Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Dharma of Pain

Over at Peter's monkey mind blog, we were having an interesting discussion about pain, specifically the pain of loss.  My feeling was that when we reach out to console someone (especially in times of great grief) it is our natural empathic urge to help, the way we might quickly pick up a small child who has fallen, that makes us do this.  It is, I think, an automatic human response.  

But as with many things it can be more complicated than that.  In addition to this response it is probably fair to say that we are mostly uncomfortable with pain, our own and that of others.  Our attempt to make the pain go away through words or hugs or lollipops may well be an expression of this discomfort.

One of the interesting things to me, when I started studying Buddhism, is that one expression of attachment is grasping after things that we want, but a less obvious expression of it, is the pushing away of what we don't want.  This was surprising to me at first.  I can see how hard I work sometimes to resist what I deem unpleasant (and sometimes it is more subtle).  And pain falls into this category I think, labelled unpleasant, let's get rid of that pesky pain.

Do we ever welcome pain?  Not so much.  We even have a name for people who seek out pain and we don't regard this as a flattering label.  In Buddhism pain is considered  one of the 8 worldly conditions.  There is a little rhyme that I've heard somewhere to help remember this list of worldly conditions.  It goes, "pleasure & pain, loss and gain, praise & blame, fame & shame, they're all the same."  Isn't that interesting, all the same?  Would you think that at first glance?  Or even on the 20th look?  And perhaps that's just part of our human reflex of pulling away from the flame (or the shame)?  A little fire warms us, a bigger flame burns us.  A little cheesecake tastes yummy, a lot makes us feel sick.

And so while we don't want to go around creating our own pain, it is an inevitable human experience.  And so our work is to be with it when it comes to us, as best we know how.  As a worldly condition it just is.  We don't have to add value or drama or engage in a struggle with it.  Easier said than done.  And we do the best we can in being with our own pain and that of others.  In our imperfect human way, we may not know what to say or do, but we muddle through somehow.  If we live a life of practice we can look at it, perhaps approach it like some small wary animal, trying to see what it is.  Is it dangerous, will it bite us, should we run from it?  And gradually as we can relax and just be with what is.  We may find it is different than we imagined, that it has something to offer and teach us, that it softens us and makes us more compassionate and tender human beings, that it connects us each to the other like one of those join the dot pictures we did as kids, showing us the bigger picture.

 And if we can be quiet enough and mindful enough we may hear that still, small voice within and be guided to do what is right in that particular moment.


  1. dear L., your post makes me think about the times when i kept pain alive by scratching the wound so as to delay healing (the misnomed "closure").

    I've been able to find wisdom inside and below the pain which i'd have missed had I "moved on" to soon (another dubious cliché).

    As the mythologist Joseph Campbell writes: "The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek."

  2. It's interesting isn't it and it reminds me of how my friend the monk warns against making generalizations and brought sweeping statements. One time, maybe we need to let it go. Another time we need to go deeper into the cave. It really can be a trial and error thing. But you are so right, that we often learn things from pain and difficulties that we never could learn otherwise and go places (as I always laugh that I have to be dragged kicking and screaming.)

    I remember a friend years ago had a meeting with Virginia Satir and in the course of a conversation about the friend's son, Satir looked at her increduously and asked, "you mean you want to protect him from his pain?'
    bows for your insightful comment,