Pain: the gift nobody wants

On a recent retreat, there were some moments in meditation that stood out. Sitting with body pain that at a certain point was known by the mind as just ‘sensation’ and quite distinct from the knowing of ‘unpleasant’. A second before the 2 had been conjoined and the overall flavour was of unpleasant sensations. Though I couldn’t really feel it there was some flavour of aversion towards the experience that kept body and mind bound together. What changed that could be called ‘wisdom’ or wise attending. The pain was no longer pain but an awake, curious mind knowing physical sensation and the mental factor of vedana, or ‘feeling’.

Several years ago I read a book with the title I’ve taken for this blog piece. The author was a surgeon named Paul Brand who along with his wife, a nurse, worked in India as a medical missionary in the 1950’s. The book is an account of his relationship to pain and suffering and the insights that emerged from working with patients with leprosy. These (medical) insights paved the way for a different way of understanding and treating diseases such as diabetes. It is a fascinating and deeply humane book about an unpopular subject.

He starts by describing an interaction with Tanya, a 4 year old patient. The little girl looks healthy but her feet are ulcerated to the point of bone being visible. She shows no distress as the doctor gently probes the infected area. He explains to Tanya’s mother that her child has a rare genetic condition known as ‘cognitive indifference to pain’. If she burns or cuts herself she would feel some pressure or tingling but these sensations are not unpleasant to her. She does not feel pain and has no mental construct of pain. And because she is so young and quite enjoys the drama of how her parents react to her injuries and has no understanding of the implications she will damage herself deliberately.

By the age of 11, through a mixture of intentional and unintentional injuries, and lacking the warning signs of discomfort to protect an injury (i.e. by shifting weight onto another joint or limb), Tanya’s existence is pitiful. She is a double amputee. She’s lost most of her fingers to continuous ulcers and infections. Because movements don’t cause her pain she has frequently dislocated her elbows, permanently damaging them. It is a sad, sad life. And all because she cannot feel pain.

After reading this book I understood better the protective nature of pain. How, actually, rather than being something just to avoid, we cannot do very well without it. Usually (not all cases such as phantom pain or the pain from fibromyalgia) it’s a crucial warning system that there is something we need to look after or look out for. We learn early on in our lives to try to protect ourselves from pain and most of us experience a burn or breaking a limb or chronic back pain or toothache as very unpleasant. We don’t tend to experience pain as a ‘mental construct’ but as something immediate and visceral.

In Dharma practice, we talk a lot about working with what’s unpleasant, difficult and painful whether emotional/mental pain or physical discomfort. We talk about ‘being with things as they are’. We don’t talk about pain being a ‘gift’ in the way Paul Brand does but perhaps in a different way it can be seen as an opportunity.

Pain is a frequent visitor to my life mostly in the form of severe migraines on perhaps half the days of every month. They started when I was a child so the natural ways of relating to them as unwanted were well established long before I’d learned to meditate and had been going for 30 years before I was taught to watch my mind.

These days ‘pain’ is an integral part of awareness practice. The form of Right View I employ runs along the lines of “when there is physical pain how much is the mind joining in?” Sometimes there is clearly mental aversion, I don’t want this experience. It used to feel quite counter-intuitive to expect otherwise. But because I’ve practised with it a lot, and strengthened Right (dharma) View it has become more natural to notice the reactions to the pain rather than identify with it. I’ve learned to spot the aversion more quickly and it’s become more subtle so then other views and feelings are revealed.

There is ‘grim death’ mind, just hanging on but definitely not enjoying the moment. There is stoicism and self-pity ‘why me’ mind. There is disappointment waking with head pain on a day when I’m going to be out with friends doing fun things! Or slight dread of a working day accompanied by savage pounding head, sore neck and strong sensitivity to light. And sometimes there is just the sense that the mind is a bit clouded as if there’s something not quite right. The mind is affected by the pain in all these ways and many more.

And none of these things is a problem. They are just to be noticed in awareness, and awareness can be relied on for its consistent ability to make things feel at least a bit better. If you take away the mental buy-in to physical pain the landscape changes. That’s not to say pain killers, hot wheat bags and naps aren’t necessary but without resisting it ‘pain’ or ‘unpleasant’ becomes just another experience. It’s just how it is.

