Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Jasper von Richthofen, modified 9 Months ago.

Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 6 Join Date: 6/3/20 Recent Posts
Hello all,

I've been meditating consistently for about five years now but since last year I've been encountering the same persistent problem in all of my sits and also during daily life. The problem is a pronounced tension in my neck, shoulders and reaching further down my spinal cord. Whenever I sit, all I feel is this tension. Sort of as if somehow put a very heavy blanket on my back. Or as if there's a frozen hard 'plaque' that weighs down on my spinal cord and neck. Sometimes it even gives me a light headache. 

It also really hinders any concentration practice I do as the more concentrated I become, the more noticeable the tension is. Noting practice is still possible because I'll note the tension and my reactions to it. 

This started one year ago while I was doing a 3-month retreat in Asia. About halfway through the retreat I started becoming aware of tension in my neck. This then developed into a more nuanced sensation that spread over my shoulders and down my spinal cord. The interesting thing is that after meditating for three months I could actually feel the tension coming apart and slowly lowering down my back.

I've read more about it and it seems like there's some sort of emotions behind this tension. I reminded me a lot of the 'character armor' Wilhelm Reich talks about. I'm also doing focusing (by Gendlin) but have difficulty to get a feeling to come up. It all just feels very frozen. I also notice a decrease in emotions overall and a decreased sex-drive. 

As I'm in Brazil at the moment, I've also done a few ayahuasca ceremonies a few times to investigate it from a different angle/tradition. It does confirm that there are emotions behind the tension. My body started shaking intensely and it felt as if it was 'melting the ice'. Accompanying this I felt extreme emotions of anger, sickness and agony. The tension is still there though.

Does anyone have experience with this?

And is it a good idea to continue insight practice and let this resolve on its own or to actively try to resolve the emotions before continuing with insight practices? 


Thanks

With metta,
Jasper
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spatial, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 601 Join Date: 5/20/18 Recent Posts
This sounds not unlike something that happens to me.

At first, it totally freaked me out. I saw doctors. I wouldn't let myself meditate for very long at a time, because the meditation made it worse.

It doesn't bother me anymore, but it's still there. I wonder if it will go away eventually.

But getting to a point where it stopped bothering me took work. I think it's some kind of interference pattern between the movement of your attention and other habitual (I guess emotional) reactions. So, the act of being attentive makes it worse. That means you have to face it head on. Maybe it's some kind of karmic debt that you just have to pay off. Try to view it as your friend, not your enemy.

Also, spend time moving your body slowly and mindfully.
Jasper von Richthofen, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 6 Join Date: 6/3/20 Recent Posts
Thanks for your advice spatial.

In some ways I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one experiencing this and also happy to hear that it doesn't bother you anymore.

I can notice how in some periods I am fighting it and want it to go away and that then causes a lot of suffering. Other moments I just let it be there and then there is no feeling of it being a 'problem'. So I will try to be very mindful if there is any resistance occurring in my mind. 

I've also thought about the idea of karmic debt and it does give me some solace, knowing that by experiencing it, things will get better in the future. 

I agree with the mindful movements of the body. Yoga has also helped me get more in touch with my body so I will continue that as well.

Again, thanks
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Zachary, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 196 Join Date: 3/16/18 Recent Posts
Hi Jasper, welcome to DhO. 

What you are describing is normal for certain stages of the path, I as well as many others here have gone through phases of practice similar to what you describe. There are lots of models and practices for working with these somatic experiences but the important thing is to approach this territory with a sense of curiosity and patience.

From what you've written, I think you can safely continue with insight practice as well as explore other modalities for working with these things at an emotional and psychological level if you'd like. Steady, consistent practice is the key here, and I would encourage you to keep moving forward.

One idea that came to mind is that you could try dropping any mental noting and instead gently incline awareness towards any impermanence you feel in any stubborn areas of tension. 
Jasper von Richthofen, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 6 Join Date: 6/3/20 Recent Posts
Thanks Zachary,

Is there any particular practice you could advise me to do to work with these somatic sensations?

