“Being Mindful and Skillful with Physical Pain Part 2” Talk and Summary

Oct. 24, 2017 Group Meditation Part 2 of 2

This talk happened October 24, 2017 at the Boundless Love Project’s Group Meditation. Before listening to the talk, we suggest you listen to this guided meditation on investigating sensations, which preceded the talk. This discussion has been edited to improve its clarity, content, and/or for length.

Being Mindful and Skillful with Physical Pain Part 2 Summary

If you haven’t yet, listen to part 1.

Some techniques for working with unpleasant sensations 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. Explore using them all in your own life.

In part one we introduced seven tips on working with physical pain: 

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

2. Accept the reality that your body is of the nature to get old, get sick, get injured, and experience pain.

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

4. Live from your formless, true self.

5. Substitute the word “sensations” for “pain.”

6. Use precise, neutral, descriptive words while investigating and dissecting unpleasant sensations.

7. Investigate the feeling tone of those sensations.

This week we continue with several more tips:

8. Always be kind, compassionate, and loving to yourself.

Practice kindness, love, and compassion with yourself. When starting to investigate unpleasant sensations, there is no need to injure or harm yourself intentionally. Unpleasant sensations will arise on their own. You don’t need to go out of your way to create them.

When we examine unpleasant sensations, we do this not to harm or punish ourselves, or to repay some sort of karmic debt, or to buy our way into heaven. We investigate unpleasant sensations as an act of love, compassion, and kindness for ourselves and all life.

We investigate sensations out of love for ourselves to develop a more skillful relationship with unpleasant sensations for our own liberation, awakening, peace, and joy. We investigate sensations out of love for all life, as being mindful and peaceful with sensations allows us to fully love, connect, and relate skillfully with all life, even when unpleasant sensations are present.

9. Start by investigating small discomforts and slowly expand your comfort zone.

When we sit still during meditation, it is lawful and natural for unpleasant sensations to arise: itching sensations, back aches, tweaked knees, and so on. Usually, with a little movement, we can eliminate these minor discomforts.

However, due to the laws of impermanence and the impersonal nature of the body, at some point, we will feel unpleasant sensations that we cannot easily remove. Thus, out of love for ourselves and all life, we start our training now, with these small, easy-to-work-with discomforts. Then we will be trained and better prepared for when unpleasant sensations that we have no control over arise.

See these small discomforts as our teachers and trainers who are here to help us awaken out of our misery. See them as our testing ground to experiment with these techniques and find out how to use them skillfully.

The next time an unpleasant sensation arises during meditation, before moving to relieve yourself of the discomfort, explore the sensations objectively, with compassionate curiosity, for your own liberation and the benefit of all life.

10. Be mindful that all sensations are impermanent.

When you place your awareness on unpleasant sensations you notice that they are not constant. They change, flow, or migrate. The intensity of the sensations increases and decreases, and sometimes even goes away.

Mindfully noticing this impermanence, allow the deep wisdom in you to grow: why be upset over these temporarily occurring phenomena? Why resist this visiting sensation? Since my resistance only worsens my suffering, let’s experiment what it is like to accept what is real, present, and already happening? Seeing the impermanence of sensations allows wisdom to arise: there is no need to resist unpleasant sensations.

Noticing impermanence also weakens the stories in our mind. On a relative level, we may have a “headache,” “back ache,” or “illness” of some kind, and these terms are helpful to communicate to our health practitioners what is happening. But use these labels with extreme caution. Recognize them as a relative truth, not the absolute truth.

When we label our injuries, pains, and illnesses, and believe these labels to be true, we activate the delusion of fixed-view. Fixed view takes a passing, impermanent phenomenon like temporary unpleasant sensations, and ossifies it into something more solid, real, and permanent than it is. The result: your pain intensifies and is prolonged.

When we mindfully notice the changing, dynamic, fluctuating nature of these sensations, it provides evidence that pokes holes in the fixed-view delusion. It reminds us of the law of impermanence: “This, too, shall pass.” It reminds us that the nature of the body is also to heal, to recover, and to be at peace.

Seeing the impermanence of sensations allows us to relax with reality as it is, to open to the possibility of healing, and to stop needlessly stabbing ourselves with the dart.

11. Be mindful of all sensations, not just those that are unpleasant.

One of my yoga teachers is the wonderful and magnificent Nancy Boler. After she gets us into a strenuous pose, she calmly instructs us to relax our eyes and our jaw, and pay attention to various details such as finger placement, breathing, expanding and opening our chest, relaxing our shoulders, and more. All of these instructions move our awareness through the body into areas away from the muscles that are fully engaged and feeling the heat, stretch, or shaking from effort. By moving our attention around in this way, we are able to hold the position for a much longer period of time.

A conditioned habit pattern of the ego is to obsess and fixate on unpleasant sensations when they are present, and then proliferate thoughts of aversion towards them, and greedy thoughts to be free of them. This habit patterns greatly increases our suffering in the forms of fear, depression, dread and so on. But through our skillful efforts, we can learn new, more skillful habit patterns.

We can learn to hold unpleasant sensations more objectively, with more spaciousness, ease, and peace. One way to do this, is by moving our awareness around and not exclusively focusing on the unpleasant.

Notice all of the areas of the body that are not in pain. You may feel pain in your back, but pleasant, tingling sensations in your hand. These sensations are also worthy of notice. Just recognizing that your whole experience is not unpleasant is enough to add some peace and spaciousness to the experience, while expanding your options on how to skillfully proceed.

