Breaking through the pain barriers

Discussion of meditation in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.

Breaking through the pain barriers

Postby Inge » Fri Feb 26, 2010 11:58 pm

The following quote is from a Chan dharma talk by venerable Master Hsuan Hua:
"Chan investigation requires single-minded concentration. When single-minded concentration reaches its ultimate point, then you will be able to deal with things. It's said, "When things reach their extreme, a change must take place." It doesn't matter what the situation, by pursuing it to it's end, you can deal with it. Now as you sit in meditation, don't cry as soon as your legs start to hurt. After the pain reaches an extreme, it will stop and you will experience an inconceivable and ineffably wonderful state. There is no way I can express that state to you; you have to experiment for yourself. Once you experience pain to the extreme point, you won't have any more pain. You will have broken through the pain barrier. But breaking through one barrier is not enough. After a while there will be another barrier, and then later on another barrier. The first pain barrier was after one hour. But when you have sat for one and a half hours, the pain comes up again. Why does that happen? Your blood and qi (energy) reach a certain place, and they want to get through a barrier--another barrier of pain. And so you have to endure the pain again. You endure it until it doesn't hurt any more. Once the pain disappears, you will feel at ease and very happy--an inexpressible bliss, an ineffable comfort. At that time you will feel Earth over Heaven making Peace.

You must break through these barriers in order to attain benefits. If you act like a child who cries at the first sign of pain, then you will never be able to break through these barriers. You need to have patience. Endure what is unendurable! Grit your teeth and bear it! But you must be resolute! Don't fear suffering! Don't fear pain! Don't fear difficulty! With these three kinds of fearlessness, you can break through the three barriers." (source: http://www.cttbusa.org/dharmatalks/chan2.asp)

Do you know if this is specific to chan meditation practice or if it is the same way with other types of sitting meditation practice?

I also wonder about the timing - in the quoted text Master Hsuan Hua says that the first barrier is reached after one hour, but I have managed to sit in half lotus for maybe 70 minutes, and regular cross-legged for 90 minutes, without reaching a barrier, after maybe 50 minutes my body starts shaking and I start cold sweating, but the pain in the legs just gets worse and worse without any sign of reaching a maximum, and after a while I can't take it and gives up. I read somewhere that one chinese hour equals two western hours - maybe Master Hua was refering to one of those hours?

Do you know how much time it is supposed to take to reach the first pain barrier? And do you know if the posture is important? Is it only with full lotus, for instance, that it happens as Master Hsuan Hua says, or does the same thing happen with half lotus and regular cross-legged pose?

What are your experience with the pain barriers? Have you broken through them? How long did it take? Do you have to break through each of them every time you sit, or is each particular pain barrier done with once and for all when you have been able to sit through it?

I also read somewhere that the hell realms corresponds with our legs, and that by sitting through the pain barriers one liberates the tormented beings that resides there. Do you know anything about this?
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Re: Breaking through the pain barriers

Postby malalu » Sat Feb 27, 2010 3:17 am

I don't know that this is specific to Chan meditation practice. Though what Master Hua has said can be taken literally, I think that it is good to try to break through our many barriers which we have, both physical and mental. I think that pain is only one example. Of course, I don't think we should take this to the extreme, of causing ourselves a lot of agony by being stubborn either. Perhaps he is teaching on multiple levels here, and encouraging one to not give in so easily, especially when doing a form of concentrated practice, otherwise it is tough to "break through".

In my experience, I think that what he say's is true. If you can reach a pretty good state of one pointed concentration, many of these things will fall by the wayside. Of course, the catch is that something like physical pain can be a hindrance to achieving that. So it may be almost two sided here, and maybe pain is only a partial analogy/example in this case. Maybe sort of like saying if we do not chase after our thoughts we might achieve Shamatha and these thoughts won't be a hindrance.


As for the time factor, I think it always depends on the person, their body and other factors. I've sat with people who can sit quite a long while, and others who get restless quite quickly. I can sit for much longer in half lotus than full lotus, for example, so I think it is relative.

I don't know that I have a specific "pain barrier", but I have found that I'm almost better to just push through discomfort. Once I begin to fix things, it can become quite a distraction.

