“Being Mindful and Skillful with Physical Pain (Part 1 of 2)” Talk and Reference Material

October 17, 2017 Group Meditation Part 2 of 2

This talk happened Oct. 17, 2017 at the Boundless Love Project’s Group Meditation. Before listening to the talk, we suggest you listen to this investigating sensations meditation, which preceded the talk. This talk has been edited to improve its clarity, content, and for length.

Being Mindful and Skillful with Physical Pain (Part I) Reference Material

Our potential to be at peace with pain

In June of 1963, in Saigon, Buddhist priest Thích Quang Duc protested laws that discriminated against Buddhists by burning himself to death while calmly and peacefully meditating. It took 10 minutes for Duc to burn to death, and during this time he did not move or cry out. Thích Quang Duc is an inspiring example of the human capacity to use mindfulness to be at peace with physical pain.

You can read his story, and see the pictures of his last few moments of bodily form at RareHistoricalPhotos.com. Be warned, the photographs are potentially disturbing.

Six techniques to help you mindfully and skillfully address pain

I have been taught all of these techniques by various teachers. I have experimented with them through my various injuries, illnesses, aches and pains and can tell you from personal experience that they have benefited me tremendously.

Some techniques are easy to implement, other techniques involve skills you need to develop through your meditation practice and living mindfully. All of them work together to support each other. Try to explore them all in your own life.

1. Stop stabbing yourself with the dart! Or, separate physical sensations from thought-inflicted mental suffering

The Buddha said that an untrained, person, who is operating under the normal amount of egoic delusion, responds differently to getting hit with a dart, which symbolically represents getting sick or injured, than someone who is trained in mindfulness.

The untrained person gets hit with a dart, then proceeds to take that dart, pull it out of their body and stab themselves with it again and again repeatedly. How are they stabbing themselves? By adding psychological suffering on top of the physical pain.

Every self-inflicted dart wound is an upsetting story in the mind that they believe:

  •  “I can’t bear this pain!”
  • “I need my health back!”
  • “Why me!? Why must I feel so miserable and awful?”
  • “I bet this injury is permanent.”
  • “The last time I was stabbed with a dart, a lost my job! That was never ending misery.”

The Buddha goes on to say that a person trained in mindfulness, gets stabbed with a dart, and leaves it at that. They experience the sensations of being stabbed with a dart. They don’t let those sensations turn into a story, they don’t create an identity for themselves around the sensations of the dart. They don’t magnify the sensations of the dart with delusional stories that cause increased psychological suffering.

Of course the mindful person responds skillfully to being stabbed with a dart. They calmly remove the dart, clean the wound, and place a bandage over the wound. Then they skillfully go about their day. The whole thing is free of drama, and free of suffering.

Now those of us who are new to mindfulness training, might say, “but I can’t quiet my mind! When I am in pain, those delusional stories arise!” Of course they do. That is why we respond with mindfulness. We watch the stories as they arise. We see the delusion in them. By seeing the delusion in our stories, we recognize them as false. By seeing their falsehood, they don’t become the disturbing emotions of grief, sadness, depression, despondency, apathy, envy, jealousy, and self-pity, which can paralyze us and spin us off into unskillful behavior.

Now those of us who are new to mindfulness training, might say, “But my mindfulness is not strong enough to see all of my thoughts and stories. Some of those thoughts and stories are unconscious and the emotional disturbances still arise.” That’s OK too. Then we try to be mindful of those by using the FEEL Technique.

The FEEL Technique

1. FEEL the emotion fully.

Place your full attention on feeling the emotion.

2. ESTABLISH that the feeling is delusional.

We know the feeling is delusional, because it is disturbing. The disturbing emotion is arising from conscious or unconscious delusional thoughts that are active in the mind. Recognizing it as delusional, we do not want to mistake it, or the stories that arise about it, as truthful or who we are. They are both temporary and impersonal: “Not me, not mine.”

3. EXCLUDE thinking.

Excluding thinking can be done in several ways:

A. We have a calm, quiet mind. This is least likely to happen, because the habit pattern of the ego is to generate a lot of delusional stories when a disturbing emotion arises.

