I was boiling some water the other morning and watched the bubbles forming, bursting, falling away, constantly changing. A beautiful piece of art. A fascinating mini version of the cosmos. What a lovely meditation.
Bubbles are a perfect example of the nature of impermanence. They appear and have a sense of substance, but then they disappear and show their insubstantial nature, empty and impermanent. Then I remembered that the Buddha used this simile to teach about the insubstantial and impermanent nature of sensation. The Vedanas, feeling tones.
This insight is particularly helpful if we are in physical pain and find ourselves caught up in thoughts like Oh no, not this again! or How long will this pain go on? I can’t stand it!
We all have pain from time to time, and even mild discomfort can throw us off. Those who have never experienced pain may fear it. So let’s explore effective and skillful ways to be in relationship with it so it will be less scary.
When we really pay attention to what we are calling pain, we can notice that there is not just one sensation. Like the bubbles, various sensations arise and fall away. Observing closely allows us to more accurately describe the sensations as maybe tingling, pressure, throbbing, stinging, stabbing, prickling, or some other word. Why would this be an improvement? Sounds awful, right?
The curative power of curiosity
The investigation into specificity activates our curiosity. Curiosity is open and actively interested in current experience. Unlike the label ‘pain’, it doesn’t throw us into the thoughts of the past or future or activate fear. It is focused on being present with what is: pure sensation. And then we notice something very interesting: the sensation changes. Maybe it gets stronger or weaker, maybe it moves around, maybe it changes in nature. So now there’s another word that would more accurately describe this pain. And another. And then another. This might surprise those of us who live with chronic pain, because we tend to feel we know ‘our pain’ very well, all too well! But here a little investigation using curiosity instead of presumption rooted in the past leads us to a different, and likely less challenging, relationship with our experience.
These Vedanas, feeling tones, are ever-changing. If we cultivate awareness of them we gain valuable insight into the nature of all life experience, and we are better able to anchor our attention in this moment, just as it is.
Curiosity also breaks us out of the habit of claiming the pain as part of who we believe ourselves to be. Or perhaps seeing a particular pain as something old people have, and balking as our ‘age’ veil, with all its thoughts and emotions about aging, intersects with our ‘identity’ veil. No! Not me! Too soon! Activating curiosity to explore pure sensation, unveiled, frees us from our assumptions.
With the veil metaphor, we can see how easily a sensation can set our attention down a well-worn thread of thought through a veil that may be full of memories of pain we have experienced in our lives. Particularly if it’s chronic pain, we may have a powerful veil of thought and emotion about it. So any sensation in that area will likely activate a veil full of challenging memories and fears. The veil might include other people’s painful experiences as well. Things we’ve witnessed, heard about, and dread. We can feel the strong emotions associated with the pain and have questions like Why Me? Why now? When will this ever stop? Is this the beginning of the end? Emotions of hopelessness and despair readily arise and saturate the threads of the pain veil.
So now, instead of a momentary experience of a sensation, we are burdened with the heavy veil that our attention is entangled in. How much worse are we making the pain by shrouding it in a knotted veil?
Bringing attention back to the sensation itself allows us to simply experience the intricate transient nature of sensation which is much more manageable than the veil of tears we have about pain.
Attending all the senses
Open curiosity also allows our attention to notice other sensations. This is not a bait and switch distraction. It’s opening to the whole experience of being alive in this moment. So we might say, yes, okay, right now in my left knee I feel a stabbing sensation, but I am also feeling the sun on my back, the gentle breeze on my face, the muscles in my body supporting me, and anything else we notice. Maybe we do a little gentle stretching to activate pleasurable sensations. If we are afraid of our pain, we may be afraid to open up to any sensation, and in that way, we miss out on so much of life. There is always more going on than any single sensation. And we have so many sense organs. We can focus on what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. These too are powerful sensations passing through, impermanent in nature, bubbles bursting with life.
The wisdom of no escape
This reminder to notice all the senses arising in the moment is not an invitation to chase after pleasure. Trying to avoid a painful sensation by seeking escape into a pleasurable one isn’t skillful. The temporary distraction oft-repeated may be more painful in the long run. Finding what the Buddha called The Middle Way is more skillful and nurturing. When we rest in awareness, noting sensations as they arise and fall away, being present with all without making an enemy of any of them, joy arises. It’s the joy of freedom to be with life’s many variations of experience without having to chase them, just allowing curiosity to keep the mind fresh and open instead of leading our attention on a habitual chase or tying our thoughts up in knots.
Nothing to prove, nothing to defend
What we think about pain is often entangled in our identity veils, our beliefs about who we are. So if we have a thread of belief that we should soldier through to prove how strong we are, we might ignore a pain that is sending an urgent message.
Conversely, if we have a thread of belief that we are fragile, vulnerable, and susceptible, we may look at the world through that veil and see danger everywhere, thus activating adrenaline in the body that may set us up for exactly what we feared.
The second dart
Another simile the Buddha taught can help us see what is happening when we get caught up in veils of distracted thinking. We might think of the actual physical sensation, the one we describe as stinging, aching, or some other descriptor, as the first dart. Yes, it hurts! No denying that! But then, as if the pain of the first dart was not enough, we have the strange tendency to throw ourselves a second dart! This one is made of all the thoughts and emotions we have about the pain of the first dart, entangled as we are in associated veils of thought and emotion. We compound the misery. We do this not just with physical pain but emotional pain as well.
That second dart might have formed in a knot of entangled thoughts and strong negative emotions in one of our veils of thought. Examining that knot with compassionate curiosity may help us lessen or alleviate that additional pain that could be needlessly keeping us from participating in life. [Further reading.]
So our practice is to:
- Pay simple attention to sensations.
- Notice how a sensation changes.
- Notice when the attention leaps into a veil of thoughts and emotions.
- Gently bring attention back to the felt sense of being alive in this moment.
- Notice the breath or the heart space, wherever feels most connected and alive.
- Relax and release any tightness accumulated from venturing into the veils.
- Expand awareness to the whole sensory field of sight, sound, touch, and taste, not as a distraction, but as wholesome inclusion of all that is going on in this moment.
Take a moment to allow these ideas to percolate. There is very likely some information your inner wisdom has for you right now. Maybe a memory or recognition of a particular pattern of reactivity. This might activate uncomfortable sensations. Good noticing! You’re recognizing the connection between physical sensation and mental activity. To whatever degree you are able, relax and let your mind run free. Maybe make some notes about your relationship with pain, and question the veracity of some of the thought threads your attention tends to follow, especially the ones that furrow your brow, clench your jaw, bring your shoulders up toward your ears, or cause your stomach to churn, tighten your hands into fists, and stir up strong negative emotions. As unpleasant as it sounds, this is a rich exploration, one that can make a huge difference in your life. If you’re uncomfortable with inner exploration, partner up with a trusted friend, wise counsel, or a therapist.
And if you are experiencing pain, I send you much metta for your healing on all levels.