The pain of one arrow

by Danai Chanchaochai, Bangkok Post, July 5, 2005

Realising that no physical discomfort lasts forever can bring peacefulness and relaxation

Bangkok, Thailand -- The application of insight meditation in helping us deal with physical pain is nothing new. It is recorded that the venerable Ananda, the Buddha's personal assistant, once visited a householder named Sirivaddha who was ill.

On hearing from the patient that he was in much pain, and that his pain was getting worse, Ananda advised him to engage in the meditation of mindfulness. Similarly, it is recorded that the Buddha himself visited two ailing monks who were in pain, Mogallana and Kassapa, and advised each of them to engage in mindfulness meditation.

Perhaps the most impressive and most explicit rationale for this use of meditation is the account given of the venerable Anuruddha, who was sick and grievously afflicted. Many monks who visited him, finding him calm and relaxed, asked him how his "painful sensations evidently made no impact on his mind." He replied: "It is because I have my mind well-grounded in mindfulness. This is why the painful sensations that come upon me make no impression on my mind."

The view of pain contained in this account is quite clear: physical sensations of pain are usually accompanied by psychological feeling, which is like a second pain. The person trained in mindfulness meditation (Vipassana), however, sees the physical sensation as it is, and does not allow himself to be affected by the psychological elaboration of pain. Thus, his experience is limited to the perception of the physical sensation only. It is this account of pain that provides the rationale for the instances cited above, where those in pain are advised to engage in mindfulness meditation.

Phra Acharn Manop Upasamo continues his discussion on Vipassana from a practical perspective in relation to our experience of pain.

The realisation of the full extent of the part played by the mind with regard to how we feel and deal with physical pain usually occurs in a retreat where the strength of mindfulness becomes more powerful because of the continuity of mental observing. First, when you start observing any physical discomfort or pain that might occur, say, from long periods of sitting, you will notice that the nature of the pain changes.

To observe this phenomenon, try focusing on where you believe the source of the pain is. You will find that pinpointing it is not so easy. You might start to wonder how strange it is that the pain is there, and at the same time, it is not there!

So now, try to focus on how the pain seems to change. You might find that the pain increases to an almost unbearable point - one that calls for a change of position - and then it may decrease by itself. In some instances, it might even disappear completely for the rest of that particular session.

What we must constantly be aware of is that even the most excruciating pain doesn't last. Like all things in nature, it occurs, exists, and then disappears.

This awareness is important in a real life situation where you are confronted by physical pain as a result of illness or for any other reason. By simply reminding yourself that no pain lasts forever, you will be agreeably surprised how much this enables you to deal with the physical pain.

For example, most people will at some time or another experience the pain of cramps. This is when the leg muscles begin to spasm from contracting too hard. It usually happens when the body is at rest, hence the name for the condition, "night cramps". The spasm usually occurs in one of the calf muscles, below and behind a knee, and the small muscles of the feet are also sometimes affected.

A cramp typically lasts a few minutes. In some cases it lasts just seconds, but in some cases it can last up to 10 minutes. The important point to remember is that the spasm and the very intense pain it causes will not last forever. When you accept this, you will be better equipped to deal with it.

Anxiety, fear, aversion, dislike, even anger - "What have I done to deserve this? It's not fair!" - all make physical pain more and more unbearable. When you are in a session of sitting meditation and you start to experience numbness, physical discomfort or pain, don't change your position right away. Calmly set your mind into a learning mode, and tell yourself that you are going to learn from it.

Now, after focusing on the physical pain to see how it changes, begin to focus your mindfulness on your own feelings or emotions associated with pain at that particular moment. You will find that your mind is very busy and that a myriad of thoughts and feelings are coming up. If you can manage to note those feelings and thoughts accurately and quickly, you might find that it has a direct effect on your physical pain!

For example, if you immediately realise that what you actually feel about your pain is anger, and you note that anger in your mind, your anger will fade - and so will your physical pain.

This holds true with any other feelings you might have at that particular moment. Some may feel fear; either the fear of physical pain or the fear of permanent injury to the legs. Once you can identify that it's fear you're experiencing, you may find that not only does the fear lessen and finally disappear, but so does your awareness of physical pain!

"The untrained layman, when touched by painful bodily feelings, grieves and laments and is distraught. But the well-trained disciple, when touched by painful bodily feelings, will not weep, nor grieve, nor lament; nor will he be distraught. The layman, when touched by painful bodily feelings, weeps. He experiences two kinds of feelings: a bodily one and a mental one.

"It is as if a man is hit by one arrow, and then by a second arrow; he feels the pain of two arrows. So it is with the untrained layman; when touched by a painful bodily feeling, he experiences two kinds of feeling, a bodily one and a mental one. But the well-trained disciple, when touched by a painful bodily feeling, weeps not. He feels only one kind of feeling: a bodily one, not a mental one. It is as if a man is hit by one arrow, but not by a second arrow; he feels the pain of one arrow only. So it is with the well-trained disciple; when touched by a painful bodily feeling, he feels but one feeling, bodily pain only."

This translation from the Samyutta Nikaya (part of the Buddhist scriptures) shows us clearly that this aspect of Vipassana has long been understood. It is not, of course, the objective of insight meditation, but by applying its lessons as we continue along the Eightfold Path we will not only become better students, we will also have better control of our physical and mental sensations at even the most basic level.

The teachings of Phra Acharn Manop Upasamo are transcribed and translated for Dhamma Moments by Nashara Siamwalla.

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