SkyDancer - Essays
Music List
CHC home
Practicing with Pain

A deeper freedom

Since 1995 I've been struggling with disabling chronic pain. Due to chemical sensitivities I can't take painkillers (or most medication); instead I try to make my life healthy and simple. Buddhism has been a great help, with its emphasis on freedom from mental conditioning. Much of the stress in my life has fallen away as I let go of expectations I was brought up to hold. However Buddhism also promises a deeper freedom through letting go of negative reactions to unavoidable physical pain: learning not to respond to the signals of pain nerves with stress, but accepting it as simply what's happening. Here is my experience with investigating this deeper freedom.

Every morning I do a modified form of metta, in which I use the expression "I choose" instead of the imperative grammatical mode that uses the word "may." (As in "May all beings enjoy well-being.") The purpose of saying "I choose" is to emphasize to my deep brain that I am an active participant in the creative force of the universe. Acceptance and equanimity do not require passivity, but rather a balance between receptivity and initiative. (For more about this active participation, see "Body of Radiant Knots" by Joan Iten Sutherland in Friedman and Moon's Being Bodies and my comments on Sutherland here. See also Grooming the Interface.)

So I say to myself, "I choose to be free of pain." By this I don't mean having no pain, but rather not getting all wrapped up in it: being unburdened by whatever pain is happening. Being in touch with a deeper freedom. As I say this affirmation, I recall the small taste of sunyata I have experienced, and let the afterglow from that spread through me.

If I were enlightened, I guess sunyata would sustain me; I would be living in that awareness all the time. But I don't think you can get there without working through the hassles and pain of samsara. I tried it. When the chronic pain started, my first response was to resume more regularly a meditation I had learned in a Raja yoga ashram, a concentration on one of four subtle body energies. It was taught as a way to get high, on “bliss.” For a while it was very comforting, and then it stopped working. I didn't get high; there was no relief.

Various techniques

My intuition said meditation was still a good idea, but I could clearly no longer depend on it to be a panacea. I turned to a form that felt freer of expectations: vipassana , in which you observe whatever goes on in your mind, without getting carried away with it. Since the pain can be very distracting, frequently I was meditating on the sensations of the pain. This was useful in learning to manage the pain (when to eat, when to sleep, when to stop doing something that was making it worse...). And of course I found that if I concentrated on the sensations instead of avoiding them, I could relax better, which does decrease the pain.

For a detailed description of how to apply vipassana to pain, see Shinzen Young's page Break Through Pain.

A lot of people think the way to deal with pain is to ignore it, to pay attention to something else. I have learned to disagree. (For more on this, see Illusions about Pain.) There are a lot of levels of pain, but all are important signals from the body. It’s important to listen to the information they convey, and decide what to do with it.

When I first start to notice discomfort, I try to let it remind me to attend to the needs of my body. To stretch and to exercise, to eat and sleep regularly, to get fresh air. To keep notes on what's happening.

When the pain is definitely distracting but it's still possible to go about some activity I want to do, I use vipassana. With vipassana I can pay attention to “the full catastrophe”: my pain, my breath, my activity. This is not the same as ignoring the pain! This is pain I might be able to ignore, or anyway not attend to, to turn my attention from, directing it elsewhere ...but that would be dangerous.

When the pain gets beyond the point where I can do any activity when a migraine has me flat on my back alone in a dark room, unable to sleep, and the vipassana awareness is of panic I use one of these two meditations:

  • Concentration (samatha meditation) on the breath. Feeling the air as it moves into my nostrils, across my nasal passages, down the windpipe... the expansion of the lungs in the chest, belly, back, shoulders... the cool refreshing sensation of the air touching deep inside me... the tingle of energy as oxygen transfers into the blood... the delicious release of toxins as the exhale lets it all go..... When thoughts or sensations intrude into my awareness, simply returning to the sensations of breathing. Not modifying the breathing, just perceiving it deeply, resting in the miracle of its energy.
  • Tonglen. This is a practice of accepting the pain, taking it in and transforming it for the benefit of all beings. It is not masochism, nor is it passive.

    Tonglen gives me something to do with all that energy. And that, of course, settles me down and relaxes me better ... and reduces the pain. I feel like I shouldn’t say that; like it’s a magic secret that won’t work if I tell it, like I shouldn’t have ulterior motives for doing Tonglen... but on the other hand I know it wouldn’t reduce my pain if I didn’t sincerely want to breathe out to the world compassion and freedom from suffering.

Honoring the experience

One can be attached to pain; either by needing it for some payoff, or negatively, as aversion. My demon is Fear. Some people say there is no reason to fear anything, fear is anticipating the unknown. But I know intimately the pain I fear. I fear its going on like this till it just wears me down; I fear it getting as bad again as it has been. I do everything I can to avoid pain, to manage it, to manage my fear of it, to learn what causes it, to heal. Some description of these disciplines is on my health site, here.

There must be some point where you can draw a line and say, on this side is wise caution, but past this point it’s hypochondria, it’s fear. I don’t know where that point or that line might be. I just do as much as I can to deal with my body, and eventually I get to the point that I want to have a life as well as a medical situation.

Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha. If I need a large dose of garden to make it through the day, then it doesn't matter whether that's wisdom or folly. It just is. I just am. The good stuff and the obstacles are all jumbled together. I may never learn it may in fact be impossible to distinguish them. As Pema Chodron says, "Our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth. Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw our your wisdom." (The Wisdom of No Escape, pp. 14-15.)

You can't always fix it, you have to learn to hang in there with brokenness. Invite your demons to tea.


(Even for someone who can take drugs, chronic pain is a major challenge. See Luanne Armstrong's article in Salon, "With Enough Aspirin.")

© copyright Catherine Holmes Clark, 2001; last updated 27 November 2001