Pain and Spiritual Practice

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

~Natalie Sudman

A common inquiry of spiritual aspirants revolves around the challenging matter of dealing with pain. Frequent comments on the issue include complaints that physical pain somehow interferes with the ability to meditate, or to pursue the prescribed activities and rituals that are presumed to constitute spiritual practice. The assumption is that, unless one is able to experience a state of physical well-being, their capacity to pursue spiritual goals will be impeded. Moreover, this attitude is sometimes reinforced by various teachers who emphasize the requirement of cultivating a healthy body prior to taking on various disciplines, if one is going to be able to practice properly and effectively.

The problem with such an attitude is that it separates so-called spiritual practice from life itself. Life rarely grants an ideal circumstance with which to pursue one’s aims, and in fact, more often than not will present tests that challenge us in various ways. Some of these tests are physical, and include varying degrees of bodily pain. The test is not about how to get over the pain so that we can start living, but to present us with a choice: can we appreciate our life, regardless of how it seems to be going, and perhaps learn to utilize the pain to transcend our previous dualistic conceptions about life and spiritual efforts, or will we collapse in defeat, bemoan our fate, and assume the role of victim?

In order for spirituality to be truly useful, it needs to be anchored in the very place and circumstance in which we find ourselves. If we imagine that we need to travel through India and become an accomplished yogi at the feet of some guru, or enter a Japanese Zen monastery and live on brown rice and daikon radishes in order to achieve some spiritual ideal, then we are living in a kind of fantasy land, and a dated one at that.

In reality, when we are involved in some athletic activity, then athletics is the practice. When we are doing the dishes, then doing dishes is the practice. When we are experiencing pain, then pain is the practice. We don’t need to try to meditate around or through the pain — the pain itself is the meditation, the ashram, the temple, the zendo.

True meditation is not an escape strategy, but a matter of clear recognition. Recognition of what? Recognition of what is. Recognition of this that we are. It is not a scheme or technique to become someone else, some glorified and holy version of ourselves. It is just about being ourselves, right where we are, and hence it involves seeing through and releasing all the fabricated images and masks which we have taken to be ourselves. In many ways, it is an exercise in disappointment — disappointment to the ambition of the ego-mind.

In his masterpiece, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”, Chogyam Trungpa describes the real situation cogently:

All the promises we have heard are pure seduction. We expect the teachings to solve all our problems; we expect to be provided with magical means to deal with our depressions, our aggressions, our sexual hang-ups. But to our surprise we begin to realize that this is not going to happen. It is very disappointing to realize that we must work on ourselves and our suffering rather than depend upon a savior or the magical power of yogic techniques. It is disappointing to realize that we have to give up our expectations rather than build on the basis of our preconceptions.

We must allow ourselves to be disappointed, which means the surrendering of me-ness, my achievement. We would like to watch ourselves attain enlightenment, watch our disciples celebrating, worshipping, throwing flowers at us, with miracles and earthquakes occurring and gods and angels singing and so forth. This never happens. The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death, the death of self, the death of me and mine, the death of the watcher. It is the ultimate and final disappointment. Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult.”

Everything that comes to us in life is a gift, though it may not seem like it at the time. This is a difficult attitude to incorporate, and takes a lot of patience and insight to realize (especially when we are faced with disagreeable conditions, such as intractable pain). Many aspirants spend a lot of time running from one ashram to another, one sangha (spiritual group) to another, one teacher to another, trying to find the perfect place to practice. Consequently, they tend in that way to postpone ever actually awakening to the one and only perfect opportunity for practice — their own life, right where they are. They ignore the gifts that are unceasingly being offered to them, in order to find the gift they imagine is waiting for them somewhere else, in some other place than where they happen to be at the moment. John Lennon described this attitude perfectly when he sang: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

When confronted by great pain, it does help to first realize that everything changes. This will provide some perspective, because we know that the pain will eventually diminish. No pleasure or pain lasts forever, both are transient modifications of consciousness. Moreover, the unavoidable fact of this transiency is a very important teaching, because we can realize that no modification of consciousness has any enduring reality. This insight can then inspire us to inquire deeply into that which is actually the true reality, that which doesn’t change, even in the midst of problems and challenges — the timeless, motionless radiance of Awareness itself, our true and original nature.