Of course, the potential in working with pain is not just to reduce it or to have awareness of it but to understand its nature. And following the meditation I described at the beginning of this piece, there was a moment of such understanding. It was clear to me that ‘pain’ and ‘unpleasant’ are (as Paul Brand and dharma students know intellectually) constructs fabricated in the mind. Sitting here now with another migraine the memory rather than the experience is clear but the increased interest in watching the mind remains.

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Coming to the Breath

My relationship to the breath has been changing recently. I have a long- standing difficulty with practising the Mindfulness of Breathing. I would become tense and the mind would feel constricted as I focused on the breath and counted. For many years I worked with the quality of effort, trying not to force the attention. I also worked with trying not to control the breath which I found very difficult. There was regularly frustration upon noticing the attempts at control and I didn’t know what to do with that. There was also frustration and self-doubt that the mind so easily slid away from the breath and into thoughts and stories. So I left the breath alone and with it, ‘concentration’ practice.

I took up meditation practice where it didn’t matter what the object of attention was and where I didn’t need to stay with the same object over the course of a single practice. This was very helpful. I could have a much broader and more expansive experience of the breath within the whole body. So the breath would come and go amidst other body sensations, sounds and various mental states and activities of the mind. A major object was observing how the mind related to different experiences and in particular, spotting when there was craving in the mind; when ‘wanting’ was expressed through various expectations about what ‘should’ be happening in meditation, and by ‘trying’ – usually too hard!

Every now and again I would re-attempt to let the mind rest more with the breath. This was OK for a while but usually ended with some degree of tension and the feeling/thought “this is wrong”. Or “I’m doing it wrong.” I read a couple of meditation teachers whose opinions I really respected who seemed to say that, for some people, the breath was not a helpful object. There was too much habitual striving in the mind, or an unhelpful degree of narrowing down in the attempt to ‘focus’, usually done quite unconsciously. It turns out that knowing when you’re doing this kind of thing is quite difficult to spot and changing it, when it is a life long way of relating to self and world, almost impossible.

Over the past few years, though, it’s become more pleasurable and relaxing to come to the breath albeit for relatively short periods of time. Then something happened on a recent retreat that took things a bit further, though not in a way I might have anticipated.

In one particular sit I was with the breath in a very open way. Other objects, particularly body sensations were around but mainly I was watching the mind knowing the breath. And because I was watching the mind I started to see subtle conceptual formulations about the breath. I could also see how these constructs were creating a slight tension or friction like 2 things rubbing up against each other.

These mental constructs weren’t thoughts as such but a putting together of momentary fragments of thought/image/mental knowing. They were specifically concepts of ‘in & out’ breath and ‘up & down’ breath. The concepts were tied to sensations but the ideas didn’t fit the experience. Actually, the sensations connected with ‘breath’ don’t go up and down but appear in different parts of the chest, stomach, front and back ribs etc. In and out were similarly inaccurate in direct experience. The concepts or ideas were seen apart and unconnected from the sensations.

Once the concepts were seen for what they were the tension disappeared and the mind became very relaxed in knowing sensations and the concepts. It seemed like the concepts were unrecognised vestiges of concentration practice that were finally recognised by the clear seeing mind that had more of a perspective of clear seeing and insight.

It really doesn’t work trying to do 2 types of meditation at the same time!

House Hunting Mind

I’ve become addicted to Rightmove. It has all the same qualities of addiction to FaceBook. Or checking my emails more frequently that I need to. Or checking my blog stats. So far I am not closing down this behaviour but just observing. Sometimes the observing of it naturally checks the impulse. Sampajana kicks in asking “is this necessary?” And I know it’s not as I only checked about 10 minutes ago! It’s quickly become a habit.

It has a purpose – we want to buy a house so I’m doing research. And it does lead to necessary action as we go and look at some of these houses and we’re working out what sort of house we want to buy. So there is an objective ‘need’ to check out Rightmove. And even an objective need to look on a daily basis as properties can come on the market and sell within a couple of days.