B. By focusing all of your awareness on feeling the felt-sensations of the emotion, there is no energy left for thoughts to arise, or any thoughts that do arise are basically ignored in the background of our awareness.

C. As we feel the feelings, we also mindfully watch the thoughts that arise in our mind, and either see the delusion in them, or assume they are delusional, so we impart no truth to them.

4. LOVE and accept the feeling.

We offer no resistance to feeling the feeling. We allow the feeling to be. We relax and calm the body as much as possible. We appreciate that this feeling is here to teach us how to be mindful and help us awaken from our misery.

We continue to do these things until either the emotion moves away on its own, or we have enough balance in the mind to go about our day skillfully.

In this way, we use our mindfulness like a surgeon's scalpel to cut away all of the unnecessary mental suffering that is needlessly added to the physical sensations. The more we see, or FEEL, delusions as delusions, the less they come around and the less power they have over us.

To summarize: be mindful. Start to pay attention to what is the first dart, and what are the self-inflicted darts. When pain arises, notice the pain, and then we become very alert, very mindful. Know the habit pattern of the ego is to think lots of delusional thoughts and generate lots of delusional feelings in response to pain. Thus, carefully watch the mind and emotions. Be on the lookout for delusions, so as to not add suffering on top of the physical pain. Then you can live the truth of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Han when he said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

2. Accept the truth that your body will get old, get sick, get injured, and experience pain

This point will also help you stop stabbing yourself with the dart.

In Buddhism, there are Five Remembrances which are considered important to reflect on daily. The three most relevant to our discussion are:

  • “This body has the nature to age, I cannot stop it from aging.”
  • “This body has the nature to become sick, I cannot stop it from becoming sick.”
  • “All that is dear to me and everyone I love, will eventually change and be separated from me.”

It is a fact that this body of ours will grow old, get sick, get injured, change, and experience pain. The health of the body is dear to us, but its nature is to change, and at some point our health will begin to falter. To the ego, which lives in delusion, these facts are total downers. The delusion in us thinks it can avoid all pain and suffering, if it just eats right, exercises, and is a good person. But this is delusional, and when we live in delusion, we suffer tremendously and needlessly.

Thankfully, we are committed to knowing the truth of reality as it is. Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” When we live from the absolute truth of reality as it is, we feel peace, comfort, ease, and balance, and we are liberated from needless suffering.

When we embrace the truth that no matter how much we eat right and exercise, eventually we will experience aging, sickness, injury, or poor health; when we accept that reality; then, when pain arises, we can avoid the hellish aversive mental states of denial, anger, blame, bargaining, depression, and so on. When we accept this reality, when pain arises, we avoid the hellish greedy mental states of wanting, craving, jealousy, and envy. When we accept this reality, when pain arises, we avoid the hellish self-view mental states where we take the body aging and being sick personally, mistake the pain to be who we are, and make it into a personal story of tragedy that feels unbearable and intolerable.

Accepting the truth that we will experience pain allows us to avoid all of the reactive, thought-inflicted dart wounds. It minimizes our suffering and allows us to mindfully and skillfully let the original pain, simply be pain.

3. Recognize that you are not your body, not form

This body is a gift from nature, life, God. The body operates according to the laws of nature, which we do not have control over. We have some influence on the health and functioning of the body, but we do not have full control over it, so why mistake it to be who we are?

To mistake the body -- or its thoughts, sensations, and emotions – to be who we are, is to invite our own suffering. All of these things operate according to the various laws of nature, which we have no control over. If we mistakenly take them to be who we are, we mistakenly believe we have control over them. When we inevitably find out this is not the case, we suffer.

Simply recognize it all as a gift, freely loaned to us, that one day we will have to give back. We don’t have full control over it. We have influence over it. Paradoxically, the more we accept how little control we have over the body, mind, and emotions; the less reactive we tend to be when things don’t go our way; and the more influence we gain over using the body, mind, and emotions in skillful, healthy, healing ways.

4. Live from your true self

Before you continue, take a deep breath, and relax the body so you can listen to what I have to say with an open mind. Do your best to understand the truth of what is said that goes beyond the words I use. 

