day two : afternoon

Feelings of Pain

This morning there was a request for techniques on how to deal with physical pain while you meditate.

There are four steps in dealing with pain. The first is preventative. When you sit down to meditate, you probably know by now where pains tend to appear. Try to let the breath energy flow into that area even before the pain comes. Remember, however, that sometimes pain in one part of the body is caused by a lack of circulation in another part of the body. For instance, a pain in your knee may actually come from a lack of circulation in the middle of your back or in your face. When that’s the case, you have to let breath energy flow in the middle of the back or in the face if you want to prevent the pain in the knee. The relationships between circulation of breath energy and pain can be very unusual and unexpected. So, explore for a while. Try releasing any tension you can feel anywhere in the body. And you’ll find that there may be one spot where, when you release the tension there, it will improve the energy flow in the area that you usually get the pain.

When I was a young monk in Thailand, the group meditations at the monastery were an hour and a half every evening. I usually found that after fifteen minutes, I had a pain in my knee. And even though they allowed us to change positions, those who did change position were looked down on by the other meditators. So, in order to protect the good name of America, I tried my best not to move. I quickly realized that this required working on my breath circulation immediately as soon as I closed my eyes to meditate. In my case, I found that the pain in the knee was caused by a lack of breath energy flow in the upper back. That’s how I learned the first technique for dealing with pain: the preemptive strike.

The second step, when pain has arisen, is not to focus on that spot. As I said this morning in the guided meditation, you might focus on the opposite side of the body or any spot where you can find that the breath energy is very comfortable. Stay in the comfortable spot and let the pain have the other spot. You do not have to get into the line of fire. The mind will be tempted to focus on the pain and deliver a long commentary on the pain, but you have to tell yourself not to believe a word of what it is saying. Keep reminding yourself that as long as you’re in a good spot, you’re not threatened by the pain. Ajaan Lee has a nice image for this technique. He says it’s like getting a mango. If there’s a rotten spot in the mango, do not eat the rotten spot. Let the worms have the rotten spot. You eat just the good spot.

If you can maintain this determination, you will find that the breath energy in the spot where you’re focused becomes more and more comfortable, more powerful. That’s when you can move to the third step, which is to think of that comfortable energy spreading through the pain. For example, if you feel comfortable energy in the area around the heart, and the pain is in your knee, think of the energy flowing from the heart down through the body, down through the leg, through the pain, and then out to the feet, relaxing any feelings of tension you may feel in those parts of the body. Make sure that you don’t stop the energy flow right at the pain. Perceive the pain as being porous—it’s not a wall—and that the energy can go through it easily. In this way, you’re not being the victim of the pain. You’re taking a more proactive role. It’s not so easy for the pain to shoot you when you’re being proactive. And in this way, you feel less threatened by the pain. The voices in the mind that are complaining about the pain have less and less power.

After your concentration is well established, you’re ready for the fourth step in dealing with the pain, which is to focus directly on the actual sensation of the pain, to see what the sensation is and what your perceptions about the sensation are. “Perception” here can be any images or words in the mind that arise to label the pain. Then you bring in appropriate attention: Start questioning those perceptions. For example, if there’s a perception that the knee is in pain, ask yourself, “Is the knee really in pain?” Actually, the knee is one thing—it’s a physical phenomenon, which in the Buddhist analysis is made up of four elementary properties: a feeling of solidity, a feeling of warmth, a feeling of coolness, a feeling of energy—but the pain is something else. It is not a physical phenomenon. It’s a mental phenomenon. Even though they’re in the same place, it’s as if they’re on different wavelengths—like the radio waves from Monaco and Marseilles going through the air of this room right now. If your radio can distinguish between the different frequencies, it can produce the sounds from the right station without interference from the others. Can you distinguish between the physical and the mental phenomena in the knee in the same way?

Other questions you might ask yourself are: “Where is the most intense point of the pain? Does it stay in the same place or does it move around? Does it come or go? When it comes, what perception comes with it? If there’s any perception that intensifies the pain, can you drop that perception?”

There are many other questions you could ask. The important thing is that you learn how to take a proactive role. In other words, you’re not the victim, and when you’re not the victim, there’s nothing that the pain can hit.

Another perception you might try to apply to the pain, to counteract the sense of being victimized by it, is to imagine that you’re sitting in the back of a car, the old sort of car where the back seats face backwards. Whatever you see on the side of the road as you’re facing backwards, you’re seeing it whiz past and go away. Whiz past and go away. Again and again. In the same way, when you see a moment of pain arise, you’re actually seeing it whizzing past and going away. As soon as you see a moment of pain, it’s going away. When another moment of pain comes, it’s going away, too. If you can hold this perception in mind, you will suffer much less from the pain, and sometimes you will find that the old perception that you were previously placing on the pain was actually causing the pain. When you apply a new perception, the pain goes away. But even if the pain is still there when you change perceptions, when you have a correct perception and are applying appropriate attention, you don’t have to see the pain as attacking you. Your awareness is one thing; the pain is something else. That way you can live with the pain but without suffering from it.

