Vipassana Mysteries: Disappearing Knee Pain

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I will start out by saying that even after my four retreats, I haven’t experienced anything really crazy. No insight into the fundamental nature of suffering (whatever that is), of no-self, of emptiness, of unsatisfactoriness, of transience, of the four noble truths, of the eightfold path, of any of that. No experience of banya, the dissolution of the body and visceral realization of the fact that most of it is empty space. No jhanas, or deep concentration states, I don’t think. If I have had them, or reached them, or achieved them, or whatever, I didn’t realize it at the time. I don’t even know the right vocabulary for talking about them.

And yet, every day, I have the feeling that I ought to plant myself on a cusion, or a pillow, or a rock, and just stay there for an hour. Sometimes I even do it! Why is that?

Actually, after my first course, I had resolved not to go back for another. By the seventh day, the pain in my knees felt pointless. I could hardly make it through half a sitting without giving up, spending large portions of time with my eyes open, looking out the window, thinking that I could be farming, or lying in the sun, or cycling around, or playing Frisbee, or eating three meals a day (as opposed to the two you get on the courses). I wasn’t quite intellectually confident enough to call the whole thing a waste of time – after all, all those people on the front cushions kept coming back, and the teachers themselves, very respectable and kind and peaceful people, had devoted a lifetime to the practice, and at least some of them were probably smarter than me. I decided that the practice just wasn’t for me. I would find my own ways of reducing world suffering. Perhaps through actually doing something?!

Then I got a chance through a series of weird connections to sit a small course advertised only by word of mouth. While the first course had not convinced me of much in terms of solutions, it had made one problem eminently clear – my mind, like all of our minds, totally, totally, totally has a mind of its own. For example: my first retreat was out in the countryside in Korea, in a tiny little county I’d never heard of. I had made an oath to stay for ten days, to try to do some introspection. I sat down on my cushion in the meditation hall and within a minute, perhaps within seconds, my mind was elsewhere. Making plans for what to do when I got back home on Day 11. Stop, I’d tell myself: no need to make plans now, you can figure all that out on the bus ride home. Just concentrate on your breathing. After thirty seconds of concentrating on my breathing, I was lost again, this time revising worksheets for the next semester, still two months away. Why? Stop! Back to breathing, and then, fifteen seconds later, I was in India, back in Sadhana, living in a thatched hut, planting trees and stirring humanure. And so forth.

This is the way my mind worked, and probably the way it had been working for twenty-six years (twenty-nine now), though I had never quite been conscious of it. There is no end to the memories that can surface, nor is there any limit on the number of plans, fantasies, reveries, vagaries, or absurdities regarding the future that you can come up with. And, somewhere in the middle, there are all those could-have dones and would-have beens, mistakes, regrets, missed opportunities, what-ifs, etc. Why should this be so? Why can’t these thoughts be turned off? It’s normal, yeah, but is it good? Is it healthy? What would a few moments of stillness feel like? Curious, and with a lot of time on my hands, I went back.

I didn’t find the answer during the second course, but I did have an experience that I had a very hard time explaining. Physical discomfort, and in particular knee pain, is usually what people first think of when they think of meditating. Doesn’t it hurt? How can you stand the pain? Isn’t it just masochism? All fair questions; all questions that I continually asked myself when I could break away from the stream of miscellaneous thoughts for a moment or two. (Indeed, the pain is actually very useful at the beginning stages of meditation, where your goal is to develop the ability to concentrate on a single object. Your breathing is too subtle to feel, and anything you imagine or visualize will soon be wiped away by the current of thoughts, but the pain is constant, strong, and insistent. )

And then, at one moment, on Day 6 or 7, the pain in my knees simply stopped. I had been steadily pushing myself up from twenty to thirty to forty minutes, sitting still, clenching my fists, grinding my teeth, sometimes even holding back tears, hoping that if I could manage one more minute each sitting, then by the end of the course maybe I’d have built up enough pain tolerance that I could make it through an entire hour. My “best” (judged in terms duration, not of proper insight) had been about 45 minutes, with the pain steadily growing after 30 until I couldn’t stand it anymore. This time, though…simply no pain. I sat through the hour. Then next time, I sat through the hour. The next time too. Sometimes, I could even make it through 80 minutes of the 90-minute periods.

