Four Buddhist Truths Learned from Chronic Pain

1. Everything is Transient

During my last pain flare, for over a week I lived with the feeling of two nails shoved in my eyes, causing an intense headache. It would be easy to say the pain was constant since it bothered me enough to interrupt my activity several times a day. However, if I remain fully present with my body during these times, I notice how the pain waxes and wanes, even during a full body pain flare.

I’ve found this to be true of all the types of pain and fatigue I experience. As I expand my awareness out from the body, I see the truth of impermanence in all aspects of life.


2. Suffering is caused by Attachment

When the pain forces my body to shut down and all I can do is lie on the couch, I watch my mind as it grapples with the situation. If I remain attached to getting up and being active, there is great suffering when the body refuses to cooperate. If I let go of the attachment and instead observe what is, there is pain and discomfort but no suffering. It is as if a large weight is removed and I can simply be with the pain as it changes form with every breath.

I watch how at times we all cling to ideas of how we think it should be – whatever the situation – and how this attachment blinds and separates us from what really is here now.


3. There is Always a Way Out

Intractable pain feels like being a tiny cage with no escape. It can overwhelm the attention to the point where there’s no other point of focus. At level 10 on the pain scale, the body collapses and the mind shuts down – the way out is the autonomic response beyond our conscious control. At any level below 10, we can find the way out by focusing our mind.

Once we realize this, we have many choices:
– increase our suffering by focusing on our attachment,
– escape through the power of imagination,
– distraction either physically by introducing different sensations or mentally through visual or auditory stimulation,
– or conscious observation of the qualities of pain through the lens of detachment.

Sensorial distraction may include a tens unit, massage, petting an animal, listening to music, or watching a movie. Conscious observation with detachment may include reminding ourselves I am not this fragile body and all of this is merely sensations passing through my awareness field. Throughout the years, I have applied all of these methods to find my way out of the tiny cage.

In my dealings with others, and in my own pre-pain personal experience, I’ve seen how we find ourselves feeling trapped by a situation over which we have no direct control, yet there is always a way out of that feeling of helplessness by taking control the one place we always can: the focus of the mind.


4. Meditation Makes Finding the Way Out Easier

Practicing meditation makes the mind stronger, and thus allows us to gain control of our focus in the most trying of circumstances. I could write paragraph after paragraph with examples of how myself and others have benefited from meditation and share many studies revealing the power of meditation, but this is the one Truth you’ll have to prove for yourself.




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Buddhist Work

Buddhists do not work to earn a living. Work, and all action, is a means to refine consciousness, smooth the rough edges of the ego, and loosen the root of suffering: attachment to identity.Buddhist Work

Of course we need to support our bodies while we live in the world, but simply fulfilling material needs and desires leads to more desires, which leads to deeper bondage. We can observe those who have succeeded on a grand scale and see fulfillment of all desire eventually leaves one feeling a deep lack. Many who have great wealth and power try to resolve this difficult to place feeling of suffering by working harder to gain even more wealth and power. The greed distorts their focus, and delusion takes hold, driving them to amass more and more material goods in a never-ending cycle of fear and satiation. Some resort to drugs and other means of distraction through the senses, essentially hiding from their very self. Even those who have not achieved significant material success fall prey to these traps.

A few take up social concerns, devoting their energy and resources to helping the less fortunate. If they avoid the temptation to see themselves as a savior, they have the potential to tap into selfless giving, which always leads to joy.

With the Buddhist approach to work, we see activity as an opportunity to learn and expand our consciousness. If possible, we’ll seek out work that challenges us, and forces the brain to stretch. Even with simple or repetitive tasks, we appraise the work to be done and consider the most efficient methods. This brain stretching exercise over time makes it easier to meditate and to hold seemingly disparate concepts in the mind. We allow our consciousness to expand so everything we do becomes an opportunity to connect with the environment and the tasks as an extension of our self, where we ultimately become the work.

Through our activity, we also jump into what I like to call the rock polisher, a device that tumbles rough and dull stones so they smash against each other until smooth and shiny. In any society, we are conditioned to see the world in a certain way. We are also born with certain personality traits. This combination of conditioning and personality traits leads to sharp edges on the ego: the part of us that digs in our heels and insists we are right. This need to be right appears in many forms, including annoyance, hurt feelings, anger, frustration, and despondency. During our interactions with others, especially in a work situation where there is not always the option to walk away without severe consequences, we pay attention to when our feathers get ruffled. Instead of reacting, we watch as the different emotions and thoughts rise to the surface and allow them to teach us about our rough edges. Simply by watching and being aware of what is happening within us, the sharp edges begin to wear away. Eventually the things that bothered us do not seem all that important.

