day four : morning


April 25, 2017

A problem that we all encounter in meditation is pain. It’s everywhere. I must admit, it’s a little bit disconcerting when I come to France and in every village I go to, there’s always a big sign that says they’re selling “Pain.” So, it’s a universal problem. We don’t like pain, but we learn a lot from it. After all, the Buddha listed dukkha, or pain, as a noble truth. It’s the very first noble truth and it’s the problem we’re here to solve. We can solve it not by running away from it, but by comprehending it. When we comprehend it, we can get past it. However, our initial instinct is to try to run away or to try to push it away. To overcome that instinct, we practice concentration to give the mind a good place to stay where it doesn’t feel threatened by the pain. From there we can look into the pain in an objective way.

So the first step when you’re dealing with pain is not to focus on the pain but to find a spot in the body that you can make comfortable through the way you breathe and relate to your breath energies. Ajaan Lee gives the analogy of a floor in a house. If you’re going to lie down on the floor, don’t lie down on the rotten spots. Find the spots that are solid and lie down there. He also gives another analogy: It’s like eating a mango. If a mango has a rotten or a wormy spot, eat the spot where the flesh is good. Leave the rotten spot to the worms.

So, suppose that you have a pain in your knee. Focus someplace else in the body and then, when you get that spot comfortable and it feels secure, think of the good breath energy in that good spot spreading down through the knee and then out through the sole of the foot. In other words, don’t allow the pain to seem like a wall that can block the breath. Think of the breath being able to penetrate anything.

Also, think of the breath as being there first. In other words, it’s not that you’re pushing the breath through the pain. Instead, you’re backing up a little bit to remind yourself that your first experience of the body is the breath energy. The breath is actually prior to, and more fundamental than, the pain. See how that perception changes the balance of power.

What we’re beginning to do here is to change our perceptions around the pain. Use a perception that makes the pain seem less solid. Then it won’t have possession of the knee.

Now, when you feel secure in your comfortable spot and can start focusing on the pain, there are other ways you can question your perceptions around the pain as well. One question you can ask is, “Is the pain the same thing as the knee?” This may seem like a strange question, but you have to remember that our first encounters with pain occurred when we were infants. Even before we knew language, we had to deal with pain. Some of our unquestioned understandings about pain come from that time, so we may still have some unreasonable assumptions underlying our perception of pain even though we’re adults. The best way to uproot these assumptions is to start asking questions. And sometimes, to uproot strange assumptions, you have to ask strange questions.

Another question you can ask is, “Does the pain mean to hurt you?” You have to remember the pain has no intention at all.

Another useful question is, “Is the pain a solid thing, or does it come and go in moments?” Seeing it as moments makes it less oppressive.

Then you can ask yourself, “Are the moments of pain coming at you or are they going away?” Think of yourself as sitting in a train, facing the back of the train. Everything that comes by the window, as soon as you see it, is going away, going away. Try to apply that same perception to the moments of pain as they arise.

When seeing the pain as individual moments or points of pain, you can also begin to notice that you sometimes have the tendency to take individual pains in different parts of the body and tie them together with little lines of tension. In America, there’s a game called Connect-the-Dots, where you’re presented with a series of dots and told to draw lines connecting them to see what they represent. And we do a similar thing with our pains. We connect individual pains into larger patterns of pain.

Now, this habit of connecting things in the body is a common one, and it plays an important role in using the body. If you’re going to move your arm, you need to have a sense of which part is connected to which part so that you can move it properly. But then we take that ability and we misuse it by connecting pains into something bigger than they have to be. So if you see that happening—that a line of tension is beginning to develop between one point of pain and another point of pain—just cut right through it.

There was a science fiction story I read once in which they were developing a machine for teleportation, but it wasn’t yet quite working right. Your bones came after the rest of your body. They had a space station up on the Moon and were trying to send cats back and forth, to perfect the machine. When a cat arrived, it didn’t have its bones, so what would come pouring out of the machine would be cat ooze. They would put it in a bowl, waiting for its bones to arrive. Now it didn’t just sit there in the bowl. It would try to move out of the bowl and, even though it didn’t have bones, it could connect different parts of its body through lines of tension to make a vague, rabbit-like shape, and then it would hop around, after which it would have to go back to rest in the bowl until its bones came. It was able to move by using tension to make connections among different parts of its body. That’s how we move our bodies around, too, by seeing connections and making lines of tension between the different parts.

But while you’re sitting here with your eyes closed, not moving at all, you don’t really need to make the connections by drawing lines of tension in the body. You can actually picture yourself as just a bowl of you, with no need to connect pains to one another. This perception of cutting these lines is helpful not only in dealing with pain, but also with any sense of tension connecting anywhere in the body—and even with thoughts appearing in the mind. Just think of cutting right through the connections, repeatedly. And then as you’re sitting here, there will be a greater sense of ease.

So these are some of the tricks of perception you can use, and as you do, you begin to realize that the perception is what makes the pain something that you suffer from. Think of pain as a potential, and that it’s through your perceptions that you tend to create it into something that actually makes you suffer. If you learn how to cut the perceptions or convert them into new perceptions, your relationship to the pain will change.

The important thing here, though, is to remember that you’re not trying to make the pain go away. Sometimes it will happen, as you change the perception, that the pain does disappear. But sometimes the pain will stay no matter what your perception. Still, if you change the perception in a skillful way, then the pain doesn’t have to make the mind suffer.

So try to explore your perceptions around the pain, so that instead of just sitting there, being a target for the pain, you’re more aggressive, more proactive in searching out the pain. And as you become more proactive, you become a moving target that the pain can’t hit so easily.

Now, don’t forget that you need to come from a position of security. So try to keep in touch all the time with the part of the body that you can make comfortable, because that will give you the strength you need to examine the pain. And in that way, instead of trying to run away from the pain, you can actually comprehend it. You understand its relationship to perception. You learn that pain is something you don’t have to be afraid of. And this, of course, will be a very useful skill to develop as you go through life, because as you get older, as you get sick, and as you approach death, pain will come whether you’re sitting in meditation or not, but you’ll now have the skills to deal with it without fear. And when there’s no fear, the pain can’t make you do unskillful things.