Be careful when doing this that your intention to feel the pleasant or neutral areas is out of love and compassion for yourself and all life, and not derived from an aversive intention to escape the pain. We always want to be practicing love, strengthening love, and building our ability and capacity to love ourselves and others.

12. Relax what you can relax.

If you have pain in your back, why is your jaw clenched and the muscles around your eyes tight? When unpleasant sensations are present, scan the body and invite those muscles that are tight and clenched to relax, release, and be calm. The more calm the body is, the easier it is for energies to move, and for healing to occur.

13. Whenever your mind becomes unbalanced, do concentration meditation.

Through concentration meditation, we have been learning the ability to concentrate and focus our mind on an object, such as the sensations of breath, in an undistracted manner. While we do this, all other sensations, sounds, and thoughts recede into the background of our awareness. This helps us quiet our mind and body, and brings in a degree of peace, quiet, ease, and spaciousness, to our experience.

During your meditation practice, whenever you lose the balance of the mind, it is helpful to do concentration meditation until that balance and composure is regained. Then you can effectively continue to do the work of mindfulness meditation.

As in meditation, so in life. This skill of concentration can be used wisely during times of intense sensations in non-meditative life too. When unpleasantness sensations arise in daily life, if not mindful, the mind can become unbalanced, and the ego can get us caught up in a profusion of delusional thoughts. When the mind is unbalanced, do concentration meditation until you regain balance and composure, and you are able to proceed with your life in a skillful manner, as the watcher of the arising thoughts and sensations.

As always, be careful your intention behind doing concentration meditation is love and compassion for yourself and all life, and not out of aversion to the unpleasant sensations, or out of greed to feel pleasant sensations. Always have your intentions flow from love and compassion.

14. Explore sensations by asking these three questions: What is happening in the body? What is happening in the heart-mind? How am I relating to these experiences?

These three questions, which I heard in a talk by Buddhist Jill Shepherd, are a great way to summarize how we investigate our internal workings around unpleasant sensations. These questions encourage us to look at the sensations, look at the thoughts and emotions, then look at how the thoughts, emotions, and sensations are reacting to those thoughts, emotions, and sensations. The questions again are:

  • What is happening in the body?
  • What is happening in the heart-mind?
  • How am I relating to these experiences?

As you do this investigation, look to figure out what is the initial dart (the unpleasant physical sensations) and what are the self-inflicted-dart-wounds (caused by the arising delusional thoughts which add unpleasant emotions and amplify and prolong the initial unpleasant sensations).

15. Appreciate the health in your body and what you can still do.

If you are alive, there is more that is going right with your body than wrong.

Appreciate all the parts of your body that are free of sickness and disease. Be thankful for all that is going well. Offer prayers of thanks for each healthy body part, for the energy of the body, for the body’s ability to heal, and for your ability to still enjoy life, be appreciative, and contribute to the wellbeing of others.

Ritualize your appreciation so you make time for it every day. Give thanks upon waking, before each meal, and journal five things you appreciate before going to bed. Appreciation helps to calm the body and place it in a state where it is more conducive to healing.

The ego focuses on the negative and mistakes it as being all there is. Your true self sees the good in everything and focuses on what is true, wonderful, beautiful, skillful, and worthy of appreciation, even in the darkest of times.

16. On an absolute level, everything that happens is for your highest good.

When we look at the world through the distorted lens of the ego, everything is seen as incomplete, imperfect, broken, and a problem. Everything seems designed to steal away our happiness and harm us.

On the other hand, when we look at the world while free of delusion, from our true selves, we know that on an absolute level, everything that we see, hear, and experience is for our highest good. Therefore, it is wise to look for and see the good in everything. What are these unpleasant sensations teaching you? What are they here to show you? How does they serve you? What can you appreciate about them?

From an egoic perspective, it is normal to get angry, upset, sad, or lonely when we are single, have an illness, or when people gossip about us. The ego sees those as problems. But from an absolute level of reality, these situations are here for our highest good.

Are you single? Be thankful for the freedom to call your own shots, for the fun and adventure of dating, and for the opportunity to learn how to be peaceful, content, and joyful outside of a relationship.

Do you have an illness? Be thankful for how the illness is helping you to spiritually grow, develop patience, renunciation, persistence, skillfulness, and even joy, despite the unpleasant circumstances.

Do people say mean things or spread slanderous lies about you? Be thankful for this opportunity to learn how to not get drawn into their drama, to learn how to refrain from acting out unskillfully, to learn to be peaceful and content despite their ill will, and to learn how to respond with love, compassion, and skillfulness.

Every challenge we face is an opportunity for spiritual growth and learning. Be thankful for it. See the good in it. Let the opportunity help you awaken out of your misery.

The more you can see the good in every situation; the more confidence and faith you have that on an absolute level, all experiences are here to serve you. Then, even when you can’t see the silver lining in a situation, you know it is there and allow that faith to carry you onward in a skillful manner.

Working with the slogan, “be here now”

When unpleasant sensations arise, mindfully investigate them using the three questions:

  1. What is happening in the body?
  2. What is happening in the heart-mind?
  3. How am I relating to these experiences?

Differentiate between the first dart and all proceeding self-inflicted darts.

Experiment with using all of the other techniques listed in this two part series on dealing mindfully and skillfully with physical pain.

Check out these posts for information on working with slogans and for info specifically on working with the “be here now” slogan.