And I'll continue with the insight practice, as well as do it consistently, which is going fine these past months during quarantine. 

I like the idea of dropping mental noting and inclining awareness to impermanence. I will give that a try.
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Zachary, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 196 Join Date: 3/16/18 Recent Posts
Since you asked, I would recommend Zhan Zhuang standing meditation and Qi Gong. I've found these to be excellent ways to both ground and work with somatic experiences of energy and tension. Master Lam Kam Chuen has a great book, The Way of Energy, and a series on YouTube that describe these techniques in a very accessible way. You might find that they pair well with a lot of Wilhelm Reich's models and work. 

I initially started Zhan Zhuang to augment my insight practice but have had such good results with it that I would now consider it my primary practice. 
Jasper von Richthofen, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 6 Join Date: 6/3/20 Recent Posts
Thanks! I'll check it out. 

If I may ask, what kind of benefits have Zhan Zhuang given you so that it became your primary practice? 
Brian, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 93 Join Date: 1/21/19 Recent Posts
Well, there are other perspectives. In the Suttavadan camp, they say the Buddha tried and eventually rejected concentration/absorbtion practices. In my practice, I don't try to concentrate, I try to weaken craving by relaxing. The anapanasati sutta advises to relax on the inbreath, relax on the outbreath, etc. What if you were to do some sits where your strategy was to enjoy a feeling of metta or general gladness, and when distracted, to relax the body tension associated with the craving that distracted you, smile, feel the relief associated with relaxing, and then go back to the object (some wholesome feeling)?
Jasper von Richthofen, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 6 Join Date: 6/3/20 Recent Posts
Thanks, Brian

That's very interesting indeed and sounds a lot like the TWIM method by Bhante Vimalaramsi. I have watched a few videos of him and I feel that there's a lot of truth in what he's saying with regard to relaxing the mind and letting go of craving. 

I will give it a try, thanks!
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David Matte, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat (Answer)

Posts: 60 Join Date: 8/3/19 Recent Posts
Hi!
I would definitely say it's possible that this some sort of psychophysical tension. Mind and body are not two; the central nervous system (brain) interfaces with the peripheral nervous system (body)

First I would say it's important to be very mindful of the feeling as often as you can, not reacting with aversion towards it. Also I would recommend you drop concentration practice and switch to insight practice to be able to look at this sensation clearly. When doing insight practice, really soak your awareness into the sensations around your neck and shoulders; investigate the contours of the tension. Notice if any associated difficult emotions arise as part of this investigation. Remember, you don't want to hold the attitude of trying to get rid of anything, just be aware and be patient. These things were probably imprarted into the body over many years so these things can take a while to dissolve.

In the book "The Essential Ken Wilber" , Ken speaks about these tensions being the result of suppressed (or resisted) emotions with particular body regions storing particular emotions. Tensions in the neck and shoulder region indicate suppressed or held-in anger, rage, or hositility. He gives some interesting analysis on how they get imparted into the body and some interesting methods to dissolve them, including consciously increasing the tension or pressure by further tightening the muscles. This, he says can release the emotions buried beneth the muscular cramp/tension.
Jasper von Richthofen, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Neck, back and shoulder tension after a 3 month retreat

Posts: 6 Join Date: 6/3/20 Recent Posts
I fully agree with what you're saying, thanks for writing that out. 

I need to remind myself to be patient cause sometimes there is aversion and I fight it. But it helps to notice that the mind is doing the aversion and not 'me' and to then note it. And as I was quite ambitious and goal-oriented when it comes to my meditation practice this is a hard lesson of patience for me. Perhaps in some way that's the positive thing about it, that it forces me to drop my eagerness for results and just stick with what is. 

Around me I'm stumbling upon Ken Wilber's stuff more and more, so I think it might be time to buy this book and check him out. I can very well imagine the tension in the shoulders being connected to anger as that is one of the most prominent emotions I experience during some sits.
Thanks for the suggestion. 

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