Well, first Welcome to everyone who's here from yesterday's workshop. This is January 21 2024. And this morning, I'm going to talk about working with pain. Working with physical pain not getting rid of it, not rejecting it. But working with it. For human beings, the experience of pain is inevitable. It's part of our body's warning system. And it's designed to protect us from harm. So when you accidentally touch a hot burner on the stove, your nervous system sends a signal to your brain, which then evaluates the danger. This happens all very quickly. And the experience of that burning sensation on your finger is basically your brain delivering a message saying, hey, Get your hand off the stove.
Burning your finger is an example of one particular kind of pain, acute pain. Other examples would be stubbing your toe, getting stung by a wasp, breaking a bone. And in Buddhist terms, such pain is often referred to as the first of two arrows. injuring oneself is like being hit by an arrow. The pain is real. We feel it, it hurts. And I had such an arrow flung at me about a week and a half ago, when I had periodontal surgery, I had what's called a gum graft, which involves cutting out tissue from the roof of your mouth and adding it to a play another place in your mouth where there's gum recession. So you end up with two areas that are stitched up. So I have a lot of stitches, and there was a good deal of pain. I can feel it right now. And if I were to fixate on that pain, if I would word it anticipate it ahead of time before I had the surgery, and then afterwards when the Novocaine were off, if I was to worry about it
of course I'd make the pain a lot worse. And that is the second arrow. Dwell dwelling in thoughts in this case about pain
so the second arrow is a kind of response to the first arrow sorry, thoughts and feelings about it. And if we respond to pain by getting frustrated, wallowing in self pity, saying why me? Or in the case of maybe an accident or a mishap beating yourself up? What's wrong with me? How could I have done that I'm such a klutz.
excetera when we allow that second arrow to hit the pain we're exploring Dancing can become agonizing. And the Buddha taught essentially that that second arrow is the root of human suffering.
And the only way it can really lodge into us is if we cling to our thoughts. To be clear, it's not a problem that thoughts arise. That's what our brain is hardwired to do. We need thoughts in order to survive. And it's only natural that when we're in pain, that there are thoughts that pop up about it. But what what we have is a choice as to whether or not we're going to latch on to those thoughts. On what do we choose to place our attention
and who, who among us doesn't get caught up in thoughts about pain to some degree or another, from time to time. It's part of our conditioning to chase after that, which we like that which makes us feel good. And to avoid or distract ourselves, from anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. And from a very young age, we learn we're taught pain is bad. Pleasure, or at least not feeling pain is good.
To some extent, this is actually reinforced by the medical establishment, which nowadays regards pain as the fifth vital sign. So when you go to a doctor appointment, one of the first things they do is at the start of the appointment, they check your temperature, your blood pressure, your heart rate, respiratory rate. And they ask you if you're feeling any pain, and they say on a scale of one to 10, what's your pain level. And it's subjective. How you're identifying with or relating to the pain influences, to what extent you see it as a one or a 10, or somewhere in between. And some people seem to have a very high threshold for pain, whereas others are very, very sensitive to it. And of course, our our experience with pain changes over time. As we age.
There are studies that argue that the adoption of this self assessment of pain scale, one to 10, which happened in the 1990s is one of the factors that contributed to the increase in opiate prescriptions and addiction.
That said it's extremely rare for a person not to experience pain. There's the acute pain as I mentioned before, which is short term and gets resolved eventually. But there's also the potential for chronic pain that lasts a long time, possibly a lifetime and with varying levels of intensity. An example of that would be living with arthritis or diabetes.
From a pain management perspective, chronic pain is more difficult and more complicated to address. And that's because the parts of the brain that send and receive danger signals can become more sensitive over time. And the greater your sensitivity to pain, the more likely you're going to be on high alert. So acute, acute pain can even turn into chronic pain. Depending on that second arrow, if we dwell in our thoughts about the pain that we're experiencing psychologic psychologically, we can get locked into a mind state that perpetuates it, or turns up the volume on it.
There's also this phenomenon of phantom pain. When someone has a limb amputated, they may continue to feel pain of it as if it's coming from the very limb that's no longer there.
So pain is an incredibly intimate experience. How could one person understand or judge what someone else is experiencing? There's no objective measurement for pain. And then there's another factor that comes into play in terms of how we perceive pain, and that's cultural beliefs, cultural beliefs. In some contexts, the ability to endure pain is seen as a sign of strength. This is the case in the context of war, for example. I recall seeing films that show soldiers in combat, who have serious injuries, serious wounds, and yet they continue to fight. It's an act of great courage and it reveals the power of how we direct our attention. In that moment of battle, the soldiers attention is not on the pain. A similar thing happens in sports. In really rough sports, like football, some players reportedly don't even realize that they've been injured until the game ends. It's not until the game ends that they feel pain
and then there's also these extreme athletes who run ultra marathons swim across the English Channel. In fact, incredible distances
One can only imagine the pain no pain, no gain.
