Ei Mei Kan - 2005

Evolving a Startegy to Deal with Pain

by Iona Ellis - Shodan

I am just starting out on my journey in Zazen. The only thing that qualifies me to write about Zazen is the fact that I have practised it and experienced something. I am not knowledgeable about it and I can only speak from experience.

In January this year, I attended the Sesshin in Strasbourg, led by Genjo Osho San. This being the second Sesshin that I have attended, I had the experience of the first one to help me prepare for this one. The question arises: prepare for what? Prepare yourself, so that when you get to Sesshin, it won't hurt? Only if you have experienced Sesshin, can you know that there is not a lot you can do in preparation to this aim. I learnt from my first Sesshin that it really hurts, and no amount of preparation is going to change this.

Of course, there are things that you can do — but none have the outcome that it won't hurt this time! You can sit, you can eat a clean diet and you can stretch to 'prepare' your body for Sesshin. But, going into my second Sesshin, I was under no illusion that this preparation will not stop it hurting. Pain is inevitable!

The most valuable lesson, which I have learnt from the second Sesshin, is that you do have a choice of what to do with the pain when it comes. It can consume you, or you can learn about it. A part of me was saying “block it out” — but my experience proved that this did not help. This action only meant trying to hide from it, going off to some dreamland where it does not hurt — I found no such place.

My experience is very difficult to describe in words, so I will not attempt to. I will just try to explain what I have learnt from it.

The question for me was: are you here? Do you know if you are here or not? Often I thought I was. I could feel the pain, but I would think: whose fault is this, whose idea was this, who talked me into it? I would then try to think of a way to stop the pain. This was all an illusion. I was running away, trying to avoid it, hide from it, so I was obviously not 'here' — I know this now, and this is a valuable lesson.

I learnt that if I was truly present, then there becomes a point where the pain does not matter. The pain is there and it is not going away, but you have a choice: you can let it hurt you (and it really does hurt), or you can just be in it and it's ok.

The lesson I took away with me was things that hurt us are there — and there is often no changing this — but what we do with it is our choice.

A parallel which I found with Aikido was the question: do you know where you are? Do you know where your hand is, your foot is, your centre is, your energy is? Often we think we do, but sometimes we are wrong. When everything is where it should be, the body is powerful. The same goes for Zazen and the mind.


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