In this regard, Suzuki Roshi links the truth of impermanence to the teaching of selflessness when he says:

“The basic teaching of Buddhism is the teaching of transiency, or change. That everything changes is the basic truth for each existence. No one can deny this truth, and all the teaching of Buddhism is condensed within it. This is the teaching for all of us. Wherever we go this teaching is true. This teaching is also understood as the teaching of selflessness. Because each existence is in constant change, there is no abiding self. In fact, the self-nature of each existence is nothing but change itself, the self-nature of all existence. There is no special, separate self-nature for each existence. This is also called the teaching of Nirvana. When we realize the everlasting truth of “everything changes” and find our composure within it, we find ourselves in Nirvana.”

From another perspective, we can also recognize that there are degrees or levels of pain, and so when the pain does lessen a bit from its extreme, we can find good reason for gratitude. Moreover, for any kindnesses from others that are bestowed on us in the midst of our pain, we can’t help but feel a deep appreciation. Sadly, victimhood is the default attitude for many, especially those who are fixed in a belief structure in which they perceive themselves as nothing more than the body they inhabit, at the mercy of forces that are continuously thwarting their desires and threatening their very survival.

However, what we can notice is that by putting our attention on the gratitude (even for small improvements in our sense of well being, or the little kindnesses of others), we are able to effect a real change in attitude. When attitude changes, experience follows suit. Fundamentally, we can begin to notice that, the more we find to be grateful about, the more we are given to be grateful about. Conversely, the more we complain and assign blame, the more we are given to complain about. It’s interesting how that rule seems to play out throughout our lives.

On a personal note, my Mate has suffered as much interminable debilitating physical pain as any person I’ve encountered, having contracted Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of 9 in a most pernicious form. It has eaten away a large portion of her bones, necessitating multiple hip replacements, knee surgeries, gnarled hands, and constant agonizing spasms. Nevertheless, she is also the happiest person I have met, and that includes many so-called saints and (purportedly) advanced practitioners I have been graced to meet along the way.

She is a very committed practitioner of the principle of finding joy in the midst of hell, by first recognizing directly, over the course of years of persistent inquiry, that she is not the body or its conditions. Secondly, she can track minute changes in the body’s pain, celebrating even a little relief when the pain diminishes somewhat. Thirdly, she uses the pain experience to develop deeper and deeper compassion for all suffering sentience, and in that way is able to recognize more and more that all of us are not separate, that one person’s joys and sorrows are everyone’s joys and sorrows, and in that light, her experiences become more universal than personal.

The wonderful Tibetan Buddhist Teacher, Garchen Rinpoche, who spent years imprisoned by the Chinese, speaks about this transformation in attitude quite eloquently:

“The main practice I did in prison was tong-len. Khenpo Munsel gave me many special oral instructions on tong-len that weren’t in the text. In tong-len, generally, we say that we are sending happiness out to others and taking others’ suffering in. But for the actual meaning of tong-len, you have to understand the inseparability of self and other. The ground of our minds is the same. We understand this from the View. In this context, even if there are many different types of suffering, there is really only one thing called “suffering”. There is only one suffering, he taught.

If there is really only one suffering, then at this time when you, yourself, have great suffering, you should think, “The minds of the sentient beings of the three realms and my mind have the same ground.” However, the essence of the suffering of the sentient beings of the three realms and the essence of our own suffering is the same. If you see them to be the same, if you see them as being non-dual, and then meditate on that suffering, in the mind’s natural state, that suffering goes away. At that moment, you have been able to lessen the suffering of all sentient beings of the three realms, all at once.

The “len” of tong-len means “taking.” First, take in this way. “Tong” means “giving.” If you understand your mind’s nature, then you recognize the essence of whatever suffering and afflictive emotions there may be to be emptiness. When suffering does not harm you anymore, the mind has great bliss. If at that time, you meditate, making self and others inseparable, then that bliss can diminish the self-grasping of all sentient beings. It can lessen the self-grasping. The happiness that is being given is the bliss that comes from the practice of giving and taking. This is how you should practice. This is very special.”

There is no question that prolonged and intense physical hardship presents a daunting challenge, but if we are able to inquire in the midst of it all, we will eventually be very thankful for having stayed the course, because true enlightenment is earned by throwing ourselves fully into the trenches, not by floating above them in some detached concept of meditative emptiness.

May we all find the grace to make the best use of the opportunity of pain when it comes our way!

