Should We Make Our Pain Go Away?
By Francesca Vanegas
The Buddha had a one track mind. He suffered greatly and after enlightenment chose to devote the next 50 years to teaching others about the nature of suffering and its antidote. Once he was enlightened he realized that even though we don’t want to suffer, we do the very thing that causes us to suffer.
The word suffering evokes a lot of melodrama, however, in the Pali language, the language of the Buddha, a less melodramatic version of the word is dukkha and is translated as a state of dissatisfaction, unease, or stress.
The Buddha is regarded as a great physician. In the teachings of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, he developed a diagnosis, outlined the prognosis, and developed the cure for the problem of how suffering arises and ends.
Ancient texts explain that suffering comes in three different flavors: physical or mental pain; the suffering caused by impermanence; and suffering that arises from being alive. This article touches upon the most obvious pain – physical and mental pain.
Making War with the Present Moment
We’re not likely to miss physical and mental pain because it’s so obvious and seemingly inescapable. We may get bad news about our health or our job. We may face foreclosure, the death of a loved one, or a divorce. In the face of something unpleasant our first reaction is “I don’t want this.” Our internal dialogue sounds something like this: “get me out of here.” Or, “get this thing (or person or illness) out of here.” Our reaction to pain is quite universal we want what is pleasant and we push away what is unpleasant. In the teachings of the four noble truths, this pushing away is known as aversion.
The Anatomy of Suffering
Imagine that someone says something unkind to you. Instantly you launch into an explosive internal reaction and feel many textures of emotion from anger and rage to irritation and intolerance. Your body may constrict, the jaw and teeth may clench, and the heart and mind may race. You may be at a loss of words but not at a loss of thoughts. “How insensitive! What a jerk. I knew he didn’t like me, I’ll show him, why would he say something like that? I can’t stand him. I knew I could not trust him. I hate him, he’s a $#!!...”
According to the teachings of the Buddha, this kind of reaction launches our suffering. When we react we are directing our attention to the person or thing that has hurt us, and we begin to wage war with the present moment. In the words of spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle, if war is what you want war is what you will get.
When we react, it doesn’t stop there. In the example above, the experience causes a chain of reactions. First there is the unkind comment or the pain. Then there is the reaction to the pain, followed by the reaction to the reaction which perpetuates a reactive loop where the situation becomes exponentially bigger, even explosive. An hour later all our friends and acquaintances have heard about the incidence and we’re searching for a pill for our migraine.
Fixing the Problem
Next, our mental and physical wheels start spinning to fix the situation. There’s a palliative sense that comes from taking action whether it’s getting even, writing an angry letter, confronting the person who hurt us, pouting, quitting the job, gossiping about the person, raging, or doing something else to change or fix the situation. We may even fantasize about how great it will be when we get another job, or how pleasant it will be when that person no longer works with us. In this reactive state we may be wholly unaware of how the war we are waging is in fact producing greater suffering for us. Though we are busy fixing or taking action, in this stage, the action may be unconscious and takes us away from ourselves. All the actions and reactions are directed to another person.
The Middle Path: Radical Thinking
What if we did nothing? No reactivity, no problem. That’s what the Buddha noticed. We can meet the unpleasant moment by not reacting. We don’t have to succumb or engage in the reactive nature of the mind. This is wholly radical because this is not how we are socially and behaviorally wired.
At one of our recent meditation sessions a student asked, does this mean we become a doormat for others? No, that’s not what this means. We have been taught to either suppress our feelings or act them out. What we have not been taught is the middle path where we attend our feelings with mindfulness and equanimity. When our mind is steady and composed the runaway train of our emotional triggers stops even if rage and hostility are passengers on the train.
The Body is the Antidote
We’ve spent a lifetime, actually generations, perfecting our reactions to pain. The mindfulness path is the unlearning and unraveling of our reactive mind. It’s finally time to hang out with our dukkha as a witness of the ebb and flow of our inner landscape. What is it like to not react and just feel?
We turn towards our body to witness and feel the hues of our emotions. Is the anger still there? Has the anger morphed into something else, perhaps fear or resentment? Mindfulness is important here because these emotions shift in a matter of seconds. To witness this, keep yourself company. Pull up a chair to the pain with the breath and your muscles of attention. Relax the whole body and feel the hurt from the painful event. Mindfully watch how the mind is operating and where it wants to take you and draw it back to the breath and body sensations.
Does the pain move within the body? Notice that. Notice everything. How does self righteousness or intolerance show up? It’s like practicing a yoga pose noticing how muscles slowly become more pliable as they give us permission to go deeper in a pose. There is no body sensation or mind wave that stays the same for long. Turn to the body and then check in with the mind again. With the help of the breath, drop into deeper layers of emotional experience.
When it Hurts Too Much
Sometimes, if the pain is too much to bear, it is challenging to keep the pain company and we may need to move to a place of neutrality in the body. The further down we move from the face and chest the more neutral it becomes. Focusing on the hands or down to the feet may give us a feeling of neutrality.
What is our Intention?
Another common reaction to this teaching is, “What’s wrong with trying to fix the problem?” “Why wouldn’t I try to resolve this?” These questions are valid. The problem with fixing a problem is that most of the time, the fixing has a reactive and aversive quality to it. This kind of ‘fixing’ sets up the conditions for future reactive storms. If someone is causing us harm, we should definitely remove ourselves from that situation or place. Beyond this, we can move into inquiry with questions such as, what is my intention. Is the intention to get even? Or, is the intention to learn why we identify with what others say about us? The latter intention will lead us more quickly to cultivate a mental quality of freedom from reaction.
• Insight Meditation Center, San Francisco
• Andrea Fella, Spirit Rock Teacher, Dukkha Lectures
Author Francesca Vanegas is the founder of southwest Florida’s Flor...