Insight into Pain

June 5, 2010

Pain is a fact of consciousness. It’s probably what distinguishes us from robots. They can have sensors, but they don’t feel pain. It’s our main subjective burden—which is why the Buddha’s teachings are such a gift. There’s a principle in postmodern thought that every attempt to teach people anything is an act of aggression, because you’re trying to make them submit to your view of things, but the Buddha’s teachings are a huge exception to that. He didn’t force anyone to accept his teachings. He offered his teachings as therapy. You can take them and use them, or you can put them aside, pay them no mind. He didn’t need anyone’s approval. He didn’t need to exert power over anyone because he had already found true happiness. He simply offered his teachings as a gift to the one problem that everybody shares. We don’t share our pain—I don’t feel your pain, you don’t feel mine. When a politician says, “I feel your pain,” you wonder what he’s feeling. But each of us knows what pain is like, and each of us wants a solution to it.

The Buddha says that the primary reaction to pain is twofold. One is bewilderment, not understanding why it’s there, where it comes from. The second one is a search: Is there anyone who knows a way or two to get rid of this pain? Particularly with animals and young children who can’t speak yet, there’s not much comprehension. There’s the sensation of pain, the definite feeling of pain, but there’s a huge question that goes along with it: “Why? Why? What is this? Why, why is this happening?” That’s the bewilderment. As we begin to find that there are other people who can help assuage our pain—starting with our mother and father—we start looking outside. There are some pains they can take care of, but there are a lot of things that they can’t. So we look to other people beyond them.

The Buddha is there to fill in that gap, because bewilderment often leads to really mistaken ideas—looking to the wrong people, taking up the wrong ideas about how pain can be overcome. The Buddha is here to give us his expert advice. He’s like a doctor—but not one who simply gives you a shot. He’s like an old-fashioned herbal doctor who gives you a prescription. It’s up to you to find the herbs, make them into medicine, and take it. You also adjust your life: avoiding certain foods, eating other foods, avoiding certain activities, exercising in certain ways. In other words, the actual treatment is up to you. The Buddha’s not going to take the pain away for you, but he does tell you what you can do to overcome the suffering.

In particular, he talks about two kinds of pain, two kinds of suffering. There’s the pain in the three characteristics and there’s the pain or suffering in the four noble truths. The pain in the three characteristics is something universal. Wherever there’s a process of fabrication where conditions come together to create other conditions, there’s going to be stress. There’s stress inherent in the fact that things arise and pass away, and that their coming together cannot be permanent—but that’s not the suffering that weighs down the mind. The extent to which it does weigh down the mind comes from the fact that we have craving. The craving is what really weighs us down. That weight is the suffering, the pain in the four noble truths. That’s the one that we can do something about. That’s the optional suffering. The path to put an end to that suffering is the noble eightfold path, or the threefold training: virtue, concentration, and discernment.

Virtue here starts with our activities in terms of speech and physical activities, but it points to something inward and important: that those activities are based on our intentions. There are several purposes for this aspect of the practice. One is that if you harm others, it’s going to be hard for you to practice. The karmic retribution creates difficulties. Then there’s the regret in the mind when you realize you’ve harmed someone else or harmed yourself. As the mind is trying to settle down in concentration, that becomes a thorn, makes it hard to settle down. Training in virtue is a way of avoiding those difficulties.

At the same time, training in virtue is also training in mindfulness, training in alertness, training in compassion. In other words, you’re developing good qualities of mind. As you do this, you’re getting very sensitive to your intentions because the intention is what determines whether you’re breaking a precept or not. We go through life being so ignorant of our intentions and covering them up with denial, especially the unskillful ones. When you ask someone why they did something, often they have to stop and think for a little while and reconstruct it. They weren’t really there as the decisions were being made. The lower-level functionaries in their nervous system were making the decisions when the boss was AWOL. The precepts try to make you more and more present in the decision-making, more present to your intentions, more sensitive to the results of your actions.

Then the same principle gets carried into the mind. When you’re practicing concentration, you want to be very clear that this is an action, this is an activity you’re doing. You’re thinking and evaluating one object. You hold a perception in mind. As the Buddha said, the levels of concentration are a series of perception attainments, all the way from the first jhana up through the dimension of nothingness. At each level, there’s a perception you hold in your mind, a mental label you apply to your object. That’s the action. That’s what keeps you in touch with the object, such as the breath. There are many things that you could be sensitive to in your awareness of the body right now, but the Buddha’s asking that you be sensitive to the breath, the in-and-out breath and the other breath energies in the body. You try to stay tuned to that level of awareness, that aspect of having a physical body sitting here.

When the Buddha talks about being aware of the body, he’s also getting you to be aware of the four properties: the wind property, the fire property, the water property, and the earth property. These are all aspects of how you sense the body from within. The wind is the energy or motion. Earth is the solidity, fire the warmth, and water the cool sensations that go with the flow of the blood through the body, for example. As you focus on that aspect of your body, you find that there are also feelings of pain or pleasure. It’s important that you learn how to distinguish those pain and pleasure sensations from the four properties, because otherwise they get glommed together, especially with the earth, the solid aspect of the body. When there’s a pain, you tend to glom it on with the solid sensations, which makes the pain seem solid, too.

