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]


limitlessness

POSTCARD#310: Bangkok: 5.30 am. In the quietness of where we are, deep in the narrow lanes of the city where there’s only mature trees heavy with foliage, inhabited by exotic birds, and the first solitary songbird interrupts the silence. It sings its song as if it were a voice saying something in a language I can’t understand, and comes to the end like an unanswered question…

A picture seen in an instant then it’s gone, I lost the word; the memory of an event is displaced by the next moment of remembering. Body moving through the choreography of early morning routine in a background of dawn chorus, huge melodies played on an instrument with a great number of strings… then an awareness of the headache – something that’s bothered me for a long time… it bothers me that it bothers me.

I can see from these explorations into mind-states, that the reason for things being the way they are comes out of nowhere. It just happens by itself, a narrative appears that seems to explain why we are here. Conscious awareness has to penetrate these stories through the layers of belief that Mind is the centre of it all. Mindfulness of it is not enough, it’s more like I have to consciously take the step in order for things to develop of their own accord – and all of a sudden, that thing that bothers me is gone. A little door opens in the mind… “Ping” I can feel it open. I can enter that space, and there it is; the thing that all this is only a small part of – a clear, sharp, vivid, state of clarity – a there-and-then, here-and-now understanding of the limitlessness and vast regions of how things are.

……….

Some time after that, suddenly a shrill squeal from the baby’s room downstairs, a group of aunties laugh and encourage the child to do it again. Silence then another joyous squeal, diphthong two-tone quality of what sounds like a group of words. So this is how we learn…

“Be an island to oneself be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands unto themselves… should investigate to the very heart of things: ‘What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?’ [What is their origin?]” [Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself]


Photo shows our sculpture of Thalia Goddess of comedy, placed safely on a cushion while we get our house in order after the shipment of furniture arrives from India

 

 

its as-it-is-ness

POSTCARD#309: A village near Hat Yai: Exotic red Hibiscus flowers and butterflies as big as birds. A zizzle of insects in the night and numerous coconut palm trees just standing around contemplating the situation – if a tree falls in the forest… does the world continue to exist when I close my eyes? Was this world here before I was born? Hard to believe it was, everything just going on as it is now, probably, farmyard animals, birds in the trees and all the other random events taking place as they are now, experienced from here on the top floor of the house where the treetops are level with the roof terrace and higher.

There was a time when I wasn’t here – not born yet. I can understand that, so it means I can understand what the world is without that person called ‘me’ in it. There’s an anonymity about this that’s quite liberating, and undeniably, the present moment is all around the place, taking the form of objects, I see (as soon as they are ‘seen’), becoming the surfaces of things I touch (as soon as they are ‘held’). I keep bumping into it, the present moment is all there is, and it is as it is, whether I am aware of it in its as-it-is-ness or not.

Sometimes it gets stuck, like a failed Internet connection. The internet room at Hat Yai Airport was closed when I was there, all the computers covered with their old covers and a sign written in English: “could not make a connection” – okay, everybody can go home now. Is this what Death is like? It could happen any time – it does that sometimes, the ‘fatal error’ – quit all programs and try restart. If that doesn’t work, ah well, it’s just the ‘as-it-is-ness’, probably, yes, whatever.

Happy enough with the present mind state that’s free of all the tugs and pulls. Maybe it’s the meds, the all-inclusiveness of my condition; continued awareness applied to everything in the environment and engaged in the various happenings of the day. It’s really interesting to be in this pleasant rural remoteness, and So What if I’ve been trying to get a connection all day? I’m just hoping for the best, without clinging to the idea there’s a problem about that. Meanwhile, the world and everything is going along, death arrives one day…  that letting-go thing again. Falling asleep like a dark veil falls over my eyes; the transparency of a transitional state, the forgetfulness of holding on to things; an easing away somewhere…

“… How much more harmoniously the days are passing compared with those when we gave in to the slightest stimulus for interfering in the world by deed, word, emotion or thought. As if protected by invisible armour against the banalities and importunities of the outer world, one will walk through (the) days serenely and content, with an exhilarating feeling of ease and freedom. It is as if, from the unpleasant closeness of a hustling and noisy crowd, one has escaped to the silence and seclusion of a hilltop, and with a sigh of relief, is looking down on the noise and bustle below. It is the peace and happiness of detachment which will be thus experienced.” [“The Heart of Buddhist Meditation” Nyanaponika Thera]