So you have four steps all together. The first is the preventative, the second is to stay in a comfortable part of the body, the third is to use the comfortable energy in that part and spread it through the pain to dissolve any tension that has built up around the pain, and the fourth is to investigate and question the pain, along with the perceptions around the pain.

This way, you’re following the Buddha’s statement that your duty with regard to pain is not to destroy it or to run away from it, but to comprehend it. To comprehend it, you need to feel not threatened by it. This is why we develop concentration: to give you the confidence that you can stay with the pain and investigate it. As for the perceptions we use in investigating the pain, and the act of applying appropriate attention to them: We’ll discuss later this week how those are instances of your present kamma around the pain—the kamma of discernment, the kamma of comprehension. When you develop these skillful forms of kamma in the present, you’re following the duty appropriate to the fourth noble truth, which is to develop it. When these qualities are developed, you’re in a strong position to comprehend pain. And when you can comprehend it, you can go beyond it.

Q: Some people say that suffering a little bit during the meditation is part of the process, but that disturbs the concentration. What is the balance?

A: The balance in the beginning is to try to sit as comfortably as you can and to develop some skill in getting concentrated and staying concentrated on the breath. If necessary, sit in a chair. Once you get a sense of what concentration is like and how you can do it, then you can begin to meditate for longer and longer periods of time in the meditative posture to see if you can maintain the concentration in spite of the pain. You do this because pain is an excellent whetstone for sharpening your discernment.

Q: Why should we deal with pain?

A: Because there are going to be many more pains in life. The pain of sitting for one hour in meditation is nothing compared to many of the pains we will have to encounter in the future, when faced with aging, illness, and death. So this way, you get practice in dealing with pain before it gets too serious.

Q: Is pain brought to us by evolution for a reason?

A: Evolution has its purposes. We have our purposes. Our purposes are different. We want to learn how to deal with pain and not create bad kamma and eventually to get beyond evolution.

Q: Why not just sit in a chair?

A: You learn more sitting down on the floor. Also, it’s more convenient. If you learn how to sit on the floor, you can sit anywhere. You don’t have to carry a chair around with you in case you want to meditate.

Q: Are all positions and pains OK?

A: No, some positions are bad for the body, and some pains are also bad if you sit with them for too long. You want to sit in a balanced posture so as not to put too much stress on any one part of the body. Similarly, if you have a pain that comes from an injury, don’t push yourself too hard with it. That’s when you can sit in a chair.

Q: When a fly is taking a promenade on our arms or our hands, it’s bearable, but what to do when a mosquito comes flying near your ear?

A: Remember that the mosquitoes in Provence do not carry malaria, and all they’re asking for is a little tiny drop of blood. If you can’t endure the pain of the mosquito bite, you won’t be able to endure any heavier pains. And remind yourself: If you let it bite, you’re gaining double merit from practicing meditation and generosity at the same time.

Q: Can you clarify your four-element analysis of pain? It can feel hot, so that would be fire; it can feel heavy, rough, or dense, so that would be earth; it moves and flows, appears and disappears, so that would seem to be breath. Are you saying that this is not complete, not useful, not correct, or all of the above?

A: The four elements are physical. Feeling is mental: the sense of finding a sensation to be either pleasant or unpleasant. Sometimes with fire, for instance, the same sensation of warmth can feel either pleasant or unpleasant depending on your state of mind and other factors in your situation. The same holds true for density, and the same with the sense of movement. So, it’s useful to be able to separate the physical side of the pain from the mental side. That makes it easier to be with the pain and not suffer from it.

Q: I often have feelings of cold during meditation. Is it that the temperature of the body lowers during meditation?

A: In the case of some people, yes, and yet other people actually feel a sensation of heat. If you find that you’re getting uncomfortably cold or hot, try to think of the opposite element that would balance it out. For instance, when you’re feeling too cold, try to find the warmest spot in your body, focus on that, and then try to spread that warmth to the rest of the body. Do the opposite when you’re feeling too hot: Look for the coolest spot in the body and focus there. Similarly with breath and density: If you’re feeling light-headed, try to focus on the sense of density or solidity in the body. If you’re feeling depressed and heavy, focus on the breath throughout the body.

Q: Is it possible that an old pain might be coming from a deep energy blockage?

A: Yes.

Q: If yes, then is goodwill one of the skillful ways of freeing the blockage?

A: Who are you spreading goodwill to? If you’re spreading goodwill to yourself, it might help. Or if you’re spreading goodwill to any person you associate with the blockage, that, too, can help. But the best way to free the blockage is to try to get the mind as quiet as possible. The more quiet the mind, the deeper you will be able to go into energy blockages and release them directly with the breath.