I am on Holy Isle for the Year 2 & 3 year end retreat of the MSc: Studies in Mindfulness which we run in partnership with the University of Aberdeen. It has been another glorious week of sunshine and practice and we have taught two days of teaching skills and then three days finishing off the Insight module.
This morning we had an excellent talk by Choden on how our experience is a projection of the mind and then we went out into the sunshine to practice resting in awareness. We sat on the grass looking out to sea and the distant hills on Arran, getting a felt sense of the space before us within which our outer experience was manifesting and then we looked inwardly to get a felt sense of the space of awareness within, which our inner experience was manifesting. A beautiful end to our retreat and after our minds had settled over several days.
One of the things I was sitting with this week was pain – pain in my knees and pain in my collar bone. I have always struggled to sit cross legged on a cushion, over my 15 years or so of practice, although it is the posture I feel most grounded and comfortable in, which is why I persist. When I first began meditating I was a yoga teacher and spent a few years practicing hip opening poses with the aim of getting my knees down to the ground when I sit cross legged on a cushion. To no avail. Recently when I sat for several days at teachings in India, my left knee went down, but I am sad to report that it didn’t stay down long and is now back to normal and quite a long way off the ground!
If you have seen me teach or attending teachings, you will know I have a complex cushion arrangement which cushions my buttocks and supports my knees. As a so called experienced mindfulness teacher, my ‘expectation’ is that I should be able to sit properly, on a standard cushion, but I have come to accept my stuck hip joints and don’t mind feeling embarrassed by my unusual cushion arrangements. I prefer any embarrassment or loss of face to discomfort. I tell those I teach to shift posture when they are uncomfortable and I do so myself. However, my strong preference would be to be able to sit serenely cross-legged for hours without shifting.
I was recently at Samye Ling for some teachings and marvelled at how the monks and nuns sat cross-legged for over two hours without shifting posture.Meanwhile, I sat further back without my special cushion arrangement, shifting posture repeatedly, getting grumpier and still more uncomfortable, until after four days I went and sat at the back on a chair.
Occasionally on retreat, I have experienced a meditation in which any pain in my body just ebbs away and I feel as if I could sit forever. But these occasions are sadly few and far between. With my cushion arrangement, I can sit comfortably for about an hour before I need to move, but on retreat we sit for several sessions during the day and the more sessions I sit, the shorter the time before it gets uncomfortable.
However, I think I made a breakthrough this week. I was fortunate enough to have a sore collar bone as well as my usual sore knees to practice with. I used to have a sore back and hips as well so I’m moving in the right direction! I know that as soon as I shift posture the pain goes and I can sit cross legged again almost immediately and pain free and so there is no long term damage being done and I suspect that the problem is in my mind. I also think the process of dying could well be quite painful and so if I am going to die peacefully, I better get used to tolerating pain better than I do now! I find this idea is a strong motivation.
For the last few days we have been exploring the arising of thoughts, emotions and sensations within the space of awareness and the pain has felt like a very intense sharp sparkling. However, it comes and goes and if I relax into the space of awareness within which the pain arises it is tolerable and nowhere near as painful as I think it to be. When thinking is involved, there is always a hidden agenda, however subtle, of wanting to get rid of the pain and this makes the pain feel worse. Direct sensing into the pain is less worse and direct sensing into the space of awareness within which the pain sparkles it’s stabbing shards is actually OK. So, it may be that my body and mind have found a compromise that will help me sit more comfortably for longer. Time will tell if this is something that is only possible after several days of practice in retreat or whether it is also possible back home. However, I don’t plan on giving up my comfy cushion arrangements any time soon!
As I write this, it is the last evening of our retreat and I am sat by the sea looking out to Arran. Most of the students are on a boat trip taking them around Holy Isle. They shared today, eloquently and in a moving way, how the MSc and in particularly their shared journey of mindfulness, compassion and insight together has impacted their lives profoundly. If you fancy joining us on this transformative MSc journey, we are recruiting now for a September start. Make sure to find out more here!
You could be with us here next year – if so I hope your knees don’t get sore!