Adapted from an older post, July 21 2012, If A Tree Falls

not anything

POSTCARD#298: Bangkok: 3:30 am: Almost awake in the darkness of a warm insect-click, whispering night; dreamscape/ language interface and a question arises… floats in air motionless, then ascends, as light as a feather. Which way will these air currents take it? Something about the usual way I perceive my surroundings is different. The pronoun ‘I’ becomes ‘him’ over there, engaging in active thinking… looking for words to make sense of it all. Curiosity shifts, rolls over and retrieves the word ‘pain’.

By this time, the session with the Pain Clinic yesterday has returned to memory and now I’m nearly awake – so the big question is… has the headache gone or not? Focus attention again on the location of that pain, as a particular point on the headache ‘map’… is it there? Push myself up in bed, swing legs over the side, soles of feet on cool flooring. No, the pain I feel is where the needle went in, and all around that, is a totally pain-free zone. It worked!

I want to fling open the bedroom door and go running up and down the stairs, but I can’t do that because we have a 5 weeks old baby in the house… it’s a long story. Compassion for those having no understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on the Noble Truth of Suffering – Suffering? Not for me, no thanks, it sounds awful. I want to be happy. There they go hungering after that happiness, and trying to keep it all in balance, the tipping point, verging on total disaster.

Systems developed from the recognition of the kind of suffering that’s caused by resistance. Seeing myself fighting against it, as it’s appearing in present time, sometimes hating it, and holding on in some way to a temporary pain-free state, short-lived because unknowingly I’m pulled away by a yearning for something else and the round-and-round of wanting things to be different than the way they are.

I’ve learned that the best way to keep your balance in these investigations into the way things are, is to not want anything, and not seek anything, because there’s ‘not anything’ there – not ‘nothing’, not ‘anything. If I can see it like that, the holding-on thing is not getting in the way. What I’m left with is a contemplation of the question rather than looking for the nearest-match answer. We can’t know what it is in the conditioned realm; beyond the point of no return, and there are no words for it. In the end maybe, all that remains is the word ‘it’ – there’s a metallic click-sound to it as that too is cut off, extinguished, the cessation of the conditioned world. This is as far as it goes in Theravada Buddhism – other Eastern teachings may have more to say about ‘it’.

‘The real is not something, it’s not anything. It’s not a phenomenon. You can’t think about it, you can’t create an image of it. So we say unconditioned, unborn, uncreated, unformed. Anatta (not-self), nirodha (cessation), nibbana (liberation). If you try to think about these words you don’t get anywhere. Your mind stops, it’s like nothing. … if we’re expecting something from the meditation practice, some kind of Enlightenment, bright lights and world-trembling experiences, then we’re disappointed because expecting is another kind of desire, isn’t it?’ [The End of the World is Here, Ajahn Sumedho]


 

auld acquaintance

POSTCARD#295: Bangkok: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” The first line of Burns’ song, sung at midnight at the end of the year, could be seen in a Buddhist way – shouldn’t we simply let go of things? Relinquish whatever is held, be it for good reason or otherwise. The Second Noble Truth: suffering is caused by attachment, therefore detach from the object.

The old year is going, the new year waiting behind the curtain. I am another manifestation of awareness, a world of sensory data passes through me at entry points: eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, and mind. There’s no tangible self here, life looking in through the eyes, as well as out, input/output, and the experience of this room, outside-in space that contains the embodied sensory apparatus I identify as ‘my’ self… and a self slips into view, as if beckoned; flimsy, insubstantial ghostlike being, a temporary presence appearing in an agreed-upon reality.

In another sense, the question: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot? “ helps me to understand there’s nothing to be gained further by fighting with this headache that sometimes stabs me unexpectedly and grumbles in a discontented way the rest of the time. So I live with it, and take the medicine. It means I’m a bit unsteady on my feet, and I forget things not clearly stated in their own place and time – otherwise I’m okay.

