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.
People 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.