When I’m out I’m starting to notice thoughts and images in my mind that are a fleeting thought/image/feeling complex of ‘whenIgethome-checkRightmove-newhousetolookat-pleasure-excitement’. Craving is keeping its new project alive. Fed by all the flickerings of interested searching each time I see I ‘For Sale’ sign or pass an Estate Agents or pass through a particularly beautiful part of town bringing on what my partner and I call ‘house lust’.

It’s the mind that goes with it that I’m more interested in. I said I’ve become ‘addicted’ to the house hunt. What does that mean in experience? It’s a sort of ‘cravy’ restless searching that’s tinged with dullness. There is a compulsiveness to it. I’m making it sound a bit gross and obvious but it is quite subtle. There is mild dissatisfaction which clouds and agitates the mind. These days I know what the mind can be, and not just on retreat or after meditation and dipping into some dharma reading. Simply being aware has an effect on the mind.

I don’t think this craving, dissatisfied feeling is inevitably the quality of ‘property search mind’. It’s more that I stop watching the mind and focus more on the ‘objects’ of mind, in this case; the web searches, the houses, the locations. I focus on all the complexity of the ‘hunt’ that the mind finds stimulating and initially enjoyable. I’m drawn into believing the reality of these external features rather than knowing them as the play of appearances, predominantly sense objects of sight and ideas.

I also miss or don’t have the awareness to notice how I’m relating to these objects (frequent web checking, desirable features of houses, prices, meetings with vendors). Staying closer to the mind rather than drawn into objects I notice the arising of mind moments of greed or aversion and see how they ‘colour’ the mind and how they condition the arising of more of those type of mind moments. Before I know it the mood is a bit grubby or I find myself reacting impatiently or sharply to my partner.

The alternative is awareness gets a bit of momentum through noticing what’s happening without being pulled into it and conditions more moments of awareness and its ‘friends’. Mental factors like faith, energy, equanimity and clear seeing arise and have a very different feel to the previously agitated and restless mind. They condition further open and clear ‘knowing,’ and often, joy.

‘House hunting mind’ is, of course, just one manifestation of craving and aversion at work. Craving and aversion will work with any object, using it to increase their own strength. They are not fussy and will work with the most unlikely material to ‘grow’ an infatuation with something or a dislike. Fortunately, the same principle of conditionality is universal and operates for any positive mental factors too. There are different starting points for a positive and progressive spiral; faith and ethics are both traditional formulae. Perhaps, for me, the simplest and most profound is Awareness.

Where There’s Will, There’s What?

When I wrote I was a bit ‘fed up’ with my lack of purchase on some of my habits (in the last post) that didn’t feel quite right. Sometimes there’s a bit of fairly good humoured disbelief but most of the time I’m just intrigued. What makes something happen? For example, what makes me have a cake with my coffee or resist the impulse and it not happen? Who or what is driving that decision and how much is it under my control? How are my choices made?

This has been an area of curiosity in my practice for quite a while. To explore it I’ve deliberately let go to some extent of looking to control myself. I don’t mean allowing myself to act unethically but loosening ‘will’ and substituting awareness. How can I learn to see what’s actually happening in the mind if I’m always modifying and interfering? So I let awareness be in charge!

One dharma list I love that I’ve only seen in Bhante Sangharakshita’s books is the ‘5 restraints’. Only one of these is restraint by applying a consciously ethical framework. So we can clearly restrain ourselves in other ways where ethics are in a more implicit supporting role. Mindfulness is one of the other ‘restraints’ and Wisdom is another. If we are aware and we see clearly what’s happening then we have a chance to act skilfully and in accord with reality.

In actuality letting awareness be in charge is a risk! What I’ve learned watching my mind is that mind moments are very fast so things change very quickly. If you think of a thought “I’m going to have an ice-cream” and another thought “No, I’m not, I’m sticking with the diet” – which one is going to win out? Which one will be followed by an action?

Perhaps there is an internal race going on in the mind with all the mental factors running in it. The competitors could be any combination triggered in the mind in those few ‘deciding’ moments.

