the teaching of the Headache


POSTCARD#354: Chiang Mai: Arrived here on a morning flight, Business class upgrade on Jiab’s air miles, and wheelchair at both ends because I’m not steady on my feet after the stroke last year. Physiotherapy sessions help me understand (body & mind) the impact of it and how exactly, the stroke knocked me off my balance and now, how to get back on my feet again.

A learning process and also I need to remind the physiotherapy staff of these headaches I suffer from, triggered by the smallest thing. So, to cut a long story short, I foolishly pushed myself too hard in physiotherapy exercises and strained something which affected whatever nerve group it is that led to this current gigantic headache (Post Herpetic Neuralgia, right occipital nerve).

So that was it, the last physiotherapy session had left me with a headache, that night, the next morning too. No time for Jiab to change the date of the Chiang Mai tickets so that I could stay at home and go to bed. Instead, I had to pack the Headache in my luggage and into the airport taxi.

A soft journey to Chiang Mai, thanks to the upgrade. In the apartment we had all the windows open, only the screens between our interior and the clear mountain air. It helped me to sleep for the rest of that afternoon and night, through till the morning and the Headache was now into its second day.

One thing that helps is that I’m familiar with being a prisoner of the Headache, at the mercy of monstrous thinking. Even though I daydreamed in awful dark wakefulness, I meditated and contemplated this discomfort all the way through until the Headache was nearly over. Next morning it was gone… “gone is gone,” words cannot express.

We got everything done that had to be done. Impossible to do much more, too long spent in that nether-world of sleep crowded with images I wanted to get rid of. I found a book I studied years ago: ‘Abhidhamma in Daily Life’ by Nina van Gorkom’, quite readable even though the exploration of the Buddhist network of cittas (realities) is vast. Interconnected mental factors that are useful to study in order to understand how the mind functions. It’s referred to as Buddhist psychology.

In this volume I was fortunate to find a few aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, that related very much to the experience (the teaching) of the Headache. For example the word ‘wholesome’ (kusala citta): conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being. In the Buddhist dictionary, ‘kusala’ is explained as ‘kammically wholesome’, ‘salutary’, ‘morally good’, ‘skillful’ and ‘blamelessness’. Its opposite, ‘unwholesome’ (akusala citta) hence refers to the opposite – the ‘unwholesome’, ‘unskillful’, etc.

“Akusala citta is bound to arise more often than kusala citta because there have been countless akusala cittas in the past and thus the conditions for akusala have been accumulated. If there is no development of right understanding, akusala cannot be eradicated and we will continue to accumulate more akusala.”

There is that condition of mind where actions and thoughts take place as a result of automatic sensory responses. These states proliferate of their own accord, papanca. An opportunity arises here where I can escape from Akusala by seeing it for what it is, or I can be quite unaware of it…

Being unaware of it means unwholesome states arising from the Headache stimulate negative narratives (Akusala) and it becomes a story about ‘me’, attempting to assert myself; how am I to be seen in the eyes of my peers and others? Now it is so obviously Akusala imagery it’s easy to see there’s an opportunity here to leave it alone and let it all go.

Harder to see is the image of behaviour and speech seemingly agreeable and pleasant but what I really want to do is endear myself to others in the expectation of some gain or favour… multiple variations on this kind of thing; hard to see their realities – things are not always what they appear to be.

These are the kinds of images seen in the mind’s eye when extreme Akusala Citta is present, but I don’t have to have a three-day headache of course, to experience this, I can be quite conscious and wakeful whilst maintaining states of quiet anger or blaming.

So, how to escape from entanglements with Akusala? Mindfulness of the cittas as they arise, and through the development of insight the “escape” can be realized. Right understanding of realities eventually leads to freedom from all akusala, to the end of all sorrow.

The Buddha, when he was still a bodhisattva, considered the satisfaction in life, the misery and also the escape therefrom. We read in the Gradual Sayings (Book of the Threes, Chapter XI, par101, Before):

“Before my enlightenment, monks, this occurred to me: What, I wonder, is the satisfaction in the world, what is the misery in the world, what is the escape therefrom?

Then, monks, this occurred to me: That condition in the world owing to which pleasure arises, owing to which arises happiness,—that is the satisfaction in the world. That impermanence, that suffering, that changeability in the world,—that is the misery in the world. That restraint, that riddance of desire and passion in the world,—that is the escape therefrom…

  • Excerpts from: ‘Abhidhamma in Daily Life’ by Nina van Gorkom

8 thoughts on “the teaching of the Headache

  1. Good to hear from you!
    So sorry about the 3-day headache … oy. Absolutely not fun and definitely challenging. Am also glad it has receded since.
    We are, in many ways, all we have in the moment. Some moments are easier than others. Some balance to the joy. Some balance to the suffering. Some balance to both joy and suffering in the same time … and it is all of it, just what it is. And so it is …
    I wish you peace and the easiest days. In Chiang Mai, and back home, wherever home is in the moment.

    • Thanks Na’ama for an even balanced comment, peace and the easiest days. For me the challenge is returning to that balance from more hectic mind states. The context here is the neurologist says the reason for the three-day headache ( and more unsettled states since that time ) is my threshold has lowered, more pain comes in, and I have to increase the dosages of painkiller. She could be right. It means body-mind will be in the extremes of moving from one state to the next. So I’m inspired by your comment, thank you
      T
      Bangkok

      • Exactly. I never bought into the ‘transcendant Buddha’ attitude. For me Ajahn Chah is the closest thing to a modern-day Buddha, very simple and down-to-earth, easy to understand, with no pretensions…

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