Who knew meditation would be so painful?

by Bob Poczik, The Buffalo News, Dec 9, 2007

Bob Poczik, of Williamsville, learned a lot on his visit to a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan

Williamsville, NY (USA) -- I never dreamed there was so much pain involved in meditation until I spent a day and a night in a Zen Buddhist monastery several hours outside Kyoto. One of the very few monasteries in Japan that accepts short-term visitors, it was a low, wooden building with sliding paper doors that opened onto mossy gardens.

Nestled below misty mountains, in March the weather was damp and piercingly cold. I was told to put away my shoes and socks because I would be going barefoot while there.

I soon found that life in a Buddhist monastery is very demanding, and involves hard work and discomfort. My toes were so cold they looked almost blue, and I rubbed some circulation into them whenever I could do so unobtrusively. When I mentioned this to one of the monks who spoke some

English, he confided to me that during the previous winter, which was exceptionally cold and snowy, his toes had begun to turn black.

I was taught the numerous strict rules of the monastery, most of which I was able to follow. My downfall came with the position I was required to assume during the long hours of mediation.

It involved kneeling on the hard wooden floor and then sitting back so that my rump rested on the back of my ankles, my feet stretched out behind me. This position was incredibly difficult to maintain because of the hyperextension of the feet and ankles.

As soon as my legs and ankles started aching, I shifted so that my legs were out to one side. I found that I had to move constantly to find anything remotely resembling a comfortable position. At the second meditation of the day, things came to a head with the senior monk, who instructed me to assume the correct position. I replied that it was very painful and that I couldn’t do it. He then said, and I believe I can say that it was in no uncertain terms, “Do Zen! Go through the pain!” I realized that he was telling me that in Zen it is necessary to accept pain and learn from it.

So I sat back on my ankles as instructed, determined to do it even if it killed me. I’ll admit there was some stubbornness and pride involved. I felt sharp, hot pain in my legs and ankles, and then after a while, I simply lost feeling in my legs. I think I may have cut off the circulation.

When the meditation ended and everyone else stood up, I found that my legs and feet were without feeling. I moved them and they were flooded with sharp needles of pain. When I looked down at my feet, they were red and swollen. I hobbled around to get some feeling back in my feet and legs. The same painful process happened again during the following meditation sessions.

Well, I did survive my stay in the monastery without suffering any permanent damage. What did I learn from the experience? I don’t like pain. Therefore, I would be a very poor candidate for becoming a Zen Buddhist monk.

I also learned that you don’t need to search for serenity in a Zen monastery in the fog-enshrouded mountains in far-away Japan. You have but to walk out in your own back yard or to the nearest park, and sit and look at the grass and trees. And breathe.

It’s what Dorothy comes to realize at the end of “The Wizard of Oz” when she returns to Kansas and her Auntie Em. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”