Living with Pain by Venerable Visuddacara

by Venerable Visuddhacara

"Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it." - Tagore

Pain is a fact of life and the sooner we learn to live with the better. It has often been said that Buddhism is a pessimistic religion because it harps on the fact of suffering. It has also been pointed out that Buddhism is not pessimistic but realistic.

Refusing to acknowledge pain in our lives does not make the pain go away. Like it or not, all of us have to succumb to old age, disease and death, that is if our life is not suddenly cut off at an early age.

It has also been said that Buddhism is in fact optimistic in that Buddha precribes a way out of the vicious cycle of birth and death and suffering. So there is hope for all of us. We need not despair. We can work towards liberation. Buddhism is actually a teaching of liberation. It harps on suffering only because it has to wake us up from out pathetic ignorance of the unsatisfactory situation we are presently in.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell put it nicely when he said, "The secret of happiness lies in facing up to the fact that life is horrible, horrible, horrible." The reason is simple. If we know that suffering is inherent in life, then when suffering visits us, we wouldn't be too surprised. Of course we will try to alleviate or overcome it, but when that is not possible, such as when we are having an incurable disease, we can accept and learn to live with it. On the other hand, the person who refuses to acknowledge the fact of sufferings, suffer all the more when he finds difficulty in reconciling with his suffering.

How do we learn to cope with pain? Mindfulness is the key. It can help us to live remarkably well with pain. A meditator, for instance, can observe painful sensations during his sitting meditation. He can "go into" the pain, sort of be one with it. He can feel it. He can observe its intensity. He can see its changes, how like the music in an orchestra, it increases to a deafening crescendo, or how it rises and falls as if in waves. He can watch it calmly without mental pain or resistance.

In such a case, there is only physical pain but no mental distress. One is observing the pain as a mere sensation. One would not identify it as "my pain" or "I am in great pain", or "This pain is killing me. It is terrible. When will it go away? If only it will go away". Such thoughts need not arise; for when mindfulness is strong, the idea of self does not arise. One does not take the pain as belonging to a self. Rather one see it as a mere process, that it is merely pain that arises and pain that passes away. Here, there is pain but no sufferings.

Another condition can be attained ... a condition of ecstasy.  A condition so far from what the people of planet Earthexperience it's not even discussable.

A non-meditator may find this hard to understand but experienced meditators can vouch that even excruciating pain can be watched calmly. Of course, this is not easy. But the meditator who keeps at it will eventually acquire this ability to observe the pain. With repeated effort and noting, his mental "muscles", so to speak, will become strong.

When we can observe pain thus, we will come to have less fear or no fear of pain. And therefore when pain comes in our daily life, we can face it. We can observe and endure it. We can turn it into just another meditation object! We can live and work with it. This ability to cope with pain is a very desirable benefit that comes with mindfulness meditation.

Monks takes robes leaving their worldly pleasures for something that is even more pleasurable. 
In fact, this practice of mindfulness has become popular in the West. In the US, the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Univ of Massachusetts Medical Ctre has for the past 10 yrs successfully been using Buddhist mindfulness techniques to help patients cope with pain. The Clinic runs an 8 weeks' mindfulness course of 45 mins per day, 6 days a wk. The course has been so successful that the Clinic has made a video program of the mindfulness technique. The 1-hr video World of Relazation has become so popular it had been purchased by over a hundred hospitals in America & Canada.

The Mindfulness Clinic was started by John Kabat-Zinn, PhD, an associate Prof of Medicine. Dr Kabat-Zinn who is a meditator is internationally known for his work using mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with chronic pain and stress. More than 4,000 people from all walks of life, incl doctors, heart specialists, executives, businessmen, teachers & judges, had taken part in his stress reduction program using mindfulness techniques.

Patients with problems ranging from headaches, high blood pressure & back pain to heart disease, cancer ; AIDs, had been referred by doctors to his Clinic. One elderly patient who came of a wheelchair with severe pain in his feet told the class on his first day that his pain was so severe, he just wanted to cut his feet off. At the end of the 8-wk course, he had progressed from wheelchair to crutches to cane. The pain, he said, had not changed much but his attitude towards the pain had changed a lot. He found it more bearable after he started meditating.

Another patient who suffered from a series of chronic aliments - hypertension, coronary disease, ulcers, arthritis, lupus and urinary tract infections - coped remarkably well with her pain and stress after taking up mindfulness practice. She slept better, her blood pressure dropped and her symptoms and pain decreased dramatically.

Her story and that of many other patients who found relief or a refreshing new way of living through minfulness had been documented by Dr Kabat-Zinn in his book, Full Catastrophe Living, published in America in July 1991.

In recommending mindfulness practice as a way of reducing stress, coping with pain and finding peace of mind, Dr Kabat- Zinn said, "There are no drugs that will make you immune to stress or to pain or that will by themselves magically solve your life's problems or promote healing. It will take conscious effort on your part to move in a direction of healing and inner peace. This means learning to work with the very stress and pain that is causing you to suffer."


Look at the big picture of the wheel of life. Above it, there is a Buddha. He is pointing, not towards the wheel, but away from it. He is indicating that there is something else - nirvana.


Pain is something we can work with, if we know how to apply mindfulness. Mindfulness gives us mental stability and courage. With mindfulness we can face any situation without fear or anxiety. We can take them all in our stride. Not only will we live well and be a source of good cheer, solace and inspiration to others, we will also be able to die well.

Ven Visuddhacara from Malaysia had written on how one can use Mindfulness to work with pain. It is in one chapter of his book "Drinking Tea, Living Life - Applying Mindfulness in Everyday Life & Critical Times".Below is a condensed version of that chapter.
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