Filed in Theravada, Sickness

Tough Teachings To Ease The Mind

Do we respond to physical pain in the wisest way? Fleeing it, we get caught in it. A Thai meditation master has another answer: Get to know suffering to be free of it.

Upasika Kee Nanayon

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Dream Anatomy TricyclePeople lying in bed ill are lucky because they have the opportunity to do nothing but contemplate stress and pain. Their minds don’t need to take up anything else, don’t need to go anywhere else. They have the opportunity to contemplate pain at all times—and let go of pain at all times.

To contemplate inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness [in Buddhism, the three marks of existence—anicca, dukkha, and anatta—more commonly known as impermanence, suffering, and no-self] as they appear right to you while you’re lying here ill, is very beneficial. Just don’t think that you’re what’s hurting. Simply see the natural phenomena of physical and mental events as they arise and pass away. They’re not you. They’re not really yours. You don’t have any real control over them.

Look at them! Exactly where do you have control over them? Whatever disease there is in your body isn’t important. What’s important is the disease in the mind. Normally we don’t pay much attention to the fact that we have diseases in our minds—the diseases of defilement, craving, and attachment. We often pay attention only to our physical diseases, afraid of all the horrible things that can happen to the body. The medicines you have to treat the body can give you only temporary respite. Even people in the past who didn’t suffer from major diseases are no longer with us. Everyone has to part from their bodies in the end. When you continually contemplate in this way, you see the truth of inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness correctly within you, and you’ll grow more and more disenchanted with things, step by step.

You have to examine your pain very carefully to see that it’s not really you that’s hurting. The disease isn’t your disease. It’s a disease of the body, a disease of physical form. Physical form and mental events have to change; you must focus on them as they appear to you, watch them, and contemplate them in their most elemental components. A clear insight into the nature of physical forms and mental events will release you from all suffering and stress.

Some people, when they’re healthy and complacent, die suddenly and unexpectedly without knowing what’s happening to them. Their minds are completely oblivious to what’s going on. This is much worse than it is for the person lying ill in bed who has pain to contemplate as a means of developing disenchantment and non-attachment. You don’t have to be afraid of pain. If it’s going to be there, you can let it be there—but don’t let the mind be in pain with it.

So when you’re ill, consider yourself lucky. Lying here, dealing with the disease, you have the opportunity to practice insight meditation with every moment. It doesn’t matter whether you’re here in the hospital or at home. Don’t let there be any real sense in the mind that you’re in the hospital or at home. You don’t have to label yourself as being anywhere at all. Just take the opportunity to watch phenomena arise and pass away.

You can’t go preventing pleasure and pain, you can’t keep the mind from labeling things and forming thoughts, but you can put these things to a new use. If the mind labels a pain, saying, “I hurt,” you have to examine the label carefully, contemplate it until you see that it’s wrong: the pain isn’t really yours. It’s simply a sensation that arises and passes away, that’s all.

Investigate whatever arises—a sensation, an emotion, a thought - and let it pass without clinging or attachment. Start by exercising restraint over the mind, focusing your attention and contemplating the phenomena of stress and pain. Keep this up until the mind can maintain its stance in the clear emptiness of the heart. If you can do this fully, the final disbanding of suffering will occur right there, right where the mind is empty.

Keep your awareness of the pain right at the level where it’s no more than a mere sensation in the body. It can be the body’s pain, but need not be the mind’s. First protect the mind, let things go, and then turn inward to look for the deepest, innermost part of your awareness and stay right there. You don’t have to get involved with the pains outside. They may simply be too much for you to endure. Look for the aspect of the mind that lies deep within, and you’ll be able to put everything else aside.

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Beccafahey's picture

Lucky indeed! I have often said this of myself regarding the opportunity my chronic pain offers. The reactions vary but those who have also worked to apply the Dhamma to their pain have understood my being grateful. I use the word "my" simply to string the words together because along the discovery through the opportunity provided by pain there has been deep understanding away from the pain being personal or anything different then what all beings experience, samsara.
An observation about the comments: I see upset with the article coming from caretakers more so then those with chronic pain. As a caretaker of a special needs son it has been important and most helpful to look closely at attachments and 'my' need of others not being in pain. This proved to be more difficult than being with my pain but then noticed hiding within that was a subtle attachment of 'pain is bad' still hanging on as well as personal attachments as in 'my need of others to not be in pain'. What I discovered was to succeed in letting go of those attachments is precisely what a suffering person needs in a caretaker. Another opportunity I am most grateful for!