“As long as one is conscious, there will be pain and pleasure. You cannot fight pain and pleasure on the level of consciousness. To go beyond them you must go beyond consciousness, which is possible only when you look at consciousness as something that happens to you and not in you, as something external, alien, superimposed. Then, suddenly you are free of consciousness, really alone, with nothing to intrude. And that is your true state. Consciousness is an itching rash that makes you scratch. Of course, you cannot step out of consciousness for the very idea of stepping out is in consciousness. But if you learn to look at your consciousness as a sort of fever, personal and private, in which you are enclosed like a chick in its shell, out of this very attitude will come the crisis which will break the shell.”

~Nisargadatta Maharaj



See also:

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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15 Responses to Pain and Spiritual Practice

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    As part of a comprehensive examination of the subject, it might be helpful to include a consideration on the self-healing capacities inherent in our own psyches. A good example of this is the report of Dr. Bell, linked here:

  2. marcel says:

    Thanks Brother! Very helpful pointers for my mom hopefully.
    Deep bows to Mazie!

  3. Candace says:

    Beautifully written, Brother! What an inspiration both you and Mazie are to all of us! I am grateful!

    Love & Blessings!

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    Q: But, is it true that all existence is painful?

    M: What else can be the cause of this universal search for pleasure? Does a happy man seek happiness? How restless people are, how constantly on the move! It is because they are in pain that they seek relief in pleasure. All the happiness they can imagine is in the assurance of repeated pleasure.

    Q: If what I am, as I am, the person I take myself to be, cannot be happy, then what am I to do?

    M: You can only cease to be — as you seem to be now. There is nothing cruel in what I say. To wake up a man from a nightmare is compassion. You came here because you are in pain, and all I say is: wake up, know yourself, be yourself. The end of pain lies not in pleasure. When you realise that you are beyond both pain and pleasure, aloof and unassailable, then the pursuit of happiness ceases and the resultant sorrow too. For pain aims at pleasure and pleasure ends in pain, relentlessly.

    Q: In the ultimate state there can be no happiness?

    M: Nor sorrow. Only freedom. Happiness depends on something or other and can be lost; freedom from everything depends on nothing and cannot be lost. Freedom from sorrow has no cause and, therefore, cannot be destroyed. Realise that freedom.

    Q: Am I not born to suffer as a result of my past? Is freedom possible at all? Was I born of my own will? Am I not just a creature?

    M: What is birth and death but the beginning and the ending of a stream of events in consciousness? Because of the idea of separation and limitation they are painful. Momentary relief from pain we call pleasure — and we build castles in the air hoping for endless pleasure which we call happiness. It is all misunderstanding and misuse. Wake up, go beyond, live really.

    ~from “I Am That”, Nisargadatta Maharaj

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    “As a physical being you will encounter two types of pain – physical pain and emotional pain.
    Physical pain is a result of communication between nerve endings, the central nervous system and the physical brain. Damage or injury to your physical body only causes you distress, fear and retraction when communication from your central nervous system triggers your cellular memory response. This cellular memory contains instructions and belief systems about how you should respond to that nervous system information. In other words, you create a thought from past learnt behaviour and you produce a reaction in response to that thought. In many cases this triggers a sensation of fear as you enact the behaviour of a victim, for this is how you have been taught to react as a biological species over thousands of years of cellular memory transference.

    You also experience emotional pain. This is the pain you choose to carry within and around with you as a result of a traumatic past event. Since the event is no longer taking place in this present moment it exists only as a memory in your mind and cellular structure. The event can only continue to cause you distress if you continue to think about it. Thus the cause of your suffering due to any past event is the result of a present moment thought. Just in the same way as anxiety or dread over a future event exists only in your thought about it. That thought communicates with your cellular and consciousness memory of your interpretation of that event at that time, and you continue to reanimate its interpretational values in your present moment of mind. So yes, pain is caused only by your mind. You will arrive at the dawn of realization to this when you have learnt to let go of all thought. For when there is no thought, there is no judgement or clouded interpretation; there is no re-enacted learnt behaviour; there is no past and no future; there becomes only one-ness with the present. This seems alien to you because you have not stepped into such a place. Such a place you are trying to place in your mind, but your mind is already too full of contradicting thoughts to accept it. Such a place cannot and will not exist in mind, not as an accurate idea or concept, but must be a condition beyond mind.