Yes, it’s been so long now, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to not have a headache all the time. The medicine does seem to work, or maybe the headache is not as bad as it was. I don’t feel it as much as I did, it’s just always there – I’m aware that my life is not quite the ‘it’ that it was… but thankful for small mercies, as one of my aunties would say.

And surely they would be aware of the need simply to be mindful (although the word mindfulness wasn’t in the collective vocabulary in their day, when paying attention to what was wise), thus being careful not to misjudge the dimensions of a step in going upstairs and thus fall in a heap. It’s like ‘fumbling the ball’ the object leaps free from our grasp inexplicably (how could that have happened?) and you’re in hospital with two broken ribs.

I’ve been there, recovered from it, and have a wary eye open for the next attempt by gravity to bring me down. As long as that level of mindfulness is present, all is well. So I’ll take this opportunity to wish fellow members of the blogosphere, one and all, a Happy New Year 2018.


Photo by Berti Buffy, Shwedagon Burma

‘extrinsic’

POSTCARD#278: Chiang Mai: I’m in this 3rd floor apartment, lying on the sofa and the balcony door is open. The sound of a plane coming in to land (this building is near the airport and on the flight path), I’ll resist the impulse this time to try to take a photo of it – lean over a low balcony rail… scary. So I lay down flat on the sofa, ready for the immense noise, and the aircraft flies over. The sound is absolutely devastating. The glass of windows, masonry walls, ceiling and floor vibrate at a deafening frequency… and just at that moment I see the upside-down reflection of the plane in the highly polished floor tiles. It’s there for an instant, flying away across the floor, out to the balcony, and leaves my vision at the same time as the huge sound ends.

An upside down passenger jet flying across my room; such an extraordinary event, I think I need to write that down – where’s my pen? Something to write on? Look in my wallet, and a piece of paper falls out. It’s an old, creased, folded, coffee-shop receipt and on the back of it is written the word ‘extrinsic’. Hmm? I made a note of that word for a reason and I can’t remember what it was. Now here it is again: extrinsic: adjective: not essential or inherent; not a basic part or quality; extraneous’ (extrinsic at Dictionary.com).

There’s no context, it doesn’t seem to belong anywhere – an existential anomaly. It’s here, yet it’s not here; the integral substance of something that doesn’t exist. Something external that would perhaps answer the question: What is its ‘whatness’? How is its ‘howness’? Somewhere in the realm of seemingly incidental meanings that arise of their own accord as if they’d been consciously created, contained in words, and language itself is the metaphor – I could think of it as the unstated ‘I-am-ness’ of things, the grounded, certainty of being.

I’m feeling more at ease since the passing of the big headache and, without the meds, ordinary life is creeping back. I’m much more in contact with the mind/body quality of ‘I-am-ness’ than I used to be. Not necessarily the identity, this is me (((self))), I can choose to be separate from thinking it’s like this … the sense of there being a thought process that ‘somebody’ is separate from. The extrinsic sense of ‘I-am-ness’ is an aspect of conscious experience. It comes and goes, changes, disappears and returns.

The word ‘extrinsic’ appears to be outside of the moment I’m in, and as soon as I think that, everything shifts to include it. It’s as if ‘extrinsic’ is a location in the ‘world’, the object is seen from the outside looking in. And ‘intrinsic’ is another location; the subjective sense of the object in the ‘all-aroundness’ and the ‘all-it-isness’ totality of the ‘world’.

All this is interesting, maybe because I’m now outside the aircraft and usually I’m inside the aircraft, going between India and Thailand… but what’s this? The sound of another passenger jet approaching. Drop everything and lie back on the sofa to get the full impact of the sound. Incredible! Upside down plane reflection flies across the floor.

“All life is a single event: one moment flowing into the next, naturally. Nothing causing everything. Everything causing everything.” [Wu Hsin]


this is a re-blogged and re-written earlier post named ‘no-thingness’

incredible lightness of being

POSTCARD#274: New Delhi: about the permanent headache, the anaesthesiologist lady in the white room says there’s another kind of treatment available: Pulsed RadioFrequency (PRF), so I could consider this rather than coping with the pain by self-medication. The new procedure stuns the nerve that’s causing the pain. Agreed, let’s fix it for 25th July, and all of a sudden with some degree of excitement I’m looking forward to a major change in my life.

