It's not as bad as it sounds.
Pregnancy threw some aspects of this phenomenon into sharp relief. This is my best effort at expressing what it was like.
It turns out that repeated vomiting can be a useful Zen practice. Lying on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, miserable but trying not to wake anyone up, I would tell myself little Zen jokes … “In zazen there is no barf, and this no-barf continues endlessly.” I thought about how feeling sick is a universal human experience. I thought about how nausea is a sign of a healthy pregnancy and found a way to be grateful for it, even as I was wishing for it to stop. I depended heavily on others to help me get food into myself and my first child. People at work had to make allowances for me. We were all in it together whether we wanted to be or not.
The first trimester coma was like boredom in a long retreat. So tired. So, so tired. Parenthood is one long sesshin with no exit, my friend Peter says. You stay awake long enough to do what is asked, and then you sleep when it is time to sleep. Or, you lie awake thinking about how you will never be able to cope with tomorrow unless you fall asleep right now.
One such night when I was sitting awake, there was a vague sensation of a tiny, wriggling fish having swum the stream of my breath down into the hara. I was elated to fully realize I was not alone.
As the baby grew, sitting was unmistakably interrupted by someone else's movements. Following the breath, hands just so, head balanced … and then my entire belly would shift off to one side on its own. There was the intrusion of big kicks and tiny hiccups. Thump. Thump-thump. Pause. THUMP. Worse was the intrusion of my own mind—I would notice it had been a little longer than usual since I had felt his presence, and then would sit inhaling and exhaling the worry that he was in trouble. Still other times it seemed we were in sync, and it was like sitting together. I had very little influence over or ability to predict what I was presented with.
I became so aware of what I was eating, breathing, and touching—trying to make fine, careful discrimination between skillful acts and unskillful. The baby was literally sharing my breath, my food. It could have been crippling, but it quickly became apparent that it is impossible to know what effects our actions will ultimately lead to. I made an effort to be reasonable. Sometimes I had salad, sometimes I had cake. It seemed like a good idea to try to err on the side of salad.
Late in pregnancy, there was no way to make zazen comfortable. My back ached. My head ached. My legs both ached and fell asleep. I could not sit for as long as I felt I should.
When he was born, my first thought was how warm he was. My second thought was that his birth will someday naturally include his death, and mine. I had the same thought with my first son‘s birth. Though it is less of a shock this time, it is still an excruciating kind of joy.
Discomfort is a useful and universal practice.
The support of others is critical.
There is always something poking unpredictably and unbidden at our zazen—the intrusions and joys offered by others and by our own minds. These are gifts.
The middle path requires effort, but also gentleness. But also effort.
Joy naturally includes sorrow—only with each other are they the entirety of things.
Our own practice nourishes us, and those who are connected to us. This is not a metaphor.
Life is only created by everyone, all the time.
So all zazen is pregnant, with growth and opportunity and unease, with self and other.
There is no sitting for one.
About Keigetsu Heather Martin