I had no idea how to account for this discontinuity. During my first 160 hours of sitting, I had managed to extend my maximum sitting time by about fifty percent, from 30 minutes to 45. Then, all of a sudden, I was able to sit sixty, seventy, eighty minutes. Nor was it that I was simply able to fight the pain longer; the pain itself was gone (during the 60-minute sittings) or took much longer to develop (during the longer ones). Certainly my muscles couldn’t have loosened up so quickly. Perhaps there was something psychosomatic about it? Had I gotten over the fear that the sitting would do me some harm? Was my body, or my mind, throwing up the suffering in some sort of “hope” that I would abandon my efforts, just as I had the previous summer? Had I accepted that sitting was my temporary-self-imposed fate, and that there was no need to make myself suffer? Was I, or some part of me, the source of this suffering? How? How could I know the answer? In retrospect, I wish I had asked the teacher, and am not quite sure why I didn’t. As I have no way of explaining it, I have no way of knowing what it meant.

In any case, my point is that there was no (conscious) ideological or theoretical basis for the change. No particular phrase from the nightly Dharma talks, no particular reassurance or piece of advice from the teacher, certainly nothing I had read or heard discussed, and even more certainly no new spontaneous understanding of anything on my part. Something simply snapped. Up until that point, each sitting had been challenging, even torturous; a battle (I first wrote “batter;” my Konglish and Chinglish are rapidly improving) pitting mind against matter, philosophical determination against the stubbornness of the body. After that moment, and for the rest of the course, I was able to sit in relative physical peace for each of the hourly sittings, free to shift my concentration away from the effort of soldiering on through the pain, towards the effort of watching subtle body sensations and developing insight – the meaning of “Vipassana.”

I still don’t have any conclusions to draw from this; I think it’s exactly this lack of conclusions that kept me, in the past, from discussing these little experiences. I don’t know what they mean. I’m not sure if they justify my interest in Vipassana. I’m not sure whether they mark me as a powerful meditator or as a total novice. Nonetheless, it happened. And, despite infrequent practice and miles and miles of tightening my leg muscles through cycling, the results have mostly stayed with me: even after weeks or months of not practicing, sitting for an hour isn’t much of a challenge, physically speaking. Though, of course, my “monkey mind” is as wild as ever. And actually finding (or making) time to sit is a challenge in and of itself.

Still, the fact that this happened to me is the reason why I feel only moderately queasy writing, as I did in my previous Vipassana post, kooky things like “I will practice diligently, faithful that understanding, wisdom, enlightenment, reduction of suffering, and so on will come to me when I am ready for them.” It’s also the reason I went on to serve a third course, to sit a fourth, and to try to sit at least a few times a week. Which have lead to more intriguing, fascinating, confusing stuff, which I’ll write about next time.

Hopefully this was moderately interesting.

More Vipassana stuff at www.dhamma.org.

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6 Responses to Vipassana Mysteries: Disappearing Knee Pain

  1. Niall says:

    DO YOU LISTEN TO THE MAN HIMSELF – GOENKA LIKE – ON THE HILLS OF CHINA?

  2. 썌키 says:

    Battle of the fonts, round 2 – Sans serif wins!

  3. myra reichel says:

    oh yes – noise is the same way first I was annoyed that a trash truck would show up as soon as I started to meditate now the drone of the truck is helpful in getting into a meditative state – and I sometime think it arrives to take away all the trash in my mind and all the stuff I detox from my body while sitting in meditation.

    • Michael Roy says:

      It’s really fascinating to me to hear about people experiencing the same things, to see the sort of uniformity behind our subjectivity. Thanks for sharing, Myra. Coincidentally, my post on vehicle noise is coming in just a day or two!