This is part of the Compassion in Action series. If you just found this and are wondering what’s going on, click here for chapter 1.
CHAPTER 7 – Working with Pain and Pleasure
“For the peaceful practice of meditation,
It’s not necessary to go to the mountain retreat.
Have the mind cleansed of the passions,
And even the flames are cool and refreshing.”
– Zen monk, spoken as he was being burned alive1
The meditations that we’ve been looking at so far have all been what I’d call active meditations, where you go into your meditation with a specific task to do. Whether it is generating Metta, or overwriting a negative memory, or making inquiries into the nature of your Self, some internal action is being taken. There are other meditation styles that are much more passive. The extremely popular Mindfulness practices, based on ancient Vipassana meditation techniques, come immediately to mind.
In these more passive practices, you aren’t really doing anything except learning to identify with the part of yourself that acts as the observer. When you sit to meditate, you simply place your attention somewhere, usually on your breath. And then you sit there.
If an emotion arises, you let it arise, and just simply notice that it is happening. Here is an emotion. It has come up. Now it is changing. Now it has quieted, and a new thought has arisen to take its place. The goal is not to let any of these things take hold of you, but just to watch them quietly, observing from a place of compassionate detachment.
Being able to do this well is a very useful skill to have in your regular life, as it gives you the opportunity to step back from events that might have otherwise triggered you and caused you to spin out. If you feel anger coming on, you can stop and notice it. This is anger. I feel it coming on. If I allow this anger to take hold, I will probably say things that I will regret later on.
If you can find that gap in the stream of events between when you get triggered and when the anger expresses itself outwardly, you then have a way to insert a new response, rather than just playing the drama out in the way that it has always played out. This is the opportunity that will be presented once you’ve started working with learning how to be an independent observer of your own mind.
We discussed the mistake we’ve all made when we think of our body as being ‘us’ in the previous chapter. You have a body, but you are not the body. You have come to this body, but someday you will have to give it up again. It will die, but you will not. It is impermanent, but you are the Everlasting Spirit: pure, and perfect, and Divine. Death cannot touch you, the real You. This is Self knowledge.
Of course, intellectually knowing we aren’t the body, and actually realizing it are two different states of consciousness. Nevertheless, with knowledge alone we can begin to experiment with our body in the same way that we experiment with our mind in Vipassana meditation.
What is the most negative situation we encounter with the body? I’d have to say pain. The body doesn’t like pain. Pain is clearly on the “bad” list of all possible sensations the body can experience. If you look at any of the thousand definitions of hell that humanity has conjured up over the years, the common denominator between them is always pain.
When we identify with the body, pain is this horrible thing that needs to be avoided at all costs. But when we are not identified with the body, pain is now something a little different. You aren’t in pain, your body is in pain. There’s an important distinction there.
So when we find our body in pain, we have a very precious opportunity from the perspective of our meditation practice. Treat the body, and the pain, as a thought, and rather than recoiling and reacting against it, simply embrace it and let it be, and observe.
Meditation on Pain
Try this when you have pain in somewhere in the body. Close your eyes, and let your mind be drawn to the pain. This will be easy, because your mind will already want to dwell on it. But don’t push against the pain. Don’t react to it, or brace against it, or try to fight it in any way. Instead, do the opposite, and go into the pain. Observe it.
Pain is a message from your body. Feel the pain. Hear your body. Thank your body for the pain, and try to enter into the very center of the pain. Try to find that red hot coal that is sending all those waves of discomfort radiating out. Acknowledge it. Don’t fix it. This is the experience of pain. Just be.
This might seem like a strange sort of meditation, but it is extremely powerful if done with the right mindset. What we usually do is brace against the pain, or try to ignore it. But pain is a message sent from your body. It’s like a small child pulling at the leg of your pants to get your attention. If you brace against it, and ignore it, what happens is that the child gets frustrated and starts pulling harder because you aren’t listening. So when you stop, and turn to that child, and give it your full attention, something very interesting might happen.
Since I’ve known about this technique, I’ve had a couple good opportunities to practice it. I had developed a bump on the top of my head, which over the years grew from a tiny speck to eventually become as large a marble. It was right in the spot where you’d place the band from headphones, so anytime I listened to music on an airplane, I’d get really sore right there. It became annoying enough where I decided to ditch my stoic approach to the situation and just go to the dermatologist and get it removed.
It turned out to be a very common issue, all because of a clogged oil gland. The body builds up a protective layer, but the gland keeps making oil, and the whole thing grows over time. They’re harmless, but can be very annoying, especially if you let them get big. The dermatologist made a small incision and just grabbed a hold of the thing and pulled it out right there at his office. I got a few stitches, was told to ice, and was sent home.
If you’ve ever had stitches, you know that they hurt. They don’t hurt as much on the top of your head, because there are fewer nerves there, but it still hurts. Not that I like being in pain, but there’s a silver lining to everything, and in this case I had a chance to try and meditate on the pain.