    So it is then you walk into an environment where there is certain behaviour interpreted by your thoughts as negative. Perhaps you feel someone is draining your energy or there is physical violence taking place. Before you have even arrived at that encounter you have set yourself up as a victim because you have preconceived interpretational values of that event. In other words, you will immediately interpret the event as negative and then reinforce that negativity by telling yourself you have to protect yourself from it. When you are then unable to protect yourself completely from this interaction you then become disillusioned and doubtful in your abilities. This is an exhaustive cycle and repetition of behaviour.

    As an empathic being you are going to want to immerse yourself in this sacred gift of sensitivity and connection. What you are going to want to do is train yourself to remain open and sensitive yet to relinquish your focus and necessity for personal ego and persona. This is to say, you are going to learn to become a silent witness to events as they take place without adding your personal ego, your personal perspective and your own memory infrastructure. Basically you are going to let go of that which you perceive is ‘you’ and become one with that which you are being empathic to. But, the most important part, you are going to need to let go of it once you have experienced one-ness with it in order to relinquish ownership of it and its influence when returning to your human persona. That is the difficult part, but it is possible by learning to let go of thought altogether. If I can do this, so too can you.

    Remember, feelings are perfect truth. Perfect truth can never hurt you. That which you feel does not hurt you. What hurts you is the interactivity of the thought you have about that feeling. Your thoughts attach your morality values of good and bad, right and wrong, your naiveties and your perceptions, and in doing so attach instructions to your human persona how to respond. So what you do is you respond negatively, you respond by perceiving yourself as a victim because you are now experiencing something undesirable. It is undesirable because your thought says so. In owning thoughts, your thoughts own you.

    I used the term victim to describe a state of attitude which robs an individual from their perception of Self-worth. Two individuals can be hit by a moving vehicle and break both legs. The one who plays the role of a victim is the one who is angry, the one who seeks to punish the driver, the one who feels less or disadvantaged than they were before the accident. The second individual does not perceive themselves as a victim. They are not angry over the event, they understand punishment will not cause their legs to heal or the driver to feel more remorse, and they do not feel any less or more disadvantaged than they were before.

    Greatest insights are never the result of suffering, for if this were so then suffering would be an inherent nature and characteristic of the spirit world (the spirit world being home to the most wise and insightful beings in the multiverse). Great insights are the result of an individual becoming more receptive to the language of their feelings; the language of truth. Unfortunately it often takes some form of suffering to motivate a human being to feel anything strongly enough to act upon it, or to seek the wisdom and guidance within it. This is the value you are referring to, and yet this value need not come through the catalyst of suffering.
    There have been many noble souls who have sought enlightenment through suffering.
    They have failed.”


  6. Bob OHearn says:

    “The pain and suffering of many on our planet became my pain because I was given the experience of knowing them, and caring about them, and ultimately loving them for what they endure. As each day passes I think of people I have known in the past that had to endure great levels of pain and only now can my heart truly open to them. Only now do I humbly have some idea of what they must have felt, and my heart opens even more.”

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    Nanci Danison: Is Pain Really Necessary?

    One of my readers asked: “If we’re here to experience life in order to learn from it, why are humans (all beings) so pain avoidant? … Pain at any level is part of the learning process, whether in the form of mild social discomfort, being manipulated by another person, or surviving physical harm. Why would we not want to seek out pain to help us achieve greater development?”

    Human Perspective: Humans and Light Being souls avoid pain because it hurts! It’s a simple biological response that we also feel when our hosts feel pain. Some Light Being souls may not be pain avoidant if human religions and philosophies have convinced them that painful experiences will teach them how to be more spiritual, loving, evolved, or enlightened; or will help them earn their way to heaven. None of these theories is true, based on my afterlife experience. Rather, feeling pain may lead combined bodies/souls to structure their lives around avoiding pain, to dish pain out to others, and/or to manipulate others with the threat of pain.

    Light Being Perspective: Most of us Light Being souls are in the phase of eternal life when we incarnate to explore a certain aspect of physical matter that we cannot know experientially as spiritual beings. We seek only to learn how it feels physically and emotionally to have these foreign experiences. There is no spiritual learning process to it.

    Source’s Perspective: Source did not design human life to be painful. Life is meant to be joyful and exciting. Human life is like a wild ride on a dangerous roller coaster in a primal land that gives us the opportunity to see what we’re made of, to challenge ourselves, and to explore the unknown.

