Too many long retreats. Too many years of dumb-ass intensive sitting — three crazy 100-day retreats in the mountains of South Korea, something like forty-five 90-day retreats, five or seven 30-day retreats, and three years now of monthly 3-day retreats. I never thought it would be necessary to say this, but all that time sitting on the ass, keeping a rigid schedule, all the while systematically denying myself long periods of sleep seem to have cumulatively taken a huge toll on the health. All signs indicate that those days are pretty much over. Got to shift into another mode of teaching. The left knee suffers from torn meniscus — 108 bows are a thing of the past, and even long periods of sitting become painful. I need a little pillow to prop up the knee, and cannot do a deep half-bow in that position while seated cross-legged; the right knee is showing signs of the same problem appearing there. It seems to be only a matter of time before I have two torn-meniscus knees.
Inconvenient though they may be, however, those sorts of joint problems can maybe be worked around. But now I am living with a serious affliction of the bleeding butt. Whereas hemorrhoid problems would occasionally appear only for a day or two during the most intensive retreats in Korean traditional temple-style training, now it is just a daily feature of life in retreat. I’m streaming so much now, it feels like one long menstruation without end. Even sitting on a chair produces the same result.
Doing some internet research lately on my worsening condition, I discovered something really fascinating that makes utter sense. The Chinese character for “hemorrhoid” is actually a compound character of two radicals, which means it is the combination of two separate radicals which give a new meaning. The compound character for “hemorrhoid” is:
Anyone who has spent any time in Northeast Asia will recognize, at the heart of the character for “hemorrhoid,” the character that is used for “temple” — Buddhist temple.
And the radical which surrounds it, almost like a house, is the radical for “illness,” or “ailment.”
So, the Chinese character for “hemorrhoid” means “temple ailment.” Too much meditation with legs crossed causes stagnation of the blood, much less lots of venous pressure. Hemorrhoids are an ailment of life in the (Zen) temple. I already saw lots of that stuff, but thought it was people with bad living habits on top of all the sitting. Maybe too much white rice and fermented veggies. Since I do a vigorous Ashtanga training most days of the week, and eat so much fiber, and even live by constant intermittent fasting, it could not possibly happen to me, right?
I’ve been to some doctors recently. They go through their usual checklist for the possible causes of my ambitiously streaming ass. All the usual suspects are tossed out at me: “Not enough fiber?” (no — I eat once of the most fiber-rich meals possible, every day). “Too much red meat?” (I am pretty much full-time veggie, except for unavoidable situations). “Stress?” (well, running a Zen community as a single teacher…), etc etc. Not obese, and I don’t ever strain on the toilet, whatsoever: constipation has never ever been a problem for me. “Sedentary lifestyle?” Yes, I sit a lot. “How much?” Um, QUITE a lot. When I tell the doctors that I’ve done “a number” of 90-day retreats, sometimes sitting from 2:00 am until 22:00, ninety days without a break, their jaws hit the floor. It’s not exactly a condition they have been taught to deal with in medical school, I suppose.
The doctor has told me I need to cut down on all this ass-time. If I do not change this, I am going to need a serious reparative operation. It’s not fun. I once sat a retreat with a Western monk who had to leave because he ignored the warning signs, let his hemorrhoid condition grow extremely inflamed, he bled out through his pants onto the cushion, and ended up having his ass cut open and restitched. He had to drop out of the retreat. His stories of the agony of being stitched there — and then UNstitched — put the fear of god in me.
The doctors say that, now that this condition has gone from infrequent to constant, it will possibly never recover without invasive surgery. And even THEN, surgery never “solves” it forever. It merely increases the chance that the problem just moves to another part of the rectum, and I’ll need more surgery another couple of years down the line.
For the last year, I have been ruminating deeply on this. It looks like I am going to have to reconsider things and give up the long-term retreats. That’s especially hard because I have evolved (devolved) into a teacher who relishes being on the cushion for every sitting with my students, closely sensing their practice, taking the pulse of the energy of the room and intervening — sparingly, but where necessary — to drive the group when I feel the verve is flagging, especially after meals.
But, for the first time, I may need to take a year off leading the 90-day Winter Kool Che, in order to let this thing heal. For the long haul. Stay tuned.
(Special thanks to https://triangulations.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/buddhist-hemmorhoids/)