The first time I did this, I was sitting in bed, and just closed my eyes and went into the pain. Rather than being stiff and trying to hold out against the pain, I embraced it. I tried to merge with it. The realization that I had when I did this was that pain is just a sensation, just like any other sensation. There are good ones, and there are bad ones, but they’re all just sensations. For whatever reason, probably because of my reaction against it, pain had always been a much more solid thing than a sensation. And as I recognized it as a sensation, my body got the message that its shouting was finally heard, and the pain lessened. It didn’t go away, but I could feel it get better immediately.
That experience got me excited, and the next day I tried it again. This time I practiced while I was driving. You don’t have to be sitting there in lotus posture in order to meditate. The pain had flared up, and so I went right back to the center of the place on my scalp where it hurt. Again, I felt the sensation of pain, and let it express itself, trying to feel the place where it was coming from. I spoke to it internally like it was a different person, thanking it for its job in telling me there was an issue, and then telling it that everything was OK on this end. Then, as was my habit from practicing Ho’oponopono and clearing memories, I gave it my unconditional love. I gave love not only to my body, but also to the hurt area, and to the sensation of pain itself.
At this point, something remarkable happened. The pain completely stopped, and a new sensation appeared, coming from the wound itself. That new sensation was one of pleasure. It was liquid happiness, and it was pouring out of the stitches on the top of my head. And so I drove down the road, loving my stitches, and they loved me right back.
That feeling lasted for a few minutes, and when it left there was no pain. The wound ached from time to time over the next few days, but then it healed, and everything went back to normal.
What I learned from this experience is that pain, like every other experience, is an interpreted one. The sensation comes, and it is immediately marked as either “good” or “bad” by our internal system. We come with certain default lists, and pain gets put on the bad list automatically by nature, but it’s not written in stone.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t transcended pain. It’s still my body’s trusty companion like it always has been. But I have had experiences like the one with those stitches where pain was transformed into something completely different, and I know this was all related to the process of meditation. Just because we are feeling pain doesn’t mean the experience necessarily has to be a negative one.
There’s a story that I heard about my guru, Paramahamsa Hariharananda, when he was at the dentist, from an eyewitness who was with him at the time this happened. Baba, as we used to call him, had to go in for a root canal, and when the dentist showed up with the anesthetic, Baba waved him off, telling him that he didn’t need it. He would control the pain with meditation. Of course, the dentist argued, but Baba was stubborn and told him just to worry about the drill and let him deal with the pain part of it.
So the dentist started the procedure, and gave Baba his root canal, having administered no pain blockers. Baba just sat there quietly, meditating, and then when it was all done, thanked the dentist and left. If I’m not mistaken, that dentist later became a disciple.
I can’t speak for Hariharananda, but from my own experience, I think he probably went into the pain and made friends with it, and rewired the sensations so they weren’t painful to him anymore. It gives you an idea what can be done by someone who has mastered themselves.
Now let’s talk about pleasure. You might be surprised to find me taking up this topic right here, after we’ve discussed stitches and root canals, but pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin in a way. Attachment and aversion. Likes and dislikes. Pleasure and pain. This is the delusion of the material world.
It is not that pleasure is something to be avoided, or that enjoyment of pleasure is not spiritual. Don’t get me wrong. It is only that pleasure is a temporary, fleeting thing. It comes, it stays for a while, and then it goes. It’s great when it is happening, but if you are attached to the pleasure, that attachment will bring you suffering in the end.
The ideal mindset is to realize that pleasure and pain are both part of life, and they flow through your field of awareness like the weather. One day it is pleasurable. Enjoy it, but when it leaves, don’t be disappointed. The next day, there might be some pain or suffering. Again, don’t let it get you down. It is a passing thing, and will blow over in due course. Be untouched by the changing nature of the world, equally comfortable in pleasure or pain. This internal steadiness in the face of both good and bad experiences is the measure of your spiritual progress.
Our goal in life is not to amass pleasures and sense enjoyments. This will not bring us happiness. You can simply scan the pages of the gossip magazines to see what kind of lives the rich and famous lead. So much drama! Look at their faces in those pictures. You’ll find that they aren’t any happier than you are. The goal of life is to realize your own Soul. Pleasure and suffering are the lures that will keep your mind distracted from the real prize.
We focused on pain as an example of one of the most negative sense experiences. Let’s do the same for pleasure. Let’s talk about sex.
Traditionally, there have been two approaches in how to deal with sex from a spiritual standpoint. The first approach will be familiar to most Christians. In this view, sex comes from the body, and is therefore dirty, and based in sin. Therefore sexual urges should be resisted and suppressed.
Whether or not you grew up in an orthodox family that explicitly believed these things about sex, odds are that you picked it up from your culture. Why is it that everyone is so squeamish about being able to say the names of certain body parts? How many different slang words are there for penis anyway? Why is it that even teachers and doctors get embarrassed and have to refer to those slang words rather than just saying the given proper noun that tells everyone what they are actually talking about?