Your deepest essence, your true self, is the formless within you. The formless is that which animates and informs the form of the body. When we live from our true self, we live from the formless realm.

Here is how contemporary spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, describes the formless:

“[Formlessness] is the eternal, ever-present, One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death. However, [the Formless] is not only beyond but also deep within every form as its innermost invisible and indestructible essence. This means that it is available to you now as your own deepest self, your true nature. But don’t seek to grasp it with your mind. Don’t try to understand it. You can know it only when the mind is still. When you are present, when your attention is fully and intensely in the Now, [Formlessness] can be felt, but it can never be understood mentally. To regain awareness of [the Formless] and to abide in that state of ‘feeling-realization’ is enlightenment.”

Different wisdom traditions speak of the formless in different ways. In Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, they call the formless “God.” They also speak of a “soul,” which is that part of God that resides within ourselves and each and every form. Hinduism talks of the Universal Spirit or World-Soul called Brahman, and the part of that World-Soul, called Atman that is within each and every form.

Another contemporary spiritual teacher, Helen Schucman, who wrote A Course in Miracles says, “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God.” She is saying what is real, what is absolute reality, is God, is life, is the formless, and it cannot be destroyed. What is unreal is form. The nature of form is to change, move, and die, but all forms are a relative reality that help us more clearly know the absolute reality.

In Buddhism, the Buddha, through his meditation practice, removed layer after layer of delusion, until he came to the truth of reality as it is and found the formless. He told his followers, “O practitioners, there is an Unborn, Undying, Unchanging, Uncreated.” When he found this formlessness, and lived from it, he became enlightened.

Formlessness is unchanging, permanent, undying, and incorruptible. Nothing – no sickness, illness, or injury -- can harm the essence of who you are.

Even as the form of our body is injured, sickened, or harmed, our deepest essence, and true self, the formless, remains healthy, strong, and full of life. When we live from our true self, we have more energy, vitality, creativity, integrity, peace, and joy, even when we are sick or in pain.

Do your best to live from your deepest essence. We live from our deepest self by keeping some of our awareness constantly placed on the peace, spaciousness, stillness, and/or pleasant energy vibrations within the body. These pleasant sensations lie at the threshold between form and formlessness and help keep us anchored in our awareness of the formless.

Living from your true self is a powerful technique for overcoming personal suffering. For those of you who found what I said makes no sense, or causes you to become upset, confused, or disturbed in anyway, please ignore what I said for now. Set it aside as unhelpful to you. The other techniques I discuss will still serve you well.

5. Replace the word "pain" with "sensations"

The word pain is often attached to a history of delusional stories, whether conscious or unconscious, about what pain is, what it means, and numerous justifications for acting unskillfully when in “pain.” When you use the word “pain” such as “I am in pain,” all of those old, historical stories are triggered, making it challenging to address them.

For most people, the words “sensations” is a neutral and does not have the same egoic baggage around it. Moreover, the word “sensations” encourages us to be compassionately curious about what kind of sensations they are. Pain is merely “sensations” with a feeling tone that is “unpleasant.”

To summarize this point, stop talking about your pains and start talking about your sensations.

6. Investigate and dissect sensations using precise, neutral, descriptive words

Be compassionately curious about unpleasant sensations. Is their pressure? Contraction? Expansion? Heat? Coolness? Heaviness? Lightness? Hardness? Softness? Flow? Movement? Is there itchiness? Which of these neutral sensations make up the sensations of “itchiness”? Feel for the answer.

7. Investigate the feeling tone of those sensations

Dig deeper. Each sensation has a feeling tone, which is whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral (meaning neither pleasant nor unpleasant). Why are these sensations unpleasant; what about them makes them unpleasant? Look for the answers directly, by feeling and exploring the sensations.

Also be mindful of the stories and thoughts that arise. Don’t mistake them for the truth. Be the watcher of them, and be on the lookout for the delusions they contain. Notice times when those delusional stories are not present, are the sensations still a “problem”?

To Be Continued…

There is more on this subject, so listen to part two for the rest of it.