This view of work as a process with no concern for the result leads to the loosening of the root of suffering: the attachment to identity. We all think we are someone. The difference between the average person and the Enlightened is the Enlightened don’t believe the thought, while the average person does. Work gives us the wonderful opportunity to become what others need us to be, and do whatever needs to be done in the moment. Most people approach an activity with the thought of “I want to do this” or “I don’t want to do this” and depending on the word not in that sentence, they either enjoy or despise the activity. Buddhist practice allows us to let go of the sense of “I” and see the work clearly. If we don’t have the skills, we either learn them or pass the task onto someone who does. If we find the task unpleasant, we use the opportunity to learn about the attachment that caught us. Like all attachments, if we look at it honestly without attraction or repulsion long enough, it dissolves.

Even if we have won the lottery or have a trust fund, we work. We may not call it work, but the body cannot help but act. Unless we are dissolved in the silence of meditation, we are always doing one task or another. From the Buddhist point of view, we can use these moments of work to free the mind from suffering.


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Enlightenment Is Our Natural State

There are no words to describe Enlightenment. We can use concepts to allude to the state of Awakening, to God-Realization, to Self-Realization. That last one, Self-Realization is rather ironic since it’s realizing there is no Self. We can say it is a state of Unity, of ultimate bliss and peace; that it is freedom from suffering. Enlightenment is the end of Ignorance, the end of attachment to senses, and the end of coming to any state of Being.

Liberation from suffering is probably the closest we can come in words. It does not mean pleasure and pain are no longer felt. In reality, they are felt more deeply since there is no resistance. But a particular sensation doesn’t hang around very long because there is no self to cling to it. Beneath all the waves that arise, there is that indescribable sense of peace, but even the word peace falls flat in reality.

Enlightenment does not mean everything in your life works out. It doesn’t mean that all money problems and relationship issues and health challenges suddenly disappear. What it does mean is that the human drama does not block the endless Bliss that is the play of existence. Even Gautama Buddha had to eat, manage relationships, and deal with back problems that would cause him pain. When the back pain became intense and his body could not sit up straight, he would ask one of his disciples to give the discourse while he laid down. You may have seen statues of him in a reclined posture; now you know why he was memorialized in that position.buddha-relaxing

Why didn’t Gautama just heal himself, or ask one of the many gods, goddesses, or healers who came to him to hear the Dharma to fix his body? Having a perfect physical body was unnecessary for him to accomplish his task of teaching. When you know you are the Dharma-kaya, what difference does the temporary physical vehicle make? On another level, his physical pain also served as a teaching for his students to let go of their attachment and worship of the body.

Enlightenment does not mean you are a Saint. There are Enlightened Saints, but not all Saints are Enlightened and not all of the Enlightened are Saints. As long as the body exists, there is a sliver of ego and a variable personality that interacts with the world, complete with its own quirks and eccentricities. The difference between one who is Awakened and one who is not is that there is no clinging to the ego or personality. The Awakened changes to fit the needs of those around her, to show them Light in a way that they have the possibility of seeing It, to aid in the Awakening of those they meet. Or, sometimes their job is simply to meditate alone and let the Light shine through them, so they may chase people away. Their actions don’t always make sense to those who are watching from the outside. To the average person, the Enlightened may appear aloof, fickle, sometimes cold, and sometimes extremely loving. None of these words adequately describe Enlightenment. It is everything and nothing all at once.

All I or anyone can really tell you is the struggle to Awaken is worth every moment. Each experience you have in this world contains within it the seed of realization. While it is certainly not easy to let go of every last attachment and lay yourself bare before the Light, it is what we were made for. Enlightenment is our Natural State.


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Two Techniques for Silence

My elbow has not quite healed, so instead of writing, I’ve taken a clip from my class on Saturday and turned it into a short video for you. (In case you’re wondering, apparently I have tennis elbow, even though I don’t play tennis. Well, occasionally, I’ll play Wii tennis, but I haven’t in quite a while. The elbow is much better, but not done healing yet.)




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On the spiritual path, we become extremely sensitive. We reach a point where we feel everything. Every thought and emotion of every being rushes through us. With over 7 billion people here on this tiny rock called Earth – and most of them suffering – you can imagine why it’s tempting to hide.

The strategy of hiding and avoidance works in the beginning. We can become very adept at using our sensitivity to scope out a room or a restaurant and choose not to go there if it feels too heavy. We limit our adventures to only the most serene and peaceful environments. Until we become accustom to our sensitivity, this is a smart move. Otherwise, we can easily become overwhelmed and chewed up by the thousands of sensations and feel like we’ve gone crazy.

Once we stabilize, and we learn how to maneuver in the world, then it’s time to step outside of our comfort zone. If we continue the avoidance behavior, we’ll become stuck and our spiritual development will stop.

Along with our practice of meditation and mindfulness, we can cultivate certain qualities to get ourselves unstuck and moving towards our highest potential.  The easiest of these is quite ordinary, and we often forget it is a high spiritual quality: friendliness.

Friendliness is an inherent trait. We already have it within us, but years of conditioning coupled with the sensitivity we feel from opening to the deeper layers of our being cause us to shut down. The good news is we always have access to it – all we have to do is let it out to play. But in order to play, we must interact with the world.

Friendliness connects us with others. A smile shared among strangers breaks down the walls of ego conditioning and reminds us we are the same beneath all the stories.

