Sangha friends and other beloved readers,

Recently, a few memes in a number of my discussions groups 'round the great big ol' web have gone back and forth regarding unwanted or unforeseen or painful mind-states arising while doing zazen, either from PTSD, SoMoL ("Stress of Modern Life") or other like issues.

In preparations for something, I had occasion to re-read this section from fellow Blogspotter Brad Warner's second book Sit Down And Shut Up, and I found this to be rather insightful, and I pass it along with the hope and intention that it may at least help some feel less alone when those painful and upsetting mind-states happen while doing zazen.

"Most of my life, I've been a fairly stressed-out guy. But at the same time, I've always had a hard time admitting that. For one thing, I grew up in a middle-class white suburb. I was always under the impression that people from that kind of background couldn't possibly experience real stress. I mean, unless they had, like, abusive parents or a terminal disease or something. My understanding was that true stress was something you got when something seriously awful occurred. Anything else was just a case of being whiny.

"I was wrong, of course. But that's what I thought. So I was never able to acknowledge that the migraines and pizza-face acne I suffered from in my teens and twenties were brought on by stress. At one point, I even convinced myself, incorrectly, that the headaches were the result of an allergy to corn.

"So, seeing as how I didn't believe I could possibly be suffering from stress when I first got into Zen in college, I was not specifically looking for something to help control it. Nor was Zen ever sold to me in those terms. Although you will often see hawkers of various meditation techniques touting meditation as a method of managing stress, you very rarely hear of Zen teachers advising people to take up the practice for that reason. Yet, I think Zen practice may be the most effective way to reduce stress.

"There's a caveat, though. There are techniques that can help really stressed-out people find a bit of calm rather quickly. Zen isn't one of those. It doesn't work the way things like relaxation tapes or self-hypnosis do. In fact, it's pretty common for people to end up getting more stressed-out when they first start Zen practice. Which is why a lot of therapists and even Zen teachers caution against using zazen as a way to cope with stress.

"But that's in the short run. In the long run Zen is a far more through way to manage stress than any of those other techniques. And the reason for this is the same reason that it's a fairly poor way to manage stress in the short run.

"There are times when zazen can make you more aware of tensions you hadn't noticed before. This sometimes leads people to believe that zazen has increased their tension. But it hasn't really. When you do zazen, it's like taking the lid off a boiling pot. All the stuff that's bubbling away under that lid comes rushing to the surface and might even start bubbling over if you don't turn down the heat. By bringing things to the surface, zazen enables you to see very clearly what needs to be worked on. That in itself can be stressful. This is one of the reasons Zen doesn't work as a short-term solution to being stressed. Plus, it's not enough just to see what you need to work on. You've actually got to work on it.

"Other methods of stress management can give you a way to calm yourself down a bit without making any real committed effort to work on the things that are actually causing your stress in the first place. Those other methods are like clamping an even heavier lid on the pot so you can't see what's wrong. But most of us would rather do that than turn down the heat. That's because turning down the heat means turning away from our ego-based sense of self, something most of us take to be the most important thing in the whole wide world" (Warner, 81-83).

Short-form: zazen isn't always a feel-good practice. To Brad-sensi, it's pasta pots. To me, it's often like prying up old pavers. Sometimes you find liberty dimes, sometimes you find slugs, sometimes you find headless melted plastic army-men, and sometimes you find ants swarming instantly all over you. Either way, the work needs to be done in order to smooth out the walkway, no matter what's under the pavers...