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.

Life is lived one breath at a time

For seventeen years, I have followed a Buddhist path. I meditate, study Zen, read books written by great masters like Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Han, and practice Mindfulness throughout my day. It is because of my practice that I am able to manage the chaos that comes from raising a child with disabilities. But despite all my practice and study and research, I had hit a spiritual brick wall. It was time to find a teacher.

Rev Zenju Earthlin Manual is the woman I consider my teacher. Ever since I heard her speak via a Zen Center podcast, I knew I had to meet her. I read her books, followed her blog, listened to all the teachings I could find, and finally contacted her to ask for a meeting. A few days ago, we met at her Oakland “Still Breathing Meditation Center.”

Rev Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

The first thing that struck me about Rev Zenju was her calming voice and smiling eyes. She seemed tired, but eager to meet me and talk. As soon as we sat, she offered me Jasmine tea and then she asked what she could do for me. I told her about my child, my struggles with grief and worry, how hard I’ve been practicing and learning about Buddhism because I felt it helped me take better care of myself and my daughter, and how I felt that I’d gone as far as I could on my own and I really needed a teacher to tell me what to do next.

She smiled and urged me to stop practicing.

Huh? I thought practicing was the most important thing.

Shaking her head she smiled again and said, “You’re too much in your head. You need to be in your body.”

Then she reminded me that life is not a journey or a path. The eight fold path isn’t a roadmap and there are no steps to master in some kind of enlightened sequence. I have spent so much time studying and practicing I’ve forgotten that the point of all that study is to live. Just live.

“Life is lived one breath at a time,” she said. With those words, a great weight was lifted from my chest. We laughed about the ways we both fight so hard to figure things out and make plans. You’d think living would be easy, but it seems to be the hardest thing for everyone.

Studying Buddhism and practicing meditation has strengthened and sustained me. I have learned how to balance the chaos and have compassion for myself. The basics are there and I know the path. Now it’s time to live.

Breath in… breath out… breath in… breath out…

I hope to return to “Still Breathing Meditation Center” each month and meet her other students. And I hope Rev Zenju doesn’t mind if I call her my teacher.

Still Breathing Meditation Center