I have been pondering how to use my Buddhist practice to work with suffering when my chronic pain flares up. The Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths came immediately to mind. These teachings provide a roadmap for living a life free from suffering. Experiencing my pain directly, without judgments or resistance, has allowed me to use the Buddha’s roadmap on my journey from suffering to liberation.
The Four Noble Truths
In his first teaching after attaining liberation, the Buddha taught The Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path to liberation from suffering.
The First Noble Truth recognizes the existence of suffering. We humans will do everything we can to resist or deny the existence of suffering. Paradoxically, resisting or denying the existence of suffering only increases our suffering. Recognizing the existence of suffering, without additional thoughts or denial, is the first step to letting go of the suffering that accompanies my chronic pain.
The Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering, is clinging to things – especially ourselves – as real and permanent. My knee-jerk reaction when my pain flares up is self-pity. My self-centered thoughts and negative judgments increase my suffering. When I let go of my thoughts and focus instead on the direct experience of my pain, there is an immediate sense of relief and spaciousness.
Focusing on the pain itself, rather than clinging to it as something unique to myself, leads to the cessation of suffering – The Third Noble Truth. Working directly with the energy of physical pain has become my path out of the suffering that accompanies my pain. This path is related to the Fourth Noble Truth, the path to liberation from suffering.
“Don’t Shoot the Second Arrow”
The Buddha’s teachings on the “two arrows” has also been extremely helpful for me. When we experience physical or emotional pain, it is like being shot by an arrow. According to the Buddha, the first arrow is not problem. After all, we all inevitably experience pain of all kinds in our lives. The problem is that we then shoot ourselves with a second arrow with our thoughts, judgments and resistance to the initial pain. According to Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Donald Rothberg[i]:
According to the Buddha, our reaction [to pain] is equivalent to being shot by a second arrow. We can call this second arrow suffering. Suffering arises because when we experience pain … we typically react by lashing out, at ourselves and others. We believe somehow that this will dispel or mitigate the pain. We act in such a way that a second arrow is shot, at us or others, on account of the pain of the first arrow. When we act so that the second arrow is shot, we ‘pass on’ the original pain.
When I “lash out” at the perceived injustice of having a chronic pain condition, I am shooting myself with a second arrow. My mindfulness practice allows me to notice my thoughts and judgments as they arise, let them go and return to the object of my meditation. When I’m experiencing pain, I allow that to be the object of my meditation. As thoughts and judgments arise, I notice them lightly and return to the direct experience of pain.
Working Directly with Physical Pain as a Path to Liberation
Here is an exercise for working directly with pain to alleviate the second arrow of suffering that often accompanies it. This exercise can be used for both physical and emotional pain.
- Focus on the pain and breathe into it.
- Explore the pain with a sense of curiosity:
- Where is the pain located?
- How big is it?
- What’s its shape?
- If it had a color, what color would it be?
- Is it hot or cold?
- Is it static or does it move or vibrate?
- As you explore the pain in this way, notice how it shifts and moves. This is a good reminder that everything is impermanent.
- Remember that we all experience pain during our journey on the Four Rivers of Life — birth, old age, sickness and death.
When I work with my pain directly in this way, I am fully in the present moment. My thoughts, judgments and resistance are gone, and so is the suffering that I’ve added to the pain with those thoughts, judgments and resistance. In that present moment, I am liberated from my suffering. As the old adage goes, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
[i] D. Rothberg & J. Kornfield (2006). The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston: Beacon Press.
© 2020 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.