“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
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!