So although pain is a sensory experience, it's real. We feel it. There's also this contextual or cultural demand One that influences our relationship to it, or how we choose to relate to it. And here's another example. In ancient Greece, there was the stoic movement and stoicism as a branch of philosophy that was practiced in the fourth century or introduced them, at least, that kind of echoes. Goes ideas that are tied to Zen practice. The stoics understood that one's experience of life is shaped by thoughts. And they even theorize that pleasure and pain are neutral. They're nice, they're, they're neither bad nor good. There's just pain, just pleasure. No judgment and in theorizing that they sought to live their lives without making such judgments, fully accepting what is although unlike in Zen practice, for them, it was more of a mental exercise was just an idea. In contrast to practice, Zen practice, which is a full body endeavor.
One of the more prominent Stoics, Marcus or Raelians said, You have power over your mind, not outside events, realize this and you will find strength. So again, we see pain associated with acquiring strength. Another Association, it of it is as a gateway to spiritual insight. And an example of this would be the ancient tradition of firewalking. The act of walking barefoot over a bed of hot coals. It's an ancient ritual. And it actually continues to be practiced today in some cultures. Walking over the, the hot embers is seen as a way of purifying oneself. Also a test of faith and a test of one's ability to transcend pain.
It's worth mentioning that to to transcend pain is not the same as enduring it or withstanding it. Which involves straining, bearing down. To transcend pain is to become one with it, to accept it, embrace it. Maybe even say hello to it. It's not a heroic act.
In Zen, you often hear the advice of surrendering to pain, giving into it, letting go of our desire to be in control. It's good advice. When I first started in practice, I didn't take that advice to heart. I spent months dodging and resisting the pain I was feeling. I'd squirm on my Christian tense up and my shoulders and my neck clenched. My jaw, my knees and hips felt like they were on fire. But when the round of sitting ended, and I stood up, the pain was gone
at the time, part of what I was experiencing was simply not yet having sufficient flexibility in my joints, my hips and and, and knees, which, over time, the more I sat, the more I became flexible. And that pain subsided. Yoga stretching also helped a lot with that.
With that with Zen there is this physical aspect, though, of pain. But there's also the psychological aspect. Which for me, the psychological aspect was my sense of pride. Put simply, I didn't want to come across as weak or fragile in the eyes of others. So I treated pain as something I needed to put myself through in order to prove that I was strong. I wasn't aware that this was a habit of mind until I did my first machine, and it was it was a four day So Shane right here in the sendo was sitting over there. And I dealt with my pain in the usual way and during it, clamping down on it. And it was really tough. What made it worse was that I didn't go to Doakes on with the teacher, which was Roshi, Sonia Kjolhede. I didn't want to come across as weak to the teacher. So I didn't go to Doakes. But after a couple of days, there appeared a little note on my cushion that said, please come to joke's on. Of course, when I did, it was so helpful. She gave me really great advice about relaxing into my seat. What stopped me from going to Doakes on was the pride and the clinging to strength appearing strong the clinging to ideas about what others are thinking about me and it wasn't until my first seven day sesshin that I started to understand what it means to work with pain rather than to resist it to fight it. During those seven days, it was just so amazing to see how my pain would come and go. How could one round of sitting be so painful and then the next no pain with all that sitting I became more aware of my body and aware of the tension I was holding in my body and I noticed that whenever I was in a trail of thoughts, especially about the pain my body felt like a ball of knots
of course I was sitting there thinking when will around in when will the timer hit the bell? Why am I in pain while everybody else is doing great?
Why did I sign up for this? That's all the second arrow thoughts, labels, judgments.
And fundamentally, that pain is derived from separation. Self and other
Zen master Hakuin said, no matter how little sickness there may be in a person's body, there, there is pain in the heart. Because there is delusion in the mind. There is pain in the heart, because there is delusion in the mind. This is a chronic sickness of all sentient beings.
