping to learn spending an entire day meditating? My daughter was sick with a bad cold and I felt guilty leaving her, even though my husband is perfectly capable of caring for her. Plus, her caregiver was there. They didn’t need me. I could let go and … what?

After an hour, I was racked with fiery pain. Three years ago I’d been seriously injured and have dealt with neck and shoulder pain ever sense. I’ve learned to manage it, mostly by ignoring it. or “managing it”. I push myself too hard and regret it later. But the bills must be paid and my child must be cared for and that means I must shove my pain aside and get on with life. But through sitting and breathing, I reconnected to my very tired, very overstressed body, and felt the incredible pain I cary with me everywhere.

I wanted to cry. The pain stayed for what felt like hours, but was probably 30 minutes. Later I talked to Zenju about what had happened and she reminded me that part of meditation is listening to the body. If I’m in pain while sitting, stop. Forcing myself to sit with that pain doesn’t help at all. A strong will isn’t what the body needs. The body needs to be listened to and honored.

This is why I had come. Between my daughter’s care and my husband’s illness, I had been run to exhaustion. I shut down my body and ignored my needs just to cope. Survival mode was normality. Survival at the expense of my body had made me sick.

I returned to zazen and thankfully the pain wasn’t as strong. Instead of exhaustion, I felt strength. A wave of peace replaced fear. Despite my attempts to negate my body, she was still powerful. I promised to take better care of her. At least check in with her more often, and thank her for how much she does.

And thank you Zenju Earthlyn Manuel for your guidance and wisdom.

I encourage everyone to contact her and visit the Still Breathing Meditation Center. Also, read her books.

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