In Lane One is ‘Greed (you can feel that desire in the body and pleasure in the mind)’, Lane’s 2 & 3 are ‘Imagining’ (yummy eating ice-cream and bigger bottom images). Lane 4 might be Awareness (seeing the different mental factors in play), Lane 5 Wisdom (which is interested in the bigger picture of what is helpful to practice), Lane 6 Moha – delusion (doesn’t really believe this action will have consequences). And finally in the outside lane in Lane 7 is Intention or Volition.

Intention or Volition is in every race towards an action. What is undecided is which other factors will be on the finishing line. If Awareness is lagging behind Wisdom will also fade. Delusion will gain momentum on the inside lane but the conditions are all in play for Greed to streak ahead and win with ease!

At this point all Mindfulness and Wisdom can do is watch what’s happening, observe the conditions that led to losing the race and learn from them. They have no power to affect Intention but they can still use their own qualities of observing and understanding (the mind).

By allowing Mindfulness to be in charge you have to be prepared to lose the race. There are lots of training races. You have to put it down to experience and be in there for the long haul. You’re after the Olympic Medal after all!

What I’ve found really helpful is to learn more about Intention in my direct experience. I’m curious about those moments when I feel a decision is being made. This might be an action to move the body or simply a mental act, for example forming a mental judgement about someone. Joseph Goldstein talks about an ‘about to‘ moment when something is about to happen. I feel as if I’m ‘about to’ say something in a conversation for example. You can feel energy gathering in the psyche. Or you feel it as a ‘deciding’ moment that can be felt as an impulse in the body/mind. It’s not a thought though it may well be accompanied by a thought.

When Intention happens out of awareness we assume it to be ‘me’ making the decision or 2 ‘me’s’ in conflict over a decision (whether or not to eat ice-cream or offer to help someone). And at other times things just ‘pop out’ (I find myself speaking angrily) without our conscious approval (a surprise factor pips another at the post).

Awareness is key to seeing the mechanism of Intention. To see its impersonality. To experience it as simply an urge in the body. Or an impulse in the mind. Nothing more than that. Another mental factor that can be known in awareness. And the stronger Awareness is and the more clearly known is the factor of Intention the more Wisdom can grow in the mind.

And the mind in that moment is free.

The Story of Me

Sometimes I get a bit fed up with how little purchase I seem to have on various long-standing habits. I eat too much and I enjoy treats so I’m either on a diet or gaining weight. I’m addicted to reading and would like to be spending more time reflecting, meditating or ‘doing nothing’. Instead, I read novels or sometimes watch DVDs. As well as the habits there is dukkha from the discrepancy between how I am and the view or idea of how I think I should be.

As some of you will know through my Facebook page I recently got sparked off by an article on the BBC news website by Matthew Syed. It was about ‘cognitive dissonance’ or how we hold to a particular view or outcome regardless of evidence to support our reasoning. The example he gives is of Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq which was justified by his certainty of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Despite WMD, never being found and the evidence pointing to them never having been in Iraq, Tony Blair switched his argument repeatedly to other justifications for starting a war.

Syed makes it clear it isn’t just Tony Blair, or even politicians, who are prone to this sort of behaviour but all of us. And it’s not so much about behaviour but about thinking and views. While cognitive dissonance seems to be more about the discomfort or anxiety produced by the possibility of a strongly held view being incorrect – an emotional reaction – ‘confirmation bias’ is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Probably both are working together with the emotional discomfort driving the need for a view or belief that will close the gap and make us feel safe.

The Buddha was also alert to this phenomenon and saw it as a fundamental part of practice for us to get to grips with. He saw that we reinforce our own views to shore up a sense of self. We feel more secure when we are constantly using data to establish and remind ourselves ‘this is what I think and know’ ‘this is who I am’. Or ‘I like this’ or ‘I’m not the sort of person who…’ In other words – the story of ‘me’ that we retell ourselves over and over again. Over the years it can refine and develop but it takes a lot to fundamentally change our views and particularly our view of a fixed self.

