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How the practice of zazen could help women give birth.

During the last decade, I’ve been an on and off zazen practicioner. This means that regularly, I sit on my meditation cushion, and if possible, I join a zazen retreat once a year for some more sustained practice. I’ve often wondered whether zazen is really “it” for me – there’s no immediate result or goal, and the meditation is usually rather challenging. But I’ve come to realise that this practice has affected my daily life in a very subtle and profound way. It seems that in practicing zazen, I cultivate a mindset that helps me to cope with daily problems and challenges. Moreover, it’s on the most crucial moments in life that I seem to reap the true benefits from this practice. Let me explain what I mean, by sharing my own childbirth stories.

I’ve given birth three times.

The first time, in summer 2018, my contractions started somewhere in the evening, and lasted for about 30 hours, before finally my water broke. My body could only rest in “micro-sleeps” during the 10 minutes or so in between contractions. Because it was a first child, and because the whole process

took so incredibly long, it felt like I was dwelling in some sort of parallel universe. When finally I could start pushing out our baby boy, everything went smooth and fast. It was a clean, natural, uncomplicated standard hospital delivery.

The second time, in spring 2020, there was a problem. During the first trimester ultrasound, the doctor saw something abnormal – the bowels of the foetus were opaque on the screen. That was the start of an emotional rollercoaster, with nerve-wrecking waiting in between tests. My husband and I finally got the diagnosis: our unborn baby suffered from a severe type of cystic fibrosis. All around us the covid pandemic took hold of the world. We welcomed the increasing social isolation to face our dilemma: continue the pregnancy or not? After some weeks of intense enquiry and introspection, we decided to abort. I was 26 weeks pregnant when the doctor injected a lethal dose of potassium in the navel cord. About 12 hours after she died in my belly, I gave birth to our beautiful, sick baby girl. It was a horrible experience. The medication coaxed my body into a hasty, untempered labour. There

was no reward in the end, only death.

The third time, in fall 2021, we arranged everything for a home birth. My husband’s music studio – underground, dark, with great features like a starry sky and very soft acoustics – was completely transformed into a delivery room. The contractions started around midnight. Six hours later, tired and happy in the warm tub with my husband, I was holding our second baby boy in my arms.

These births made for three completely different experiences, but they were all very intense in their own way. Physically they were relatively smooth - all vaginal, and all without anaesthesia, cuts or tears. My babies were always lean, and I have no medical preconditions that could complicate things.

Nevertheless, all three of these births were challenging, because that’s what giving birth is like. At the start, labour pains are mild and you get to rest a bit in between. But at some point it all gets so overwhelming, that full focus is required. It’s like nothing else exists anymore. There’s nowhere else to go to, there’s no escape button, there’s only this moment, and it hurts. In general, in our daily lives, we try to avoid intense situations like that. We like to be in charge of things, we like comfort and we avoid suffering. When giving birth, all of this gets challenged. Labour pains, medical interventions, uncertainties about how and when, ... every birth story is an extraordinary adventure.

How should one deal with this? You can’t really compare it to anything else, so how can a woman prepare and train for this? I don’t believe you really can. But maybe zazen can be helpful. Zazen is a practice of full commitment. It is a meditation technique, where you sit down with a straight back and you breathe. So basically you just sit, but you do this with everything you’ve got, every second, over and over. Often the mind wanders, the body aches, emotions bubble up. But whatever happens, you sit through, all the way through. You train focus, grace, and stamina. You learn to trust and relax, even when it gets rough. There’s no need to try anything, or to make an effort. The way to do it right, is to surrender, and to pour all of yourself into this moment, over and over again. And that is exactly what I found extremely helpful during my childbirth experiences. A midwife recently told me that “contractions” is a deceptive word. The womb is very muscled, that is true. But labour is not so much about squeezing. Rather it’s about stretching: the belly muscles pull the uterus upward, so that the cervix can shorten and open up. It might sound like a paradox, but in my experience, the biggest effort during labour is exactly that: opening up. It’s the effort of letting go. The body knows what to do, you just have to give it permission.

So stop trying, stop controlling, stop wanting to avoid pain, and dive in, whether you’re pregnant or not. Dive in with all you’ve got, over and over again. This is where life is born.

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