“The Marrow of Zen,” one of the sutras of Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, relates zen practitioners to four horses, with the fourth horse responding only after the pain of the whip penetrates to the marrow of its bones. If alcoholics need to hit rock bottom, I have some sense of what that means. I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind thirty years ago, yet it took the onset of chronic neurological pain in order to commit to something I had only dabbled in for decades.

When looking out became impossible, and I could reflect but not imagine, I retreated within. At times, breathing was the only thing I could manage. What I found looking within was a life thrown out of balance, like a load having shifted in the back of a pick up with nothing securing it to the bed. Having seen myself for so long as a good guy, it was unsettling to realize how vain, shallow and self-indulgent I could be. Meditation became the ropes to re-anchor the load.

Who knew that pain could teach so much? Not me, but I now admit to being a slow learner. Someone might question whether I’m glad for the headaches. Make no mistake, I would like to be free of the symptoms that stifle me and keep me from enjoying all of my days. In fact, my search for a cure continues. Yet, looking back, I don’t think I would have otherwise learned things about my life and I’m glad to have found a teacher who speaks my language.  Pain has finally penetrated so that I know in my bones what once I only thought in my mind.

by Charles Varani


Charles lives, writes and teaches in Oregon. He is also a shodan at Open Sky Aikido and rides his bicycle. Like most people in the Willamette Valley, he usually has something fermenting.


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