Ken Wilber, who writes on trans-personal psychology and integral spirituality thinks that ‘most of us are only willing to call 5% of our present information into question at any one point.’ It’s too scary – even for the most rational of beings! We are a long way from the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland who made a practice of believing impossible things for half an hour each day before breakfast!

The Buddha saw that it is extremely important to understand through direct experience what we can call ‘the view forming process’. Views don’t come out of no-where. We are conditioned by the experiences we have and the influences we’re subjected to. We have a back story based on our familial, cultural, social, religious and educational history. If we understand the way in which our views are formed and how they influence us a process of deconstruction or de-conditioning us of biases about the content of our views and opinions can happen.

There is not only what happens to us – but how we respond to it. Two people can have the same experience, say, a bike accident as a child, and react differently. One might grow up hating sport and the other winning an Olympic medal!

However getting a handle on views doesn’t necessarily involve looking back into the past at our story, but bringing awareness into our present moment experience. We start to understand the role of feelings in relation to the likes and dislikes that our views and opinions grow out of. We start to see how a simple feeling at the level of the senses – a pleasant sound or an unpleasant sight or taste – conditions wanting or not wanting that thing to continue, and we form views to justify the rationality of our thinking and desires i.e. the mildly unpleasant physical sensation of coolness on your exposed skin in bed can lead to ‘ it’s better if the bedroom window is shut at night because it will make me ill.’

This innocent little view can set off ‘window wars’ on retreats with others who have opposite opinions on the vital health-giving properties of an open window or two! It can be surprisingly difficult (emotionally) to see another’s point of view as having validity because we believe our own to be true. The ‘evidence’ is much less important than this feeling of ‘this is true’. This was Tony Blair’s position. The more strongly we hold to our views, usually, the stronger the sense of self-involved and the more defensive or threatened we feel by another’s views. If we can ‘stay with‘ the feelings of threat, with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance without moving into further justification, then there is a real opportunity.

This concerns ‘process’ rather than content. We don’t just know our ‘story‘ but we know it as a story, something that is constructed out of tiny bits of experience through the senses and including thoughts and feelings. If we can become aware of our own point of view at any moment as a mental position that’s been taken up in the mind this is an aspect of Right View.

This little mental/emotional ‘flip’ is fascinating. When we’re not invested and identified with a view we are free from it and free to examine it. Is it true? Is it helpful? What is it based on? A recent view I’ve spotted is around how drab my experience will be without daily ‘treats’ in my life. Drabness feels unpleasant and I don’t want it and the way to avoid feeling it is to indulge myself. Treats are tied up with how interesting and lively I am as a person! This is what I’m thinking without having any conscious idea that I had such a weird view! And it’s influencing my weight, my joints, health and the quality of my mind. cake

So I’ve been noticing ‘drabness’ from the outside rather than being wrapped up in believing I have to eat cake and read thrillers to be fun. When I can be aware enough to ‘stay with’ the feeling it no longer feels unpleasant but satisfying. It’s then possible to understand that the whole ‘treat’ view is very selective in the reality it believes. Not reaching for the chocolate becomes easy. The kindle ‘daily deals’ seem unappealing. The wise choice has become natural in that moment.

Wallpaper of the Mind.

I woke up this morning, later than I’d like to, still sleepy but ready to sit before breakfast. Sitting I’m aware of thoughts in the mind and sensations in the body. “What else is there?” the mind wants to know. What can’t be put down to thoughts or sensations but is more the flavour of experience in that moment? Often the physical sensations are familiar and also similar, pulling, pushing, tightening, opening. In the chest area or stomach, fizzing elsewhere in the legs or head.

I’m aware of a level of interpretation through the thoughts, of a co-creation between various aspects of experience. The ‘extra’ could be called ‘mood’. Sometimes I’ll ask “what’s the mood in the mind?”. Not so much looking for an answer but just feeling into what’s there. Giving it some space and attention.

Often the feeling or mood feels very familiar too and, if I become aware of it, I can recognise the difference between it and the quality of the awareness. Awareness with the flavour of interest and impartiality, without agenda can become aware of other quite subtle mind states. I find ‘mood’ particularly interesting because it can feel so ‘normal’ and can hide a strengthening sense of self in the moments when its not recognised for what it is. ‘Sense of self’ tends to grow around klesha or afflicted mind states through identification with them.

