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Buddhadharma : Fall 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 10 90 Reya Stevens is a Boston-based practitioner of Theravada Buddhism who teaches Buddhist approaches to dealing with illness. “Clinging,” Stevens says, referring to the Buddha’s sec- ond noble truth, “is all about not wanting something to be the way it is, or wanting something to stay the way it is—which can’t happen because everything is constantly changing.” It’s natural to reject what’s unpleasant, but this often boo- merangs. “If you get into a struggle with something, like try- ing to get rid of something or push it away, it has a tendency to actually make the thing worse,” Stevens says. Psychologists such as Harvard’s Daniel Wegner have studied what happens when we try to suppress thoughts. Our brains operate in a continuous loop in which we check our present state for conflicts with our goals. This can have a paradoxical effect when the goal is to control your own thoughts. Nor- mally, you don’t think about pink elephants. When trying not to think of them, however, you periodically ask yourself, “Am I thinking of a pink elephant?” The question itself produces the unwanted thought. Dartmouth researchers found that this checking behavior involves brain cells in the cingulate, though how it relates to the pain system is unclear. Researchers at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and elsewhere have found that trying not to think about pain actu- ally leads to more thoughts about pain. Feeling negative about pain makes pain hurt more. In mathematics, negating a nega- tive produces a positive. Not so with pain. Pain serves as an alarm, and feeling alarmed about pain just piles it on. If trying to suppress pain has the effect of magnifying it, can paying attention to pain actually alleviate suffering? Yes, but the results may not be instantaneous, says Stevens. Another starting point is to be mindful of things that, although not physically painful, are often experienced as unpleasant, like road noise. “Is it noise or is it sound?” she asks. “Inherent in the word ‘noise’ is your aversion to it. You’re labeling it as unpleasant.” Stevens herself lives with considerable pain due to a chronic illness she’s had since childhood. “I recall a number of nights where I had a lot of burning pain in the body, but it was only on the right side,” she says. “I sunk my attention into the left side of my body and really stayed mindful of the left side of the body. The distress that I felt over the pain in the right side of my body disappeared because my attention was able to settle itself into the left side to relax and let go. I fell asleep, pain and all. Many, many nights I’ve gone to sleep that way.” Shinzen Young, a mindfulness teacher based in Burlington, Vermont, is noted for his work with people in chronic pain. In his book Break Through Pain, Young describes his own breakthrough during a hundred-day retreat in primitive winter conditions at a Buddhist monastery in Japan. He found that with concentration, the pain dissolved into a sort of energy he compares to a runner’s high. ➤ continued from page 41