Here’s an area where you can get some important insights into how perceptions can create problems, because the perception of the pain has glued the pain to the solid sensations of the body, making the pain seem a lot more solid than it has to be. This is an area where, once you start getting concentrated, you can stay with the sense of the body and not keep flying off to other mental worlds. You want to start making distinctions: which sensations are the earth sensations, which ones are the sensations of water, fire, breath or wind, and then which sensations are the pain sensations? They’re different things.

When you can see that distinction, learning how to apply different labels to those different sensations, that takes a huge burden off the mind right there. That way, even though there can be pain in the body, the mind doesn’t have to be pained by it. You begin to see that the perception is the bridge between the physical pain and the sense of suffering or being burdened in the mind. How does this create craving? Because we lay claim to the body, the whole mass here is “us” or “ours.” Then as soon as the pain comes in, our territory has been invaded. We have a sense of the pain as aiming at us. It’s trying to do something to us, trying to move in on our territory.

If you can practice changing that perception and holding different perceptions of what’s going on, there can still be pain, but it’s not invading your space. When you’re not trying to take possession of that territory, you’re not opening yourself up to attack. That’s another level of perception that you want to be able to distinguish: that when you’re aware of something, you also tend to take possession of it. However, it’s possible to be aware without having that sense of possession, just as you’re aware of the mountain over there on the horizon, the sun on the mountain, the trees, the chaparral. You look at them and you’re aware of them, but there’s no sense of possession. They’re not yours. As long as mountains and the chaparral don’t do anything to invade your space, there’s no suffering.

If you went out and tried to take possession of Mount Palomar or Mount Pala, there would be problems, but as long as you don’t take possession of them, there’s no problem. Try to learn how to apply that same principle to your sense of inhabiting the body. You can be here, but there doesn’t have to be a you inhabiting it. There’s just this sense of the body that you’re aware of.

Now, to see the movements of the mind as it’s applying these perceptions to things, creating the bridges that allow stress to come into the mind: that requires a lot of stillness, which is why the Buddha said that genuine insights require really strong concentration. You can have insights about other things without much concentration—you see little movements in the mind here and there in kind of a random way. The insights that really go deep into the mind, that really have an important impact in freeing the mind, are the insights that come from seeing how you’re trying to take control of something so that you can gain pleasure out of it but instead it turns around and it bites you. Those are the insights that are really important, that make a big difference. For those you have to be very quiet, because that movement of trying to take over something so that you can feel that you’re in control of it, convinced that it can lead you to happiness and pleasure: It’s so instinctive, so under the radar. There’s such an of-courseness about it—of course you’d think that this is your body, of course you’d feel this way, of course you’d have those perceptions—that it’s really hard to catch.

This is an important aspect of insight: learning how to see things with new eyes, getting out of your old habits of looking at things and understanding things, and then turning around and looking at those old habits from outside them: Oh my gosh, they really do cause a lot of unnecessary suffering and stress.

An important aspect of concentration practice is learning to get out of your old habits. Instead of thinking about things as you normally do or focusing on things as you normally would, try to hold on to your perception of the breath regardless. The mind may say, “This is stupid; you’re not getting any insights,” but you can say, “Sorry, whether it’s stupid or not, I don’t care. I’m just going to keep on doing this.” You’re here to learn something new. As the Buddha said, you’re practicing to realize what you haven’t realized before, to attain what you haven’t attained before—and that means you have to do things you haven’t done before.

So you stick with the breath regardless of how tempting it is to go thinking about other things, focusing on other things. You stay right here, stay right here, stay right here. Develop the strength of mind that can stick with something regardless. The image Ajaan Fuang used was of a red ant. In Thailand they have these big red ants that bite so tenaciously that if you try to pull them off, sometimes their heads detach before they’re willing to let go. He said that that’s the kind of tenacity you want as you’re sticking with the breath, because it rearranges things in the mind, rearranges priorities. The part of the mind that says, “I’d like to think about this other thing; I want to think about that other thing,” you have to say no to it: “No, no, no, just stay right here.” In doing that, you get the mind out of its normal conversations, its normal ways of doing things and approaching things. Only when you get out of your normal way can you turn around and look at your normal way and get some perspective on it, to see that even though the pains of conditions are a normal part of the world, the suffering that the mind takes on is totally optional. It’s because of our own lack of skill that we suffer.

This is why discernment is so important to see the distinctions between things that we otherwise glom together—glomming the pain onto the solid parts of the body, glomming the sense of “me” onto that pain in the solid parts of the body—so that it’s all a big sticky mess. When you learn how to distinguish things, make distinctions, see the differences—say, that a feeling of pleasure or pain is not the same thing as a sense of solidity, or that being aware of the body doesn’t mean that you have to lay claim to the body—there can be a sense of separation for the mind and its object. When you can see these distinctions, that’s how release comes.

The threefold training is not the end of the story. The end of the story is in what the Buddha called the four noble dhammas: virtue, concentration, discernment, and release. These four noble dhammas give a more complete picture of what we’re about here. We’re here for release. You recognize discernment as being genuine discernment when it brings release. You see something you didn’t see before, you understand something you didn’t understand before, and in the understanding, there’s a release from suffering. That’s the kind of insight we’re looking for. Other insights may be useful along the way, but you don’t want to stop with them. This is one of the reasons why Ajaan Fuang said not to go around memorizing your insights all the time, because if the insight is genuine, it brings freedom right there. It does something. It’s not just information. It’s an insight that makes a difference, serves a purpose, accomplishes something. That’s when the discernment is noble and leads to noble release.