Imagine if no one could say “foot”, and got all anxious anytime the word was spoken. Imagine if you got scolded as a little kid for even saying “foot”, let alone actually talking about what a foot did, or what happened to your own foot the other day. What if you were told by your religious leaders that thinking about, or touching your feet in certain ways would result in you burning in Hell for all eternity? Would that be a strange reality to live in? This is exactly the situation we have with sexual organs. Traditionally, they have been associated with sinful, “bad” acts, and so people try to avoid even using their names.
In my case, I remember thinking that even the word “sex” was something that shouldn’t be said. When I was 8 or 9 years old, there was a song that came on the radio that used the word “sex” in it, and I got completely bashful and ashamed whenever I heard those lyrics. What if I had been playing that song in my room and my Mom walked in right then? The horror!
Given this mindset, the approach is to repress all sexual desires. If you are going to be spiritual, you need to completely swear off sex, never think about it, and never let it enter into your reality in any way. Unfortunately, repression, especially this hard-line style of repression, doesn’t work. The desire is still there, it’s just that now the expression of that desire carries an even bigger penalty than before.
Unless you can find a way to repress the source of the desire itself, that urge is going to find a way to peek out through the cracks, and find its way to the light. When desires have to force their way out like that, the results aren’t pretty. Just look at what happened with all those Catholic priests that tried to sublimate their sexual desires. Wouldn’t it have been better had they been able to express them freely in the open with consenting partners, rather than in secret, behind closed doors with those that had no power to resist their advances? Sex is a powerful force, and nature uses that power to keep the species going. She doesn’t care about whether or not you’ve taken a vow. You’re going to feel that urge because you’re human, and that’s part of the human experience.
So that’s the repression solution. It’s a hard path to follow. Most people can’t do it without developing some neuroses to go along with it. Because of that, we have the other side of the coin. I’m thinking of the Western Tantric schools here, where sex is not only embraced, but placed at the level of the Divine. In this approach, sex itself becomes the object that is worshipped.
Now we have the opposite approach. Sex is spirituality. You can see how, at first blush, this path might be more fun than the last one. However, it can turn into debauchery in the blink of an eye. Sex feels good, no doubt, but remember, you are not your body. The rush you feel during an orgasm may be the closest thing you’ve felt to a Samadhi state, but it is still just a biological function. Dogs feel that rush too. If you want spiritual realization, you must go beyond the body. You must go into the Self, not into the body. Sex doesn’t play a part in that, whether it is repressed or glorified.
If sex and spirituality were the same thing, wouldn’t it follow that all the porn stars out there would be highly realized people? Shouldn’t they be full of infinite peace, bliss, and truth? After all, their bodies are built perfectly for sex, and they’re really good at it. What about prostitutes? Shouldn’t they also have become Self-realized, given all the sex that they’ve had in their lives? And don’t forget about those sex-crazed bonobos from chapter 2. Why aren’t shrines being built to those apes? They should have the power to cure all diseases with the touch of a hand, given the fact that they basically have sex all day long with whoever they can find.
This is the nature of the human mind. When presented with how to treat sex in spirituality, it can only think of two options, and both of them are at the extremes. Sex is either completely bad, and must be banished from the mind, or sex is Divine, and must be worshipped.
The third option here is to stop focusing on the material world, and thinking so much in terms of everything having to be good or evil. Sex is a bodily process, and everything alive has sex. It’s an enjoyable experience, and there are a lot of drives associated with it that come built into owning and operating a human body. But that’s all there is to it. It’s not good, and it’s not bad. It’s just another thing that you get to experience while being alive.
Rather than focusing on the sex itself, can you focus on the person you are having it with? Can you see God in that person as you are having sex with them? Can you see that ultimately it is God in one body that is having sex with God in another body? It is God’s own enjoyment of creation, and the pleasure itself that goes along with the act is also God. Enjoy the sex, but try to see through the illusion. And realize that you need to see through the illusion all the times you aren’t having sex too!
Unfortunately, there are a lot of patterns and habits that have been built into the mind around sex which can get in the way of approaching it in this way. It’s going to be a good thing for you, or a bad thing for you, and years of reinforcement will have made those preconceptions pretty firm.
The solution is to begin treating sex as an offering. When we meditate, we start developing a very personal relationship with God. You go inside, find that loving center, and you try to merge with it, over and over. That connection will be stronger or weaker depending on the person, but it is there for everyone. That’s why you have the urge to meditate, and to grow spiritually. You want to develop that relationship, even if you don’t understand what any of it means, or have any kind of conception of who or what it is that you are seeking. Consciousness wants to unfold.
So when you have sex, offer the experience and the feelings to the Divine. Offer the fruit of the activity to God. Here is this orgasm I am having. I offer it to you with Love. It is You that I seek, not these temporary pleasures. Do that in the moment, as you are climaxing, and watch how all those old notions of sex just start crumbling around you. God will start showing up in your sex life, and the best thing about a sexual encounter won’t be what position you were in, or what happened during it all, but that internal connection that you feel to the Divine as you make those offerings.