Pain / Unpleasant Sensations / Emotions
When you experience pains, aches and other bodily discomforts, it means you have a mental resistance to them and therefore you are not ready yet to observe these unpleasant physical sensations directly. Nobody likes pain and if you observe it while still feeling any resistance towards it, it will become worse. It is like when you are angry with someone; if you look at that person again and again you will become even angrier. So never force yourself to observe pain; this is not a fight, this is a learning opportunity. You are not observing pain to lessen it or to make it go away. You are observing it – especially your mental reactions to it – in order to understand the connection between your mental reactions and your perception of the physical sensations.
Check your attitude first. Wishing for the pain to decrease or go away is the wrong attitude. It does not matter whether the pain goes away or not. Pain is not the problem; your negative mental reaction to it is the problem. If the pain is caused by some kind of injury you should of course be careful not to make things worse, but if you are well and healthy, pain is simply an important opportunity to practise watching the mind at work. When there is pain, the mental feelings and reactions are strong and therefore easy to observe. Learn to watch anger or resistance, tension or discomfort in your mind. If necessary, alternate between checking your feelings and the attitude behind your resistance. Keep reminding yourself to relax the mind and the body, and observe how it affects your mental resistance. There is a direct link between your state of mind and pain. The more relaxed and calm the observing mind, the less intense you will perceive the pain to be. Of course, if your mind reacts strongly to the pain (i.e. if you experience pain as unbearable) you should change your posture and make yourself comfortable.
So if you want to learn how to deal with pain skilfully, try this: From the moment you start feeling pain, no matter how weak it is, check your mind and body for tension, and relax. Part of your mind will remain aware of the pain. So check for tension again and again, and relax. Also check your attitude and keep reminding yourself that you have the choice to change your posture if you experience too much pain, as this will make the mind more willing to work with it. Keep repeating this until you no longer feel you want to watch the tension, the fear, the desire to get up, or the unwillingness to stay with the pain. Now you should change your posture.
When you are able to bear with pain, it does not mean that you are equanimous. Most of us start off by trying hard to sit for a fixed period of time, forcing ourselves not to move. If we succeed to sit for that full hour we feel great, otherwise we feel we have failed. We usually try to bear the pain longer and longer, i.e. we work on increasing our threshold of pain. However, in this process we neglect watching the mind and we are not really aware of our mental reactions to the pain. We fail to realize that developing a high threshold of pain does not mean that the mind is not reacting to the pain.
If you stop forcing yourself to sit for a fixed period of time and instead start watching the mental reactions in the ways described above, your resistance to the pain will gradually decrease and your mind will become more equanimous. Understanding the difference between equanimity and being able to bear with pain is really important. Mindfulness meditation is not about forcing but about understanding. Real equanimity is the result of true understanding of the nature of liking and disliking through observation and investigation.
It is best to look at pain directly only if you cannot feel a resistance to it. Keep in mind that there may be a reaction at a subtle level. As soon as you recognize mental discomfort, turn your attention to that feeling. If you can see subtle mental discomfort, watch it change; does it increase or decrease? As the mind becomes more equanimous and sensitive it will recognize subtle reactions more easily. When you look at mental discomfort at a more subtle level you may get to the point when your mind feels completely equanimous. If you look at pain directly and if there is true equanimity, mental discomfort will not arise anymore.
Remember that you are not looking at the reactions of the mind to make them go away. Always take reactions as an opportunity to investigate their nature. Ask yourself questions! How do they make you feel? What thoughts are in your mind? How does what you think affect the way you feel? How does what you feel affect the way you think? What is the attitude behind the thoughts? How does any of this change the way you perceive pain?
Try to apply the relevant points mentioned above to deal with any other physical discomforts such as itching, and feeling hot or cold. Moreover, whatever skills we learn in dealing with our reactions to physical discomforts can also be applied in dealing with defilements such as emotions of anger, frustration, jealousy, disappointment, or rejection as well as happiness, pleasure, lust or attachment. They and all their relatives – even their distant ones – should be dealt with in similar ways as pain. You need to learn to recognize and let go of both attachment and aversion.
When you investigate such emotions, it is important that you remind yourself that they are natural phenomena. They are not ‘your’ emotions; everybody experiences them. You always need to keep this in mind when you examine the thoughts and mental images that accompany emotions. All thoughts you identify with actually ‘fuel’ the emotions.
However, when the emotion you experience is very strong, you might not be able to look at the accompanying thoughts without getting even more emotional. In such a case, it is usually best to first become very clearly aware of and look at the pleasant or unpleasant feelings and sensations that accompany the emotion. But if you find even looking at these feelings and sensations too overwhelming, you could turn your attention to a neutral or pleasant object, for example your breath or a sound. Doing this will skilfully distract the mind and stop it from thinking – or will at least reduce thinking. ‘You’ will no longer be so involved in the ‘story’ and therefore the emotion will subside. But do not completely ignore those feelings and sensations; take a look at them every now and then!
When a strong emotion has subsided, or when you are looking at a weak emotion, you will be able to look at the feelings, the thoughts plus the bodily sensations. The better you understand how they all interrelate, the more skilfully and effectively you will be able to handle any kind of emotion.
Don’t forget to check your attitude: Check to see whether you really accept the emotion or whether you have a resistance towards it. Any unnoticed resistance to and any unnoticed identification with the emotion will ‘feed’ it, will make it grow bigger (snowball effect). Remember that the emotions do not need to go away at all. The objective is to know what the emotions feel like, to know what you are thinking when there are emotions, and to understand their ‘nature’ and the mind’s behaviour.