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Being Shaken

Edward Brown.When Edward Brown first began meditating, his body shook and rocked on the cushion. But he refused to give up. Instead, he found a way to release the childhood trauma at the root of it.

Early in my Zen practice I could not sit still in meditation, as I was besieged with involuntary movements. I didn’t stop sitting—no, I kept meditating right on schedule—but my pelvis rocked and bucked, and if I managed to hold it still, my shoulders would break loose and rotate energetically. my head would also whip back and forth and from side to side. an intense fight was going on inside me, and I could not find a way to hold everything in place. Suzuki roshi, Kobun chino roshi, Katagiri roshi—nobody knew what to do with me.

Sometimes the movements were violent enough to shake the tatami mats in my corner of the zendo (this was in the original tassajara zendo that burned down in 1976), and for a while I was asked to sit outside in the entryway where I could shake without disturbing others. Generally speaking, the other students were bewildered by my behavior, and if anything, annoyed: “you could stop that shaking if you wanted to. you’re just trying to get attention.”

At the time, I wondered why more people didn’t shake while sitting, as I simply could not help it. I didn’t get it, and I still don’t. years later, I read peter levine’s Waking the Tiger and began to suspect that my meditation had been a haphazard attempt to release traumatic energies previously held inside. Without the benefit of any instruction, support, or directions from sensory-experiencing practitioners or therapists who might have had some familiarity with my predicament, I underwent being shaken. and questions kept cropping up: Was something fundamentally wrong with me? Did no one else experience trauma when they were growing up? Did most people simply find a place to keep the traumatic energy tucked away, and then call what they were doing “meditation”? I knew I could never do any kind of meditation that involved keeping everything problematic buried deep inside.

Excerpted from the Fall 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.

Edward Espe Brown is abbot of the Peaceful Sea Sangha based in northern California. For two decades he lived and worked at the various practice centers that comprise the San Francisco Zen Center. He is author of The Complete Tassajara Cookbook and editor of Not Always So, a book of lectures by shunryu suzuki roshi.

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