Thursday, 27 August 2015

Zen pilgrimage walk: Meditation on pain

I recently got back from a 4-week pilgrimage walk through the country, which I did as a Zen monk – carrying no money, just living from my alms bowl. In last week's article I talked about why I would even do such a thing. This week I'd like to talk a little about one of the most intense aspects of the walk - the pain in my feet.

Before I get onto that though, I should say a few words about the route I took and my unusual footwear.

The route

My meandering path was defined by the people I wanted to visit along the way: there was the Dorset contingent of our sangha based in Bournemouth, my partner's mum who lives in Salisbury, some other sangha members in Whitchurch near Andover and in Oxford, the Amara Vati monastery near Hemel Hempstead, the Nipponzan Myohoji temple at the peace pagoda in Milton Keynes, another sangha member in Northampton, the Tariki Trust house in Leicester, and some another sangha members in Nottingham, Sheffield, and Hebden Bridge.

The total distance was about 380 miles (see the full map here).


The traditional footwear for a Zen monk on the road would have been a pair of white socks with a separated big toe, called tabi, worn together with a pair of straw sandals, called waraji, which are held on with laces around your ankle and lower-leg. In more modern times, a rubber sole has been added to the tabi socks to make them more robust and more like canvas boots (called jika-tabi). The sole is very thin and flexible (similar to bare-foot running shoes), so the waraji add a nice layer of padding underneath.

Under normal circumstances, the waraji wear out after about 3 days of walking, so I knew I was going to need a good stock of them for the whole journey. I got 10 pairs kindly brought over from Japan.

But while I was on our Zen sesshin retreat, a friend gave me a big rubber sheet, together with some glue and a needle and thread, and showed me how to sew a rubber sole onto the bottom of the waraji sandals. We had enough to rubberise two pairs, which in the end was actually all I needed. The rubber bore the brunt of the tarmac abrasion and the second pair fell apart literally on the last day of my walk! Thanks so much to Gensho for showing me this technique. I now have 8 spare pairs of waraji for sale...

Since the jika-tabi are essentially the socks and fit very snugly, I wore nothing inside them. This was to the consternation of all my acquaintances who had ever done any hiking...

Developing sensations

I'd had a couple of longer practice-walks in the tabi boots and waraji before I started the pilgrimage. After each of these I carefully noted where the blisters had begun to develop. People had recommended zinc-oxide plaster tape (easily available at Boots) as a way of avoiding blisters, so on day 1 I taped up my feet in all the places I knew blisters were likely, and happily walked off into the Dorset countryside.

Little did I know that zinc-oxide tape is no match for the tabi boots... Over the first few days of walking I developed some fairly substantial blisters (under the tape), accompanied by some fairly substantial pain. In Salisbury, my partner's mum very kindly did some internet research and bought me some adhesive cotton padding to put on my feet. One of her friends also extremely kindly donated me a few packets of Compeed (blister plasters) which were very helpful.

I hadn't at all anticipated the level of pain I experienced in my feet over that first week. Every step became excruciating, often to the point of tears... The strongest sensations came when I started off again after a break (I'm going to guess here that after walking for some time, the reason I feel less sensation is that the pain gates in my nervous system began to close – see my blog article about pain gates here).

An important turning point in those first few days was when I realised that I was doing no long-term damage by continuing to walk on the blisters. Knowing that the pain wasn't carrying any serious messages, I knew that it was simply a sensation and I just had to get on with it.

[Health warning: Most of the time pain is a very important signal saying that damage to the body is occurring and something needs to be done about it! If, for example, you've got your finger in the gas flame, just allowing and accepting the sensations isn't going to do you much good.]

Wanting the pain to stop

I quickly realised that tensing up against the pain made things worse. Wanting it to go away also just made things worse. Wanting (or 'craving' in Buddhist terminology) stems from the wish for things to be different to what they are right now. And of course, in this moment, right now, how can things be different? Maybe in a future moment things will be different, but right now it's utterly futile to want things to be anything but what they are. This wanting (whether that's in the sense of pulling towards or pushing away) is what causes suffering – not accepting that things are as they are right now.

I wrote this on day 6:
"Walking is very simple - just put one foot in front of the other. After 6 days of it though, the pain is intense and the mind constantly seeks ways to escape, for relief. There is no escape though - only through softening and acceptance does the suffering end, and a constant re-realisation that there is only now."
So my walking became a practice of softening my feet, every step – softening and allowing the sensations. Not trying to make them go away or make them change in any way. In that first week, after feeling quite nauseous at the end of a few of the days, and I realised I'd also been tightening my belly against the pain. So my walking became a practice of softening my feet and my belly, every step, every breath. I found my footsteps and breath often came into sync (two steps in, three steps out), and on each out-breath I concentrated on totally relaxing my belly (or hara). This helped a lot.

Later I realised that in my softening there was still a whiff of wanting – because I wanted to make the pain feel less. Fair enough you might say – but this was still a craving for something other than the reality of that moment. It was subtle and much more difficult to let go of.

So like this – focussing on relaxing my feet and belly, and letting go as much as I could of the wish for the pain to go away – the miles fell away. There was the rhythm of the breath, and the rhythm of the walking – step after step. Not wanting anything to be any different – enjoying the sunshine on my back and the smell of the hedgerow flowers as they wafted by, and simply allowing the pain sensations to be there (whether they were strong, sharp, dull, or throbbing).

Audio diary entry from 5th August where I talk about the pain in my feet:

Night time

After some weeks of walking the blisters all but cleared up. But you know that feeling of ache you get in your feet after standing up for a long time? – that took over! And you know the feeling of relief you get when you do finally sit (or lie) down? – kind of like a feeling of expansion? – that became the dominant feeling during the night. It was like a feeling of relief that became so intense that it was painful in of itself!

But I kept on reminding myself of this famous adage which couldn't be more true:

"Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional" - Buddhist proverb

By the morning though, my feet always felt ready to face another day of walking. It's amazing what a night's sleep can heal.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Ever had a similar experience? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts on meditating on pain.

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  1. Similar to that Buddhist proverb, I favour the perspective, "Pain is an emotion. Take care of the emotion and it is just a sensation."

    But a lot of pain - ah well, that is more of a test indeed, isn't it? What a terror to experience, and what a marvel to be able to anchor peace and serenity.

    Amazing to read and hear more of your travels Mark, great job.

    This is what I have on my path with pain and vitality at some point in the next couple of years -

  2. I saw bullet ants when I was in Costa Rica and heard about the ritual of getting yourself stung. I have a sense of what that chap in the video went through, but really, that's a whole different level. The thing is not really the pain, but it's how you deal with it - there's where the teaching lies.

  3. I feel your pain just reading your account here - a brilliant description. Which was enhanced for me by listening to the audio clip and hearing you use swear words. This brought an added layer of authenticity to what I have been hearing and reading. I did ponder on 'A Monk that swears' ... more in surprise than judging that to be wrong. Thanks Mark .... your written account so far and the clip here make my experience of learning about your walk - and it's purpose - encourages me to commit to deepening my own practice.