Kesho's picture

Wow. Go into the lessons from the pain and care more about others than yourself. What spiritual I structions.

sharmila2's picture

Very interesting comments, reflecting different levels of understanding as someone has already pointed out. I completely agree that there is no way to bypass the recognition of suffering - the First Noble truth - as a direct realization rather than an abstract concept ("yes, of course everyone suffers, lets get on with it then" versus actually staying with your own pain) in order to release into Enlightenment. The degree to which physical pain plays a role in this realization will of course vary between individuals, but I suspect it is the rare person who does not at some point have to confront their own corporeal illness and mortality and willingly let go - relinquishing even attachment to the life force - before they can see Nibbana, regardless of their style of practice.
Her instructions to retreat if the pain gets too much are based upon a systematic development of the Jhanas in order to have a base of calm before developing insight, and is a perfectly valid technique taught by the Buddha himself, in order to prevent the patient becoming overwhelmed with suffering and thus losing their awareness. However this is likely a source of confusion since few modern Western practitioners follow this particular model; the main instruction to be with the pain and notice its not-self and inconstant nature however should be applicable to most practitioners. She is also obviously preaching to devout practitioners in a hospital who have already studied with her and are devoted to her method of Dharma realization (which is the audience for all her teachings, btw - she did not seek out followers, they found her); this is not intended as a teaching to be randomly foisted on sick family, friends and co-workers! The reader is expected to use a little wisdom, discretion and good old common-sense; Tricycle is hardly to be blamed for teachings taken completely out of context.

youngc23's picture

The comments on this article reflect the different levels of experience practitioners have with Dharma. I largely agree with the author. From time to time I have neuropathic pain, and the it runs from slight to that of putting me on the floor. Those times suffering in a prone position have given me the highest teachings. The only relief I could find was going straight into the pain and staying there, seeing that it really wasn't solid and that some of the thoughts coming in could easily escalate the pain if I lost myself in them. Maintaining equanimity in the observation of pain while being aware of the coming and going of thoughts, I learned, was my best coping mechanism. Certainly, I could have depended totally on meds, but I put that idea aside and chose to experience the whole thing, which is what I would do again. Just as the author said, insighting needs to be constant--from the very beginning--and that was the biggest lesson I learned.

robertomainetti's picture

my dear friend, you just told my life...i am gay, i was born in a country where i was illega with not right to education, my parents put a lot of hard work on me. in 1982 i came to usa and in 1984 i was diagnosticate hiv+...in 1995 with ks (kaposi's sarcoma) and they give me intense radiation for a few months and after quimo therapy. i live untill last year with open wonds. i am always getting better but some days the pain is very intense on my feet....i spend five years in bed, geting up on wheelchair, crutches...but i try always without for a little...to come back to the up right possition was difficult, i mean what we call standing or sitting...the flow of blood was painful to feel...the pain has changed a lot. i was trainned as an alexander teacher and also i have a strong interes on religion as religare...it was like life had give me the instrument to resove this situation and i love my path...all these took me to many places where in one way or other i was kick out untill few years ago i arrived at the theravada wat buddharangsi of miami...there is where they give me for the first time the possibility to teach...thank you for your article

jackelope65's picture

I have severe chronic pain, with severe spinal stenosis, chronic nerve and spinal cord damage with nerve and arthritic pain. I had 2 brain surgeries in the last year from an infected brain plate( Ruptured Aneurysm with 2 brain surgeries during medical school), as well as 2 spine surgeries Both shoulders reconstructed from severe rotator cuff injury. Overall 17 major surgeries, 3 for metastatic prostate cancer and melanoma. You know, when I meditate my pain does not go away but it becomes easier to accept with progressive tolerance over the years that have passed. Yesterday, I rode my bike to tennis and played for an hour with my wife. Today, I surfed 1.5 hours. The five days previously in bed with a gripping GI bug.
Pain will never leave, but that pain is not me and will not be me, just one of those cause and effect things that make up the self that has no single part inherently me. I am not being trite, and it is not just me , because the effects of meditation on chronic pain are well documented. Most of my surfing buddies are similar; up and down days but just keep on keeping on, with no hope for the future, just living fully each day. Instead of constantly griping, we pursue right living, right speech, right occupation, retirement for me,offer help where we can, and treat those around us well. Sure we also face mental pain and anguish but living mindfully and meditating for years things slow down, life is not just suffering, there is a path; really the only criticism I have of this teaching, is that it it seems a little too abstract, distant, as if commenting on painful events as if a reporter is flying over a tsunami commenting on the people below.

fionacnly's picture

I think that this article has to be taken in its context. It is not that we should walk up to a seriously ill person and lecture them on their perception of pain. I see it rather as an informative piece to remember when the day comes where we as individuals are in a place of pain and physical suffering. It explains the process, and we can practice it as we are able. The end result that dixraile speaks about is a personal one. I think that the people who took offense to the article took it as a personal assault, which I don't think it is. Speaking for myself, my goal in life is to be sensitive to other people's needs, and being a nurse, I know that people who are suffering need to be comforted.

