Writings

Meditating on pain


Pain is an inevitable ingredient of life, we learn very early how intense it feels and how scared it makes us. We fall and feel the pain when our bodies break, we get sick, we get hurt by a loved one or experience heart breaking pain when we are not loved in return, we feel the pain of separation and solitude and pain when our expectations are unfullfilled.
Meditating on pain
It is such an everyday experience that to even think that we can eradicate it or not experience pain seems highly implausible. And still we try, we have been taught, both by the reactions and suggestions from others and by our own historical unwillingness to accept it, that pain equals bad and must at all cost be avoided. There are painkillers for both our bodies and minds and even our doctors, with their years of education, are telling us that as long as we can address the symptoms that are causing our pain we're good to go. It doesn't seems to work, now does it? Today anti depressants are sometimes given to teenagers who are going through the same emotional rollercoaster as teenagers have throughout history. People are popping all kinds of medication in order not to feel their own painful realisations. As if we have reached a time in history when our human arrogance thinks itself too good to have to acknowledge and deal with something so unpleasant as the inherent painfulness that is inevitable in life. It is not working. The more we resist it persists, and if anything we can just look around us at the state of the world to see that despite our efforts to cover it up, pain is not going anywhere. It is and always will be an integral part of our life experience, but one that when paired up with intelligence, can steer us towards peace and compassion.

When we talk about pain it's appropriate to talk about the first noble truth from the Buddha. The one about suffering.
The first time I came across the Buddhist teachings I had many 'Aha' moments, and a big one was the clarification that there is a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is a feeling in the mind and body, suffering is the reaction, the layer of resistance we surround the feeling with in order to not feel its intensity. When there is a lot of unresolved and unacknowledged pain, the layers of resistance grow thicker and if not dealt with eventually could cause a more serious pain, one we would call chronic, or the body could develop symptoms which possibly could become pathological from the dis-ease we feel within ourselves.
It is tending towards the physical, pain. It is kind of the minds last resort to remind us that we're out of balance, an effective way to communicate to it's conscious counterpart that something is up. When something is felt it eventually calls your attention, whereas thought can roam around randomly in your mind for years without ever seeming suspicious, regadless of its destructive qualities.
The Buddha also prescribed a way to live with pain, he suggested patiently unfiltering the layer of suffering that is composed of that subconscious reaction to our pain. To still the conscious mind and it's tendency to concretize, and instead deal with pain without guard dogs. He prescribed awareness, stilling the mind so much that we can be present in the moment that occurs before the reaction, before we have a thought about what is happening. And to stay there in the midst of pain, to properly get to know it and eventually become friends with it. He prescribed meditation.
In some of the many sessions that all those meditation retreats I've taken part in provide (and in some of the many solitary sittings on the cushion by the fire place too) I have experienced moments, where that distinction between pain and suffering that the first noble truth indicates, became very clear. Sitting through many hour long meditation sessions, while comitting fully to unconditional stillness regardless of the nature or strength of what comes up, something that I can only describe as almost magical happens. When the mind calms down to the point where you can turn your full attention to the intensity of the pain and get to know it intimately, dissecting it in detail and staying alert to it's ever changing nature, when you whole heartedly feel your pain, it's not so bothersome. It in fact has a very matter of factual quality to it, which doesn't so dramatically distinguish it from any other, more neutral sensation. And the interesting thing is that when you manage to stay that open to pain, be right in it when it happens and approach it with tender friendliness, it changes quality and feels more friendly in return. Kind of like when you in a conflict with a loved one, manage to soften and open up to hear the other side of the story. And you can lower your defenses to the point where you honestly extend your hand or open your arms and apologize for whatever hurt you brought to the table. If you exercise patience and stick with your resolve to stay friendly, give a bit of time for whoever is on the other side of the conflict to also lower their weapons, eventually there will be truce, and the harshness of your intense dislike will evaporate and in it's place there will be love.
It kind of works like that with the pain you uncover in meditation as well. You let go of the story of what you think is happening and direct your attention instead to what is really happening, to what you feel. Then you try to relax and open fully to the feeling. Opening to it, you gain access to feel a bit more deeply, while remaining aware that these sensations align with strong emotions, thoughts and habitual subconscious tendencies. Then see if there is space for care there, if you can instead of resisting the feeling, which whether you like it or not is part of you, take care of yourself there, in the midst of pain. The way you would care for a new born baby. They're not so different in terms of fragility, the baby and your pain.

When you manage to stay open and kind towards your pain, in or off the cushion, it opens and lets itself be known, and once you know it deeply, without defense, compassion naturally arises. By your courage and willingness to feel fully, you understand on an experiential level what those around you are going through when they are in pain. You realise that pain if left unattended and unloved, creates more pain in it's wake.
Because pain is so unpleasant we feel the need to get rid of it at any cost, so we lash out, throw fits, hurt eachother... But now you know it and can relate, and as you become more friends with your pain the less scary it becomes, the less scary it is the more open you will be when it comes your way, the more open you are, the more receptive you become and in that receptivity, your intelligence becomes available. This takes a bit of patience and practice, but as you become more skilful at rounding off your edges, you can then insteads of just reacting to it, act from intelligence and use all that practice to meet not only your own but also the pain of others with friendliness. Making peace with pain and meet it with compassion.

 

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