Oh. I've been to China, and when I was practicing there, one "Chinese" hour was equivalent to one "Western" hour. ;)
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Re: Breaking through the pain barriers

Postby Huifeng » Sat Feb 27, 2010 12:12 pm

Only do this sort of thing under the guidance of a good teacher. And, be fully prepared to take responsibility for yourself. I've seen some nasty results of this sort of thing.

The actual time varies from person to person, under different conditions.
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Re: Breaking through the pain barriers

Postby catmoon » Sat Feb 27, 2010 9:35 pm

I guess if you want to do this full lotus is required. My longest sit to date was about three hours, and the pain factor was miniscule. But I don't sit even half lotus. Sometimes I get an achy back or sore muscles, but mostly that happens when I sit without a cushion outdoors... and rather than push through it, I will just change posture for a few minutes.

The worst thing that happens to me is foot cramps, but I have learned that if one does not resist the pain and maintains full relaxation, they pass in a minute or two. If I fight them they can go on and on and on. After a while I even started playing with them. If I was drowsy I would deliberately fight off the cramp to keep it going and stay alert. Once I was wide awake, I'd let go and it would soon pass. I have not yet learned to initiate a cramp at will though. Not sure I want to learn that.

This pushing through a massive wall o pain stuff though... big pain might be all in the mind, but then, it might also signal the destruction of one's knees or something like that.
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Re: Breaking through the pain barriers

Postby Indrajala » Sun Feb 28, 2010 2:35 am

If you're in that much pain, you might want to reconsider your methods.

If you end up injuring your knees or damaging nerves, you might be less inclined to do any meditation at all in the future.

Take it easy at first.
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Re: Breaking through the pain barriers

Postby Inge » Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:00 pm

Huifeng wrote:Only do this sort of thing under the guidance of a good teacher. And, be fully prepared to take responsibility for yourself. I've seen some nasty results of this sort of thing.

The actual time varies from person to person, under different conditions.


Venerable Huifeng,

I have great faith in the teachings of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, and don't know where or how to find a teacher like him.

What I gather from the texts I have read is that the process of breaking through pain barriers is kind of a mechanical thing that happens because qi presses through to new areas when you sit in the correct posture for a while. Also it seems that what you do with the mind is of minor importance here, it is the actual physical position that enables the process.

I dont see how Master Hua could have allowed this kind of instructions to be published, for anybody to read, if it really was dangerous to do this kind of practice?


This is my current understanding of the process, please let me know if it is pure nonsense:

When one sits in the correct meditation posture for a certain amount of time your reach the first barrier. The pain is unbearable, but if you bear it anyway, you will break trough the first barrier, then the beings of the first hell is liberated, and you will enter a wonderful state before the pain starts building up again in another place, the same thing happens again, and the process continues until all the hells are emptied. Then all your hell karma is burnt up, there is no aversion or hatred left. This also corresponds with the breaking up of the form skandha. Then, if you remain seated in the same posture, as qi? continues to press through to new areas, all the realms of the hungry ghousts are emptied, one by one, until all preta-karma is exhausted and there are no longer any craving or attachment left.This corresponds to the breaking up of the feeling skandha. Then the process continues until all animals are liberated, all delusions are gone, and the perception skandha has broken up. Then the asura realm and god realm are emptied as jealusy and pride is exhausted and the formation and consciousness skhanda are breaking up. When the last god of the highest heaven is liberated, samsara is empty and you have fulfilled your bodhisattva vows and only the great wisdom of all buddhas remains.
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Re: Breaking through the pain barriers

Postby Inge » Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:10 pm

Huseng wrote:If you're in that much pain, you might want to reconsider your methods.

If you end up injuring your knees or damaging nerves, you might be less inclined to do any meditation at all in the future.

Take it easy at first.


I can't find a position that does not hurt after a little while, other than laying on the back, but then I fall asleep.

I have been doing several hundreds of hours of lotus prepearing streaching excersises the last 1.5 years, and I'm confident now that the pain is not regular nerve or joint pain etc, but some kind of energy? that moves around in the area from the lower back to the toes.
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