When we feel the rush of sensations, we can temper the uncontrollability of it by concentrating on opening to friendliness. Instead of retreating into our mind, we can approach those around us with a sense of pleasantness and sociability. We do not need to offer anything other than our full presence.

In that moment of connection, of friendliness, we forget about how sensitive we are and all that we are feeling. Instead we experience the infinite moment of eternity reflected in the eyes of another being.




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Psychic Sensitivity and Inaccessibility

Through the practice of meditation, our awareness expands. We begin to notice new sensations and feelings and even objects. These things were always there; they just weren’t on our radar. At first, this newfound psychic sensitivity can be exciting and wondrous. When we walk into a room, we immediately know how our friend is feeling, even before she turns around. Sometimes we know who is calling on the phone without peeking at the caller-id. We not only watch the sun set, we feel the blaze of color wash through our being. As our awareness continues to expand we feel powerful and revel in our newly found psychic abilities.


Then our awareness keeps expanding. We walk into the grocery store and feel crushed by the impressions left by all the other shoppers. We arrive home and drown in our neighbor’s sorrow without even saying hello. We pick up our laundry and feel the weight of the past week’s struggles. The novelty of feeling the unseen quickly wears thin.


Some people will stop meditating, but find this intense awareness lingers. Awareness is a bell that cannot be un-rung. We know what’s out there and inside our being. We feel the suffering and we remember the bliss we felt in the silence of meditation. Abandoning the practice becomes akin to abandoning ourselves. So eventually, we begin to meditate once again.


At this point, we’ve closed our heart out of fear. We shield ourselves from the anguish and dive into meditation. It works for a while. As long as we meditate, we feel the boundless joy. Once we rise from our meditation cushion to interact with the world, we feel the pain and we hunker down, with an iron door over our heart, closed off and separate. In this pattern, there is no moving forward. There is only maintaining what little peace we can squeeze out during meditation. We pray the memories of our morning meditation will sustain us until we can return to the safety of our quiet little cave.


To move forward, we must open our heart.


We can take tiny baby steps, learning control and inaccessibility. We can live openly, overflowing with joy and peace.


We begin by first placing our awareness on our subtle body. This is the area of energy surrounding our physical body that senses the unseen world. We can control this part of our being, just as we can control our hand. With our mind, we visualize this area and pull it close to our physical body so it rests within an arm’s length. We practice walking around with our subtle body tucked in tightly, noticing how it feels when it bounces off of other people and places and things. We continue to practice holding the subtle body tight to the physical until we do this without thinking about it.


Before each meditation we clear the lines that have become attached to our subtle body. We imagine a pair of scissors, or a knife, or a sword, or other cutting device and simply lop them off like trimming a loose thread. We don’t worry about the other end of the line. We just let the line connected to us fall away. Over time, we may notice when one of these lines first attaches. If we do feel one become attached, then we simply cut it and let it fall away. We don’t worry about where it came from or why it’s there. We just take care of the part that’s connected to our subtle body by clipping it and letting it drop away. We continue to practice this until we do it without thinking about it.


With this level of control we begin to notice that we feel the suffering of the world only when we are in proximity to it. When we are out walking on the beach or through the park, we don’t feel it. We are once again enjoying the beautiful sensations of the unseen world. We discover we can find refuge whenever we need it in any place where we can be alone.


When we’re ready to move forward again, we open the heart wide and practice inaccessibility. Inaccessibility has nothing to do with secrecy or hiding who we are. Anyone can ask us anything, and we can answer however much or little we want. We are not hung up on ourselves. There is no one to fight and no one to impress. Being inaccessible means to stand and walk completely open and aware of all that is, without pushing out any personal agenda.


When we feel uncomfortable, we look first at what we are pushing out. What is it that we feel is wrong? What is not going in the direction we think it should be? What are we trying to control? By asking these questions of our Self, we discover the attachment that is causing us to be accessible to suffering.


Once we know what personal agenda we are pushing out into the world, we can decide to let go of it. We can let it fall away, just like the lines that get tangled in our subtle body.


Or we can separate from the agenda and still present it to the world. Sometimes we are moved to act for a cause or to take up a project. We can do this and remain inaccessible. The agenda we push is not a representation of our Self; it is no longer personal. It is simply the play of God. If someone praises it, then we enjoy the praise, knowing it has nothing to do with us. If someone bashes it, then we watch the bashing carefully and look for weaknesses in our agenda, knowing it has nothing to do with us.


We share the message or complete the project with excitement for the sake of the project, not with excitement about our own ego. We know we are whole and complete in and of ourselves. The agenda we carry in this way is joyful and fun, no matter what happens. We are so wide open that we become All and there is no one to access; thus we are inaccessible.

We meditate, letting go into the silent stillness of bliss. We participate in the world, open and aware, letting go of all attachments as they reveal themselves. We live with psychic sensitivity through inaccessibility. The iron wall melts, the knots untie, and the heart opens. Bliss and peace radiate to all.


  ~jenna sundell   7/17/12