And the way to cure our shared chronic sickness involves the effort of Zen. And that effort for most, if not all, people, does involve some degree of pain. In the Mumonkan, that's a koan collection. There's a line that on the surface makes it sound like extreme pain is a necessary component of Zen practice. Here's the line. If you want to support the gait and sustain the house, you must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet. Ouch. Mountain of swords with bare feet. Is that what I signed up for? It's not unusual for koans to have such vivid imagery, by the way, and it's not to be taken literally. Practice does require effort, persistent effort. And it's hard at times. And it includes working with pain to be in a body is to experience pain.
But how do we work with it?
As I said, some some discomforts expected, especially if we're sitting for a long time, as in during such sheen, or when we're new to practice just getting acclimated acclimated. That's to be expected, of course. At the same time, Zen is not an endurance contest to see how much pain you can handle. It doesn't involve self denial, or mortification, which is a form of clinging to self.
In the workshop, we always advise people that if you experience sharp or shooting pain, that's a signal that you need to change your posture. Often, you would, if that's going to happen, it's going to be when you're first getting into a sitting position. And what that sharp pain is, is your lert your brain alerting you to the potential harm. Your brain is saying, Hey, get out of that sitting position, sit another way.
For most people, the pain that we encountered during sitting is sort of a mild, dull to moderate ache that comes and goes.
And the most effective way to work with that kind of pain is to relax or relax into it. When we relax our body, we're also relaxing our mind. And vice versa. Not too as long as we're resisting pain, we're not relaxing. So that resistance has both a mental and physical aspect to it. It shows up physically by the tensing of the muscles in and around the painful area, but also in other places like your neck and back. And it also shows up psychologically. If you feel anxious, frustrated, impatient, bitter. Chances are, you're straining, you're over exerting yourself, you're not relaxing. The important point is that we can experience pain without adding anything to it. Without turning up the volume
and the adding to it can happen in the most subtle of ways. As soon as we even label it. As soon as we use the word pain, we're already identifying with it as such. And we're separating ourselves from it. We're removing removing ourselves from the direct experience
and, as was no doubt mentioned in yesterday's workshop, pain can actually aid us in our concentration. It provides energy that we can use. It helps us be more present to what is and we can trust that whatever we're experiencing. Whether it's painful, or joyful. What we're experiencing is being alive, simply being alive. Being a Buddha, through and through. Nothing to reject, nothing to pursue.
Recently, a Sangha member told me about a tragic incident involving her cat. While the family was away from home, the cat somehow managed to break one of its legs. And unfortunately, the break was so bad that the leg had to be amputated. So now this cat gets around on three legs. Just three legs and that's it right there. Just three legs. The cat is too busy being a cat chasing after balls lapping up milk, snuggling on laps to worry or complain about pain or having just three licks.
things as they are now it's like this
I'm going to end with reading an excerpt from the book sword of wisdom by Master Sheng yen Master Sheng yen live from 1930 to 2009. And he was a widely respected Taiwanese Chan, teacher and scholar who taught in the US. And for those who are not familiar with the word Chan, it's the Chinese term for the word Zen. And this is from a chapter titled, no substitute for hard work. It includes a story about the nature of effort in practice. He says, most people pay close attention to the benefits that can be derived from practice. Yet they're unwilling to put in the effort needed to accumulate such benefits. The average person may envy a rich person and wish he had his wealth. But does he consider how that person have obtained his money? If he did, he might discover that earning millions of dollars takes time and requires great effort and determination. And then he tells a story. There was once a poverty stricken woman who was sincere, kind and generous. A deity was touched by her character, and appeared before her. Whatever you desire, I will give it to you. The Deity said. The poor lady answered, I would like gold. The day lady pointed its finger at a rock, and lo and behold, the rock turned into pure gold. The day the asked, Is there anything else that you desire? The woman thought for a while and then said, what I would really like is your finger.
With that, the deity disappeared, and the gold turned back into an ordinary rock. The woman ruined a wonderful opportunity. Worse, she did not realize why the deity did what it did. Even if the deity had given her its finger, it would not have helped her. The Deities ability to turn rock into gold came from the power of its practice, not from its finger.
Just like the power of pain, of working with pain comes from practice. And then skipping ahead, he says, every one of us has a finger that can turn rock into gold. But we must practice to discover and cultivate our power. The problem is, most people don't want to practice that long or that hard. Even if you managed to obtain the finger from a deities hand, all you would have is dead flesh. It would not do you any good.
There's no substitute for practice. No substitute for doing the work of Zen. No amount of reading books and listening to podcasts. Will survice not even a teacher can help. Aside from offering encouragement, and pointing out pitfalls and detours. We need to put in the effort and yes, we all need to work with pain and also with whatever else arises. No one can do it for us.