“One must become a sea to receive a polluted river without becoming unclean.” -Nietzche
What to do when the weight of grief becomes too much for the human body to carry? When sorrow is too much for the human heart to hold? When suffering is too great for the human mind to comprehend? Repressing the pain only makes it grow larger. Expressing the pain in great grief-shouts helps release some of it, but it fills right in again.
But there is a third alternative. Making yourself larger reduces the proportional size and weight of the pain. Becoming a sea. And that’s where meditation comes in.
The kind that I practice is called zazen, a Zen Buddhist practice with a few thousand years behind it. It involved sitting with legs crossed (full or half-lotus), back straight, arms in a circle with hands resting one on top of the other and thumbs touching and attending to the rise of the fall of the breath from deep in the belly. When done well, the borders of the body begin to dissolve and the body-mind seems to blend into the larger cosmos, swallowing up the constant buzz of jumpy thoughts and bodily aches. You don’t stop thinking or feeling, but you change the ratio so the passing show of thought and sensation become smaller as you become larger.
I cultivated this practice in the 70’s going to some fifteen 7-day meditation retreats called sesshins. From 3 am in the morning to 9 or 10 pm at night, we sat zazen in 30 to 40 minute sessions balanced by walking meditation and interspersed with meals, chanting, listening to the Zen Master’s (Roshi) lecture, private interviews 4 times a day with the Roshi and a short post-lunch work period. All in silence and all with formal gestures and postures. It was a spiritual retreat, but different from the feel-good dancing bliss of some of the Indian counterparts. The atmosphere was severe and the practice rigorous, somewhere between running a marathon and Army boot camp.
For example, sitting in the lotus posture for so long invariably created pain in the legs and then more pain and often, great, almost unbearable pain. Yet one was not allowed to move the body during each meditation session. So when the pain kicked in, I found myself needing to attend more to the breath, to breathe deeper, to reduce the pain by enlarging the self. In fact, it began to feel like the meditation didn’t really kick in until the pain set in.
So there it is, the metaphor made concrete and tangible by the actual experience of sitting meditation. When adversity hits us head on, we can choose to be larger souls or smaller selves (Michael Meade’s words), but if we choose the latter, the pain stays with us and nothing changes. So while we might curse at the world and those people who hurt us, we know it’s futile to change them. Might as well work with what we can change, which is the size of our own selves and souls. And meditation helps.