    Constant pain does not have to be an element of our lives. Most pain is generated by biological processes, or, manifesting unconsciously based on human values and goals. Pain is a warning sign that our bodies are injured, ill, or engaged in behavior that has an adverse effect on health or well being. Many people increase pain by ignoring this warning because they do not want to stop the harmful behavior (such as drinking, overeating, abusive relationships, stressful jobs). Similarly, many souls increase pain by employing their ability to manifest reality to chase human goals like wealth, beauty, or status. Unawakened souls do not realize that satisfying animal drives is designed to further human survival, not human or soul happiness.

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “Getting up that morning, I felt indescribably bold and daring. I marveled at the amazing nature of my experience. Nothing comparable had ever happened in my meditation before. The citta (mind) had completely severed its connection with all objects of attention, converging inward with true courage. It had converged into that majestic stillness because of my thorough, painstaking

    When it withdrew, it was still full of an audacious courage that knew no fear of death. I now knew the right investigative techniques, so I was certain that I’d have no fear the next time that pain appeared. It would, after all, be pain with just the same characteristics. The physical body would be the same old body. And wisdom would be the same faculty I’d used before. For this reason, I felt openly defiant, without fear of pain or death.

    Once wisdom had come to realize the true nature of what dies and what does not, death became something quite ordinary. Hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, bones: reduced to their original elemental form, they are simply the earth element.

    Since when did the earth element ever die? When they decompose and disintegrate, what do they become? All parts of the body revert to their original properties. The earth and water elements revert to their original properties, as do the wind and fire elements. Nothing is annihilated. Those elements have simply come together to form a lump in which the citta then takes up residence. The citta—the great master of delusion—comes in and animates it, and then carries the entire burden by making a self-identity out of it. “This is me, this belongs to me.” Reserving the whole mass for itself, the citta accumulates endless amounts of pain and suffering, burning itself with its own false assumptions.

    The citta itself is the real culprit, not the lump of physical elements. The body is not some hostile entity whose constant fluctuations threaten our well-being. It is a separate reality that changes naturally according to its own inherent conditions. Only when we make false assumptions about it does it become a burden we must carry. That is precisely why we suffer from bodily pain and discomfort. The physical body does not produce suffering for us; we ourselves produce it. Thus I saw clearly that no external conditions can cause us to suffer. We are the ones who misconceive things, and that misconception creates the blaze of pain that troubles our hearts.”

    ~Venerable Ãcariya Mahã Boowa, Arahattamagga

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    Being Positive or Being Yourself, Anita Moorjani

    Although it’s not a bad thing to have a positive attitude in life, these days, when the popular belief seems to be that “a positive attitude creates a positive reality,” those of us going through pain and anguish deal with more than just our own suffering. We also have to deal with the fear that our thoughts have somehow created this negative reality we are currently facing.

    When I was dealing with cancer, I was terrified of my thoughts, believing that the cancer was created by my own negative thoughts. Whenever I had a fearful or insecure or negative thought, I would deny it, suppress it, and push it away, believing that it would contribute towards manifesting into a negative physical reality. Ironically, the more I pushed away the fearful thought, the more these thoughts would resist, and the more fearful I became.

    It was only after almost dying of cancer, did I realize that I had been suppressing many of my thoughts and emotions, for fear of being negative, and putting “negative thoughts” out there.

    Feeling optimism and hope are certainly beneficial, but when life’s calamities inevitably befall us, believing that we need to stay positive through the crisis just adds to our burden. We then often feel ashamed of our pain, thinking we brought it on ourselves with our lack of spirituality.

    If I constantly suppress certain emotions and feelings within myself, judging them as “negative” and forcing myself to have more positive thoughts, the message I am sending to my own self is that “my thoughts are wrong. I should not be having these thoughts!” Basically, I am denying who I am, and what I am feeling. I am also denying myself of an authentic experience. This is not a loving thing to do to myself, and neither is it healthy to have all these feelings and emotions bottled up inside.

    I’ve learned that the best way out of fear is to go through it. That’s where the real gold lies. This means first recognizing that the fear is there and then accepting it. You acknowledge its presence and allow yourself to truly feel it. You own it. And once I can do that, it dissipates – almost like a child who is crying for attention, and once you give it the attention, it slowly lulls itself back into a quiet sleep. A feeling of peace takes over, and in that peaceful space, we can gently start to introduce joy back into our lives.

    I have since realized that it’s more important to be myself than it is to be positive. And as a result, when I am positive, it is genuine and authentic.

  10. marcelvuijst says:

    “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
    ~John Lennon

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