mindfulness of pain


POSTCARD#331: Bangkok: I’m a Western migrant, living in the East for these last 30 years, and looking at my conditioning in the light of being inescapably part of the Eastern culture; all the ups and downs of life in Asia, and finding the way through in situations where language/behaviour are unfamiliar to the Western mind. Also the headache, from three years ago, learning how to live with that, requires an alertness, a sharp focus on how the pain gets stuck from time to time. There’s a built-in wake-up alarm that rings when this happens and every other time mindfulness is absent.

Being mindful of pain and the experience of suffering (dukkha) is necessary because there is the negativity surrounding pain, “Pain is bad – I must have done something ‘bad’ to deserve this!”… The locked-in reaction to criticize oneself for having the pain. Knowing there’s a difference between the pain itself and the act of resisting it.

I’m aware also of the attachment to wanting the pain to go away, “I-don’t-want-it-to-be-there!” Giving way to the energy generated by the craving, profoundly desiring it to ‘not-exist’. And knowing I’ll not find any peace in attempting to gratify that need, although I may persist in trying. Returning again to that confusion of thoughts and feelings; what to do? There’s nothing I can DO about it, except to notice how the pain arises when I try to get away from it. Better to be as calm as I can with the present moment and see how that goes.

There are many routes that take me to the awareness that it’s only in that no-choice situation… there, that a tiny moment of ease is felt, and I discover how it turns around; things start to improve as soon as I stop trying to do something about it. I need to be reminded the problem is not the pain; the problem is the concept of ‘me’ coping with the pain.

One of the first things I understood about the Buddha’s teaching is that the mind is not self. Mind is a sensory organ like the other five – mind is the sixth sense – everything I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. The mind sense 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’. But the basic truth is that there’s no substantial ‘me’.

These wonderful smallest of smallest instants of mindfulness… the pain disappears for a moment and immediately the question arises, “How did it do that?” The answer comes in a different voice, “The mind sense can bypass the pain, so that the pain is not happening to anyone – there’s no ‘me’ engaging with the pain.” Instead there’s an awareness of the vast space of no thought and no attachment, abiding there, in a state of mindfulness and careful receptivity, a ‘looking’ to see what it could be, and what it couldn’t possibly be. There’s a kind of alertness about the sensory function, and the simple curiosity, “What is it doing now? Just being open to what this could be, is enough to understand how it works…

“I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” [Mother Teresa]


14 thoughts on “mindfulness of pain

  1. Hope you’re doing okay with the headache. Really useful stuff, you could really help people with pain management if you could find a way to explain it to people who don’t have all your background knowledge. Really fascinating. Pain is such a challenge to our maintaining awareness.

    • Thanks Sadie for another visit over here. Yes I’m doing okay with the headache, better I suppose, as time goes on you tend to not notice some of it and things are tolerable now that wouldn’t have been three years ago. Thanks for suggesting I could help with pain management, I go to something called the Pain Clinic every month, so I know a lot. However, it’s difficult to see how this could be understood by people who are unwilling to let things go; belief in Self, holding on with a tenacity and sadly not realising that it’s this that’s causing the problem.

    • Thanks Steve, pain is not usually spoken about openly, it’s very difficult for people because they’re all trying to pretend it’s not there. This is part of the problem…

    • Thanks Sue, having a good try is what it’s about. I’d add that natural sense of curiosity, ” how can I see what the pain is?” Immediately of course there’s the turning away from it, wanting to understand it.

  2. Hi, Tiramit. Long time no see. So glad to hear about your progress of mindfulness, that now you can separate physical suffering and your mind. I’m sure that has a lot of benefit. Knowing our mind resisting the pain can greatly reduce an unnecessary suffering. Being mindful makes suffering not touching our mind. “mindfulness of pain” is really a good point, I wish you happiness!

  3. Thanks for this, it helps to hear the same wisdom through many different voices. I’ve been following similar trains of thought, though I never saw the mind as one of the sense organs. I’ll need to digest that concept for a bit. Mindfulness has unquestionably been my greatest asset in working with my chronic pain in the past few years. Much happiness on your journey.

    • Thanks TB, yes it’s the perennial wisdom arising again and again. The mind as a sense organ, is a characteristic of no-self (anatta). It helps just to let go of the importance of ‘self’, seeing past that, at what’s really going on…

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