That was then, this is now. I got the flight back to New Delhi from Bangkok, all the usual rumble tumble and really, what’s all the fuss about, I don’t feel the pain as much now as I did at the beginning, nearly two years ago. The meds give me a space where there is almost no pain at all. The lingering ‘mind’ aspect of the pain (that re-minds me about other things to do with the pain) is pushed out of the way due to a particular attitude/ focus of mind that doesn’t find it interesting to be with these associated shadows of mind.

Forgetting, of course, the deep stabs of pain, which penetrate, like long steel blades, and there are no meds to make that go away, ringing the urgency bell in the dark morning of an environment that seems bleak, unforgiving, and just BAD. Anxiety and despondency, the evolving stages of pain and confusion in between, and retracing my steps that seem to have once brought me to a place of peace, like entering a room within a room, and there’s a door leading to another room and so on, until I’d forgotten which room was which, with no plan or diagram showing how it came back to the present time. Why? I think that somewhere along the line I must have said to myself, enough is enough, this’ll do! And a large chunk of it (The ‘rooms inside rooms’) was erased from memory completely. So now there’s no finding my way back to there and then, how it was before all this happened.

The meds seemed to be as much a problem as the headaches; the nightmarish Alice in Wonderland bottle with the label saying: DRINK ME appears and long after that experience I’d wake up in the morning, roll over on the pillow and it felt like I drank too much wine the night before, but I don’t drink any alcohol at all (unrelated: that’s another story) whatever, like a light that shines in the darkness, I’m a meditator; early Buddhism/ the lineage of Ajahn Chah.

The headaches have ricocheted through these quiet spaces so much I’ve had to expand the boundaries to include mind states that are more like contemplation than focused meditation. Every time I gratefully fall into the meditative state of mind, it feels like I’ve been away from here for such a long time… returning to the knower, the fundamental mind, addressing the objects of the mind, thoughts, and phenomena arising in the mind. Staying there with this incredible lightness of being, and happy enough to not reach out much more than that.

Right View and Suffering, okay once I’d gotten rid of the adversity attachment (note to self: this will change too). Now there’s an opportunity to know the pain is likely to ease with this new ‘procedure’, I’m into this new stage of what’s happening with this headache and the degrees of focus, (no-one seems to know) leading to the confusion again, the kind that had to go away, away and get out of here – not thinking at all that the desire to get-rid-of-it is the same as the desire to-have-it. Polarizations, there’s no difference between ‘out’ and ‘in’, good or bad’, and so much more. So I have to let it in through the barrier I built. Let it go and let it in, try that and see… close the door that wasn’t open to it.


PIcture at top: A wall painting in Bangkok’s Suwannabume airport

ends and beginnings

POSTCARD#272: Delhi – Bangkok journey: TV drama going on as I’m packing, I see it, stop and watch: intense dialogue, close up on faces, directors’ exercise in portraiture. Carry on with my packing, gathering things from here and there – then the TV catches my eye again, sit to watch, and the credits come up… is that the end already? But it’s not the end it’s the beginning. An extremely long intro to an old series of The Walking Dead… oh no, morbid curiosity, and too much for me. The scenes of zombies being stabbed in the head are too similar to the stabbing pain of the PHN headache I live with.

But anyway, it’s okay today, taken my meds, and time I wasn’t here. Dress up in the clothes of who I think I am. Passports, ticket, fiddle with the key, open, close the door. I am the person who lives here – note to mind. Bye-bye to house, into the taxi and away.

Wheeled luggage through airport hallways and corridors… check-in desk for Bangkok, and check it all through to Chiang Mai; transit time in Bangkok is one hour – note to mind, beware of misleading signage in Bangkok, arrows don’t seem to point in the right direction to the Transfer Desk.

For a moment, future time invades the present, and I feel I’m already gone, but it’s just that mild urgency of airports, and ‘the journey’ which is forever ‘here’ and never ‘there’.

Flight number, gate number, passport number, visa details, watched by hidden cameras, facial recognition software, security procedures: Passengers are reminded not to leave baggage unattended at anytime.’

