When pain becomes just one object among many in our awareness, it loses its power.
Nothing I had learned in my years of Zen sitting practice and innumerable retreats had prepared me for the ordeal of developing rheumatoid arthritis in my seventh year of practice. Overwhelmed by the power of pain, I could do little else but surrender to the pure physicality of my existence. I wouldn't have chosen to explore consciousness on such a visceral level, bur once I was forced to, I discovered that there were other experiences waiting to be noticed.
If, at any given moment, I was aware of ten different aspects of the present moment—say, the hum of the air conditioner, the thought of the laundry I had to do, my glasses sliding down my nose, and throbbing pain in my hips—that's too much pain; it's one object of awareness out of ten. But if, at that moment, I could become aware of a hundred aspects of the present moment—not only the ten things I noticed before but also more subtle aspects, like the shadow of the lamp against the wall, the brush of my hair against my ear, the pull of my clothes against my skin—then my pain was one among a hundred objects of consciousness, and it became a pain I could live with.
How do we develop this appreciation of things just as they are, especially if we are sick and in pain? We must treat our pain gently, respectfully, not resisting it but living with it. When we do resist it, we need to treat that with respect, too. My Zen meditation training turned out to be a great help to me. I simply focused my attention on my immediate experience—on my body sensations, my sense impressions, the stream of my consciousness. As in Zen practice, there is no goal involved. There is only the relentless, implacable present. And it is only in the present that we can cultivate the mental stability that is required to practice nonpreference for the conditions of our lives.
If we take such an attitude, no pain can commandeer our lives. We can begin to live with our suffering in such a way that frustrations and disappointments are part of the rich tapestry of living. To develop this attitude, we need to cultivate skills that enable us to be present for all of our life, not just the moments we prefer. We tend to overlook these everyday epiphanies, waiting for some Big Event. What cultivating attention to detail introduces is spaciousness, space around thoughts and activities, that allows us to live a rich and satisfying life right in the middle of misery.
Just as a clay Buddha cannot go through water and a wood Buddha cannot go through fire, a goal-oriented healing practice cannot permeate deeply enough. We must penetrate our pain so thoroughly that illness and health lose their distinction, allowing us just to live our lives. Our relief from pain and our healing have to be given up again and again to set us free of the desire to be well. Otherwise, getting well is just another hindrance to us, like any other achievement. Fortunately for our ultimate freedom, recurring illness is like a villain stomping on our fingertips as we cling desperately to our healthy, functioning bodies. Healing ourselves is like living our lives. It is not a preparation for anything else, nor a journey to another situation called wellness. It is its own self; it has its own value. It is each thing as it is.
Darlene Cohen is a Zen priest trained at San Francisco Zen Center and a teacher at Crystal Springs Sangha in Burlingame, California. She works with people in pain in Sonoma County, gives seminars at medical facilities and meditation centers throughout the country on living with chronic pain, and is the author of Turning Suffering Inside Out.
Image: Tibetan medical painting illustrating sowa rigpa, the ancient Tibetan "science of healing." From the Blue Beryl, a 17th century Tibetan medical text.