At some point bringing my attention back to a global awareness of the present moment stopped being a thing I had to do. The pain did it for me. My left ankle, trapped underneath my right shin as I sat cross legged on a cushion, throbbed with electric pain with every heartbeat. Each time my mind wandered, a jolt of pain would wrench it back..
At first it was uncomfortable. Then, about 30 minutes in, it started to hurt. It became unbearable nearing the end. My left ankle, my right knee, my thighs, my lower back. They melded together into a lake of pain within which my mind hopped from lily pad to lily pad. At times the mind would simply drift down into the water itself, submerging into a comprehensive fire, drowning everything, and then I’d suddenly find myself adrift, lazily coasting in a canoe of future plans, or a raft of my past. As I noticed myself drifting, a flare would yank me back to the pain, and the hopping would continue.
At some point I thought the timer must have stopped. It had to be close to two hours by then. That text message I got must have overridden the timer, which is why I didn’t hear the halfway gong, because it had to be close to done. This was far longer than I’d ever sat before already, and light streamed through the window above me, which meant it must be close. My foot was on fire. An icicle pierced my knee. Shooting pain shouted at me to move. Adjust. Do SOMEthing to make it stop. But I hadn’t moved at all yet, so I just had to hold out a bit longer.
I heard a gong. Unfamiliar. Must be the halfway interval. I was an hour into my first unbroken 120-minute meditation, which meant I had that amount again to go. My foot screamed, my mind instinctually ran from the pain to the anticipated pride that was only 60-minutes away. I caught myself drifting again, and settled back into the fire. I noticed my right hip had tightened up only when it finally let go, as I relaxed the weight of my right leg deeper onto my left ankle.
I empathized with my left foot. It mobilized every force at its disposal, throwing the most intense, unyielding pain at my brain, and still my body did not relent. It stayed still, while I observed. The intensity shifted after a time, dissolving into pins and needles, and still I watched. The pins and needles dulled, or I was somehow more distant from them, and upon noticing this my mind suggested that my foot would be amputated as a result of this exercise. It wouldn’t survive, and I’d hobble the rest of my life. Too stubborn and stupid to walk again.
No. It was only two hours. People did this all the time, right? I stayed with it.
At some point the pain stopped being a problem. It didn’t go anywhere, but I wasn’t as involved with it, somehow. It throbbed, it burned, and my heartbeat amplified a deep electric current throughout my ankle and my foot, but all that was pretty ok. It was interesting to watch, more than anything. At first I watched mostly the pain, savoring the multiple layers and subtleties within the sensations. Then I followed the pain up my leg my waist my torso my brain and watched the birth of a compulsion that nearly moved my legs involuntarily. A kind of surety, that no matter what I’d sat with thus far, this time was different and I simply had to move or I’d do irreparable damage. I watched the thought fade away into mist, leaving only raw sensations.
I noticed myself thinking, then, that I’d done it. Like a marathoner passing the 13th mile, I’d gone past the pain and reached, what? Ecstasy? Not really. Enlightenment? No. No, but it was a kind of equilibrium. It appeared as though I’d reached a different relationship with the pain, in which the pain just was, and I just was, and we were both simply ok with that. I could sustain this forever, I felt. This peaceful reprieve, the eye of a whirling storm. And then my right knee lit up as if a knife had lifted up the kneecap.
It hit me hard, and I found myself swallowing reflexively. My first movement in forever. My hip relaxed again, and I saw the signals coming from my knee up my leg torso brain and again the compulsion to move. But I knew what happened next, this time. I felt the familiar electricity in my ankle, and knew I wouldn’t move. I settled into the pain in my knee, leaning into the knife while the blue jays chirped through the open window. I felt myself slipping underneath the water, being swallowed into the lake of fire. I felt a peace and stillness so big it enveloped everything, reducing my pain to an angry child in the distance. My angry child, I realized. I loved him. And I was grateful.
I heard the thump of my three-year old jumping out of bed, and there was a wave of sadness. I wouldn’t get to finish, I knew, and there was disappointment. Getting the kids fed and ready for the day was my job, and I couldn’t let them be downstairs alone with sharp things. I could say I made it 110-minutes, at least. It had to be close, for fuck’s sake. Maybe I could make it, I thought. I heard another thump, and a voice, “we can go downstairs, Leo. We can go and play downstairs and see mom and dad.” A rumble as they ran down the hallway and to the steps. I had to stop.
I closed my eyes. I lifted my hands up to my forehead, savoring every sensation, every glorious movement. I grabbed each knee in turn and, degree by degree, unfolded my legs. The pain evaporated into a dull ache, and I sat with myself on the cushion. I heard voices on the other side of the house. And then, the sound of the final gong. I had made it.
I smiled, and stood up, pushing off of my son’s fuzzy rocking sheep amidst the sense that I’d gained a kind of knowing, somehow. Something about pain, but it seemed even broader than that. I decided I’d have to think on it. I opened the door and followed my boys downstairs to make them breakfast.
I noticed my computer sitting on the kitchen table, triggering an impulse to answer an email I’d noticed the night before.