dimensions of pain

DSC00134 Lake Wanaka - near Diamond LakeI WAKE UP FROM THE DREAM to find I’m shipwrecked on the sofa, notes and papers strewn around, a cold cup of coffee – how long have I been asleep? Turn to look at the clock, then the pain; lower back pain, oh… aaah! Yes, I remember now, I’ve been disabled for a few days and situated on the sofa mostly: pain is bad – I must have done something ‘bad’ to deserve this… the tendency to criticize oneself for having the pain, perpetuating the kamma of causes and conditions. I need to correct this frequently. Another thing is that I’ve had the pain often enough to know there’s a difference between the pain itself and the act of resisting it; also the attachment to wanting it to go away: I-don’t-want-it-to-be-there…. Profoundly desiring it to not-exist, vibhava-tanha, but I’ll not find any peace in attempting to gratify that need – although I may persist in trying. What to do? There’s nothing I can DO about it, except try to get comfortable and see how that goes. It’s a no-choice situation and, strangely enough, things start to improve as soon as I stop trying to do something about it…

Some years ago I had abdominal surgery (abominable abdominal surgery – no joke) two operations, 6 months apart. Just enough time to recover from the first before getting ready for the second. More difficult the second time around, because I knew what was coming. The first time it was unplanned, an emergency, severe abdominal pain, straight into the emergency room in a Bangkok hospital and admitted right away; something sinister and twisted in the large intestine. So I sign the no-liability form and get operated on the next day. The surgeon tells me after I come round, he’s removed two tumors together with a length of intestine – doesn’t tell me how much, I didn’t ask, and he also says he’s my closest friend; nobody else has ever left their handprints on my intestines!

Colonic cancer, I was lucky. In both operations the post-surgery period was dramatic. After the anesthetic had worn off, the pain arrived suddenly, right there in the centre of my physical being – absolutely no getting-away from it. The immensity of it occupying all the space and I’m backed into a corner. No escape, the only way I can go is forward, step into it. No choice, but dropping the resistance to the pain caused a moment of ease to arise, just before being swept away in the pain… wow, how did that happen? Clutching at straws: an insight, a tiny one, but it made a huge difference. There was desperation all around but just enough of an easing in the pain to tell me that whatever it was I’d done was good so how to do that again?

This back pain is the same kind of thing, but less intense, not erratic and scary. So I can allow it to be there. In contemplation of it, I see there are the other systems of the body all around the pain, normal stuff, just quietly ticking over. There’s sufficient space to distance myself from all the immediate responses to this pain; the obsessions and fears, mostly a conjured-up conceptualizing where, in different circumstances, like intense joy, it would lead to everything being compellingly interesting. And, in the same way, when I have intense pain I’m subject to fear and wild imaginings: ‘your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.’ [On Joy and Sorrow by Kahlil Gibran]

Conceptualizing is an automatic default that returns always to that same starting point: the ‘self’. Unless something propels it right out of there (like what happened to me in surgery) there’s nothing beyond this, no real insight into finding the way out of pain. But what the Ajahns told me about the Buddhist teaching is that the mind is not self. Mind is the sixth sense – everything I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. The mind sense usually leads to a consciousness of how everything is coming in from the outer world through sensory experience and that default to the sense of self: hey, this must be happening to ‘me’. With insight, the mind sense can bypass that, and then the pain is not happening to anyone – there’s no ‘me’ engaging with these thoughts. Instead there’s an awareness of the thinking process with no attachment, mostly abiding in a state of mindfulness and careful receptivity, sati-sampajañña; just looking to see what it might be. There’s a kind of alertness about the sensory function, and the simple curiosity: what is it? Just being open to what this could be, is enough to understand how it works…


Photo image by Louk Vreeswijk, New Zealand Collection

6 thoughts on “dimensions of pain

  1. Insightful and interesting post, I’ve read a lot about how mindfulness can be exceptionally good at helping with chronic pain. Hope the back improves soon 🙂

    • Thanks Rory, the back pain is better than it was. I have a flight to BKK tomorrow so I need to be okay for that; pushing bags into small compartments and squeezing into narrow spaces is what does it for me… this is why mindfulness is necessary. If you have any links about mindfulness and pain management, please send to me, v grateful.

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