Monday, August 5, 2013

Healing: Suffering Is Optional

Deep in the DNA of mindfulness is the insight that suffering is optional. If you practice mindfulness, even after a few weeks, you'll likely begin to see this for yourself.

However--there's a catch. There's some playfulness here with the definitions of pain and suffering. The Buddha used an example.

You get shot in the arm with an arrow. It hurts. A lot. That's pain. It's very, very real.

Ah, but then, you react to getting shot with an arrow. Who did this! Why me? Will my arm become infected? How long will it be before I can play tennis again? Maybe the Buddha didn't actually say this last bit. But he did say that this secondary discomfort is like getting shot by a second arrow. This is Me shooting Me, and You shooting You. This second arrow is suffering.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Mindfulness both invites us and trains us to see which is which.

We are invited to take pain for exactly what it is and to work with it skillfully. We practice giving our best attention to the first arrow and dealing with it wisely and kindly.

And we are invited to take suffering for exactly what it is and work with it skillfully as well. We train in slowing down enough to note this second arrow--and who shoots it. In doing this we see (over and over) how reactive we are to pain.

Pain is inevitable; pain visits us regularly. Suffering visits us regularly too. But it's not inevitable--in many ways it is truly optional. And we can progressively come to understand what causes suffering and what cures it.

Below is another wise and helpful teaching on this from Jack Kornfield's A Path With Heart.

We can learn to be aware of pain without creating further tension, to experience and observe pain physically as pressure, tightness, pin pricks, needles, throbbing, or burning. Then we can notice all the layers around the pain. Beyond this may be an emotional layer of aversion, anger, or fear, and a layer of thoughts and attitudes such as "I hope this will go away soon" or "I feel pain: I must be doing something wrong."

Some practices try to conquer the body. Sometimes healers will recommend consciously aggressive meditation for healing certain illnesses. For certain people this has been helpful, but for myself and others, who have worked extensively with healing meditation, we find that a deeper kind of healing takes place when instead of sending aversion and aggression to wounds and illness, we bring loving kindness. Too often we have met our pain and disease, whether a simple back ache or a grave disease, by hating it, hating the whole afflicted area of our body. In mindful healing we direct a compassionate and loving attention to touch the innermost part of our wounds--and healing occurs.

Bringing systematic attention to our body can change our whole relationship to our physical life. We can notice more clearly the rhythms and needs of our bodies. Without mindfully attending to our bodies, we may become so busy in our daily lives that we lose touch with a sense of appropriate diet, movement, and physical enjoyment. Meditation can help us find out in what ways we are neglecting the physical aspects of our lives and help us hear what our body asks of us.