I am part of a network of beginnings, middles and endings, always leading on to the next journey. Jettison clutter of the mind, travel lightweight, be minimalist – ‘it’s better to journey than to arrive’. It’s always about the journey to get there. Arriving is the departure point for the next journey, and another opens up after that.

Watching the signs above and mindful of body movements, there’s only the walking. Watching the duality of steps below me, left, right, left, right… flooring surface beneath spins underfoot. The way, directionality, as if held in one long continuous moment leading to the imaginary place of arrival, like the vanishing point in a perspective drawing doesn’t actually exist.

And there’s something about the flow of faces I see, pulling their luggage, holding their children. I can see the unique identity of each person as I pass, as they must recognize the same individuality when they look at me. But somehow we’ve all become blank, there’s nobody here

We are all in transit; on the way to (or coming back from) somewhere else… a glimpse of the nothingness situated at the centre of everything the Bardo of the in-between. The ‘me’ I live with is not a substantial thing – sometimes not there at all. Present time is more connected with the past, where we arrived from, than with the future where we are going to, a place of speculative conjecture and hypothetical likelihoods, stumbled-upon in following the here-and-now.


Photo: Barges travelling from Holland to England, taken from the window of the aircraft from Aberdeen to Amsterdam.
Note: This post written as the news arrived that we are leaving India in September 2017 after 6 years working here, and returning to Thailand. It’ll be sad to leave, that’s life…

bent into shape

POSTCARD #265: Chiang Mai: I’d decided to use this image for the header thinking the way I cope with my headache is an improvised thing, much like the way this traffic sign has been bent back into shape after something has crashed into it – then as I write this I’m distracted by wind chimes from the balcony of the next-door house, which suddenly play a perfect chord in the air. I slip into wakefulness from the dream of that which I’m held by, and become an extension of the wind-chime’s notes. Horizontal on the bed as if shipwrecked on a sandy beach. Waves rushing in to the shore crash-crash, and the whole thing receding back. Comes rushing in again, crash-crash-crash, becoming a form that shapes into the body of the sea rolling over on its side like a great animal trying to sleep in an enormous bed. Then I realize I’m awake and have to give my whole attention to the headache that lives with me… just looking at it, seeing it as it is.

Wind chimes strike groupings of notes like the random sound of birds in the trees. I’ve been reading about knowledge which is so completely at one with the thing it knows, there is complete understanding, complete absorption into that knowledge. I can understand how that could be – it is of course a description of events, rather than the thing itself. Seems amazing to me, being as far away as I am, living in the world of attachment, the automatic bonding, even with things I dislike; seeing that and learning, by necessity, the strategy of no-avoidance….

I’ve had this headache for long enough to know that how it is right now, is the kind of suffering I can accept and live with for the time being. I can open up to the presence of it, as a form of recognition, accepting it as it is. Just the ‘me,’ being like this, still slightly on-edge, alert for the spikes which appear sometimes – but no, not this time. It becomes an energy accumulating with the in-breath, disintegrating with the long out-breath like the waves at sea breaking on the shore. I can open up to and experience the fact that it’s here, then it’s collapsing again as the out-breath distances it, like a long golf course, or a road winding into a landscape.

Curious, interested, and seeing the headache I experience as the First Noble Truth… just this openness to it. The contemplation is about calm, steadiness and everything else is swept away in a storm of liking, disliking, wanting, not wanting. Remain firmly in that same place as the wave returns and there it is again but I don’t need to hold on to it by hating it, or seeing it as something somehow construed and thought to be ‘bad’. See all of that happening, see it disassembling, falling to pieces; form, feeling, perception, fabrications, consciousness… and the ‘I’ can vanish into the totality of it.

Time to get the headache into the shower and get on with things. Then I’m at my desk, and at some point in the mid-morning, see how it feels, take the meds, then I’m falling back into a world of no pain, stumbling at the wonder of it. The day gets through in a dull fogginess. Sleep, and next morning I wake up with the opportunity to be back in this place of mindfulness again…

“To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.” [Eckhart Tolle]


The sign says: turn left, caution, traffic coming from the right