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Buddhadharma : Fall 2010
35 fall 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly While many religions value intro- spection, scientists often view it with skepticism. After all, if some- thing is subjective and cannot be measured, how can you be sure it’s true? The insights of the Buddha were produced by self-observation. Thus, until recently, they fell outside the realm of scientific verification. But with the development of brain imaging technology such as functional MRI, it is now possible to carry out introspec- tion and scientific observation in paral- lel, and to assess how well self-observation stacks up with objective methods of inquiry. Among the Buddha’s first teachings after his awakening were the four noble truths. The first three, regarding the ubiquity of suffering, its origin, and its ces- sation, find strong support from neuroscience research. In particular, the Buddha’s views on suffering associated with physical pain appear to be valid, and perhaps more advanced than those in the West—especially prior to the new scientific theories on pain that were introduced in the 1960s. In the last fifty years, and especially in the last decade, brain scientists have explored the origin of suffering and discovered something strikingly similar to the parable of the two arrows, which the Buddha offered to convey a skillful way of encountering physical pain. Physical pain, the Buddha taught, is like being shot with one arrow. The person who does not resist physi- cal pain feels only that arrow. However, the average person who experiences pain also adds a layer of emotional suffering. Anguishing over pain is like being shot with a second arrow. Although we commonly experience physical pain as a sin- gle phenomenon, it is actually composed of distinct elements that include the sensation itself and an aversive element we call suffering. Not only does aversion create suffering—the second arrow—it’s increasingly clear that a person’s attitude can affect the first arrow, the pain sensations themselves. Ronald Siegel, a Buddhist practitioner and a psychologist on the clinical faculty of Harvard Medical School, says the practice of mindfulness can alleviate suffering and, in some cases, it can reduce the volume of physical pain sensations. Siegel is a specialist in the treatment of chronic back pain. Most cases of chronic back pain, he believes, are caused by muscular tension rather than structural problems in the body. Back pain and many other pain disorders stem from a feed- back loop stirred by fear and negative thoughts that makes muscles tight. “Once we experience a pain sensation that we are afraid is due to an injury, we bring all of our attention to it. And simply the bringing of fearful attention to pain increases the experience of pain,” Siegel says. “These disorders are maintained by fear of the disorder.” In such cases, he believes that not only suf- fering but the amount of muscle pain itself can be reduced by a change in attitude. “By turning our attention toward the phe- nomenon that we’re afraid of and trying in essence to say ‘yes’ to the sensations, that whole aversion response tends to drop away,” he says. Siegel cautions that people with unexplained pain should first consult a physician to make sure the pain is not a symp- tom of a serious illness. But if a physician finds nothing threat- ening, and the aches and pains themselves are the chief issue, then mindfulness may be an appropriate treatment. Mindfulness, however, is not a panacea. Ironically, Siegel was already a Buddhist practitioner when he was struck down by back pain that left him mostly bedridden for months. As he describes in his book, Back Sense, it was only when he learned (facIngpage)cRaigMunRo(rIght)©iStockpHoto.coM/©bankSpHotoS