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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
spring 2007| 38 |buddhadharma pure Experience When we encounter pain (or pleasure) without grasping or resisting, explains shinzen young, then we can experience it as the purification of consciousness. IS there SoMethING We CaN Do with pain besides cope through distraction, denial, wishful thinking, or numbing anesthetics? Is there a uni- versal strategy that can be applied to all pains, regardless of their type, intensity, or causes? Is there a psychologically healthy way of making pain meaningful, a simple, systematic way to har- ness its energy in the service of life? If there is, this would be very good news. We could then use the unavoidable discomforts of day-to-day life to foster personal growth. It would certainly be comforting and empowering to know that if we encounter major pain that cannot be relieved by any of the standard methods, there is another option available. Meditation represents such an option. In order to understand the nature of pain and its relationship to the spiritual path, we must first discuss pleasure. any pleasure we have can be experienced completely or not. When it is experi- enced completely, it yields satisfaction. Complete- ness has nothing to do with the intensity, type, or duration of the pleasure. Completeness requires just two elements: an unbroken contact with the pleasure and the absence of interference with it. absence of interference means that the pleasure is not mixed with grasping, either conscious or subconscious. Grasping is a tension or viscosity that impedes the natural flow of the pleasure. It’s a kind of tightening around pleasure’s arising and passing. to experience pleasure without grasp- ing is to experience it with equanimity – not aloof withdrawal but radical self-permission to feel the pleasure. Pleasure not mixed with grasping could be called pure pleasure. Pure pleasure purifies con- sciousness and permanently raises our base level of appreciation for life. the situation with pain is perfectly parallel to that of pleasure. any given pain can be experi- enced either completely or incompletely. When it is experienced completely, it is not experienced as suffering; it does not become a problem. Does it hurt? Yes. Does that eclipse the perfection of the moment? No. Complete pain means pure pain, pain not mixed with resistance, either at the con- scious or subconscious level of neural processing. resistance is inner friction that interferes with the natural flow of pain. Not resisting pain is to have equanimity with the pain, radical self-permission to feel the pain. Pure pain purifies. the “matter” of the pain becomes converted into energy that mas- sages and softens the very substance of the soul. Let’s try to make this process more tangible. In the undistracted meditative state, if pain arises, you can clearly observe the interaction of the pain and your resistance to it. For example, an uncom- fortable sensation may arise in your knee as you’re meditating. at the same time, you may observe that in reaction to the pain, you are clenching and tightening other parts of your body, while in your mind a stream of judgments and aversive thoughts are erupting. the sensation in your knee is the pain. the tension is your bodily resistance. the judgments are mental resistance. the resistance can be distin- guished clearly from the pain itself. as you con- sciously relax the tension and drop the judgments, even though the pain level is the same, it seems to be less of a problem. Later, when the resistance returns, you notice that the pain has again become a problem. So once again you drop the judgments and stop the clenching, and the sense of suffering diminishes, even if only slightly. but you are mak- ing your first steps in learning how to experience pain skillfully. Subsequent steps involve letting go of progres- sively more subtle mind and body resistance, until the deep subconscious resistance begins to break up. at that point the pain starts to flow. It feels like you’re being massaged and nurtured. You experi- ence the pain working on your consciousness at a very deep level. It is as though your consciousness were dough and the pain wave is kneading that dough, working out the lumps and kinks, trans- forming it at a molecular level into something soft, pliant, and malleable. With continued practice, this skill becomes internalized and integrated into your being. When you encounter discomforts in the course of daily life, you automatically let go into equanimity. Is it necessary to experience discomfort in order to deepen one’s spiritual practice? absolutely not! the skills that allow us to experience pleasure with heightened satisfaction are the same ones that allow us to experience pain with diminished suffering. Skill with pleasure leads to skill with pain, and vice versa, because what we’re really learning is how to feel. If discomfort arises during meditation, we can shinZen young is a vipassana meditation teacher and the author of Break through paiN: a Step-By-Step miNdfuL- NeSS meditatioN program for traNSformiNg ChroNiC aNd aCute paiN (sounds true).