Paul Stevenson's picture

This is considered an "advanced" teaching in Tibetan Buddhism, where it is called "LoJong" (example: 7 Steps of Mind Training). Zen Buddhism often uses such "sneak attacks" to try to jump-start the "process". For those new to this sort of practice, what is happening in your mind right now is worse than anything that is happening in front of your 5 senses and is doing more and longer lasting damage to you. When the Tsunami of 2004 (or 05?) in Indonesia happened, a lot of teachers said similar things to a lot of similar responses as below. Such events can be used by all of us as a chance to do those practices that help us realize that our reactions are ALL in our minds and that we need not be chained to them. Thoughts and emotions come and go. What remains? If you sit for 2 min., resolved not to have any thoughts, and thoughts and emotions show up anyway, who is having those thoughts? Rest in the "blue sky of your mind"; let the clouds of thought go on their way. (Well, try to let them go, when you get
caught up in them. It's not easy.)

Dominic Gomez's picture

More powerful than any rationalisation of the reality of illness and death is hope that springs forth from the heart.

Danny's picture

This article makes me kind of sad, because instead of encouraging an engaged, aware, dependently arisen subject ( i.e., one always exploring the causes and conditions at the root of our pain and suffering), it insists we need only retreat into some magic pain free zone: a transcendent, eternal, mental "space" or "mind" (read atman) that exists outside of this world; the only world we have and the only place where we can do anything at all..

khickey's picture

Perhaps the difficulty in this article is the usage of words. As someone who works with those who are ill and suffering every day the pointed statement "so when you are ill, consider yourself lucky" in my view is not the most skillful way to address those who may be suffering deeply from terminal illness, cancer, overwhelming PTSD or any other host of illnesses. While I can understand the intention of the article, it beautifully illustrates how our words are perceived so differently by different people and can in fact add to another's suffering. We are all on the path but at different places and I feel it is so important to respect and honor each other for where we are, sending out our words with awareness and compassion for all beings.

mfwilsonelm's picture

We can try to understand this simply by overcoming the habit of letting pain become who we are. Looking at pain we release ourselves from the power it has over us. No one said this would be easy.

Jakela's picture

And no one said it would be this ridiculous.

trishaenglish's picture

What a useless piece of theoretical drivel. You are your pain.
Pain is you. Want to find out? Good luck.

Jakela's picture

Agree. This article should be retitled: DHARMA FOR MASOCHISTS.
Tricycle should be ashamed of itself.

wtompepper's picture

trishaenglish: Exactly! You are your pain (and your thoughts, and your actions...you are nothing but all the causes and conditions that produce "you"). This essay assumes the existence of a "subtle atman" that is unconditioned and untouched by causes and conditions. If you are a Buddhist, and believe in anatman, then you must always label pain and pleasure, and always understand what produces them, and always try to eliminate the causes of suffering, not just attempt to passively observe it. Don't let the dualist atman-Buddhists convince you that you "have a lot to learn." You understand much more than any of them, already.

melcher's picture

Whatever you conceive as 'Buddhism' it is unlikely embodied in a state of conflict between 'duelists' and 'nonduelists', pleasure versus pain, my faction against your faction, psychotherapists against philosophers, Theravadans against Mahayanists or any of the other versions of warfare born out of identity and ego. If I am nothing but causes and conditions than indeed I am nothing.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If nothing but causes and conditions then I am nothing: If you are no thing to begin with. But then you glance at the mirror and see otherwise.

cheryl.cummins's picture

You clearly have a long way to go before you understand the concept of clininging and non- self. Before you label something as 'useless' and 'drivel' it could be something for you to contemplate as an opportunity for your learning and application of core Buddhist principles.

dixraile's picture

Yes cheryl.cummins, I agree with you completely!
If you want instant pain relief then take the drugs, take the medical approach, get nasty with your caretakers, what ever works for your need for relief. If you want to become enlightened than take pain as an opportunity to see your attachment to self and the unsatisfactoriness of samsara.
Countless lamas teach in this way. Gyatrul Rinpoche says, "Adversity is used as the support for cultivating the attitude of cherishing others more than oneself. You have to consider that because of your self-centeredness which causes you to fluctuate between attachment, aversion and indifference, you have created this problem of adversity. Realizing this to be the main root of the problem now, you are clear that you must exchange that self-cherishing for the cherishing of others."
I had a serious shoulder injury several years ago and my surgery was not all it was cracked up to be. I lived in chronic pain for 2 years before I found this method of pain relief. It worked, it took alot of time and brought me in touch with the fear of the power my pain had over my life and that hurt too but eventually it all subsided and I was left with a meditation practice that is slowly giving rise to loving kindness and compassion that I might not have otherwise had the opportunity to cultivate. I, for one, know that pain and suffering can be a powerful aspect of the path when engaged at the core. Many of us became Buddhists after a realization of some sort regarding the pain and suffering and cycles of life that do not bring lasting happiness. Anyone who became a Buddhist in search of their own contentment is barking up the wrong tree.