I call ‘mood’ the wallpaper of the mind because it’s like a room in your home; you walk into it and no longer notice the colour or patterning on the walls or the grubby spots where the backs of chairs have rubbed the colour away further. Perhaps you never really liked it much but didn’t get around to changing it. It doesn’t strongly impinge and so it goes unnoticed but actually there can be a lot of potential in becoming more aware of it.

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One familiar mood I started noticing regularly a while back was what I called my ‘burdened’ feeling. Initially it was just a feeling that was mildly unpleasant and I recognised that it was probably around a lot as it felt so habitual. Over time I learned more about it as I got interested and awareness kicked in.

It was a background, low level mood with a subliminal story of things being hard work, a struggle and not very enjoyable. The mood would obviously affect how I related to all sorts of ‘objects’ – from the tasks I needed to perform to the meetings I attended. The burdened feeling was one manifestation of resistance where I felt everything was just too much effort. It sounds a strong feeling when I put it this way but actually it wasn’t, though it still had a powerful effect on my mind.

2 things changed when I became aware of what was happening.

1. It’s hard to remain under the influence of the mood when awareness and curiosity are present. And feeling out something whilst you’re aware feels completely different than when you’re just wrapped up in it and not noticing it. You’re not under its influence so you’re actually free of it while it’s still in the mind.

2. Like a bank of clouds breaking up in the sky, over time, the mood of ‘burden’ appeared less and less frequently.

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Of course other moods took its place and for a while the more habitual mind state was low level anxiety and this was observed in the same way. And in-between times there are the blue sky moments when the clouds are not there and awareness can know whatever is happening and know its own radiance.

Can’t see for looking…

You know that feeling when a number of small factors come together and something starts forming in the mind? The beginnings of a new understanding or spark of interest in a particular direction. I’ve had that over the past few days.

First a friend wrote me an email mentioning the 4 types of practitioners. You know; the one who’s mind naturally inclines to samatha, calm and one-pointedness. Jhana is fairly accessible for them. Or the one who’s mind is active, thinks a lot but regularly has moments of clear seeing (vipassana) or ‘aha’ moments. Then there’s the mind that does both (lucky thing!). Or the one that does neither (ooch).

So despite occasionally feeling like I’m the last one generally I think of myself as in the second camp; awareness and aha moments rather than concentration and bliss.

The second thing was waking up this morning after a dream remembering something Sayadaw U Tejaniya said to me in a meditation interview a couple of months ago. I’d asked him a question about my practice and he’d answered it. Then he said “next time I’m not going to give you the answer, you have to come up with it yourself.”

And the third thing I’ve been noticing lately but it’s being going on for most of my life as far as I can tell is a habit of asking people for help. “Mum, I can’t find it” was a frequent cry when I was a kid. “Well, look properly” she would say in a tone of exasperation, often snatching up the school bag/swimming gear/gym shoes from somewhere I’d already looked. “It’s right in front of your nose.”

Now it’s my long suffering partner who I ask for help in all sorts of ways but particularly techie things that I think I can’t do. Actually, sometimes I can figure it out but I’m lazy and I want the answer sooner rather than later.

So despite my on-going awareness practice or perhaps because of it I’m realising I need to ‘look properly’ and think through things more for myself in a deeper way. I don’t think this means doing more, being more active. More by standing still longer. Not moving into action prematurely or into distraction.

Mostly it’s about more awareness and more interest. Being more curious about whatever it is I’m experiencing. Not discursively but recognising with a mind that is simple and not making assumptions. In this way it’s possible to recognise more subtle levels of assumptions and views – and there are always more! Another way of putting it: knowing where the mind is coming from – its point of view. It’s like knowing the inside of your skin. How do you know that?

I’m doing it already at times or there wouldn’t be the aha moments of knowing, of recognition and understanding. But more is needed. Not more trying or more effort. Just more recognition of the moments when awareness is present. And more remembering the importance of Right View, which allows curiosity to flower into wisdom.

glimpses into a meditator's mind

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