This article has been excerpted from a course Joseph taught at the study center on September 6, 2003.
Meditation practice is a path of opening. To begin with, it opens us to a deeper awareness of our bodies. Usually, we have a sense of our bodies being something quite solid and fixed. But as we develop stronger mindfulness, we experience the sensations in the body as a fluid energy field. The solidity begins to dissolve, which itself becomes a healing process. We also open our sense doors. As the mind gets quieter and we are less distracted, we see and hear and smell and taste with much greater clarity. The senses become more alive because we are present. It’s not some magical process; it’s just a matter of actually living in the body and paying attention.
Meditation is also a way of opening to the depth and range of our emotions. We feel with greater subtlety, accuracy, and depth the entire range of emotions that come in the course of our relationships and interactions. Often there is a release of old memories during practice. Sometimes this clearing out process arrives as a flood of thought or images, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant.
There is also the opening to deepening experiences of silence. Just as the Eskimo have, so I’m told, many different words for snow, in the Buddhist meditative tradition there are twenty-one kinds of silence. As we quiet our minds, we begin to experience the beauty, the clarity, and the stillness of those kinds of silence. Our Dharma practice—Dharma means truth, the law, the teachings of the Buddha, the way things are—is not a reaching out or looking for a different experience; it’s a settling back into the moment, settling back into this naturally unfolding process.
But there is one strongly conditioned tendency of mind that freezes this flow of experience, like a deer frozen in the headlights of a car. It is the deep pattern, the deep conditioning, of fear.
When we look carefully at fear, we see that it is one aspect of aversion. As you know, in Buddhism there are three unwholesome roots in the mind that cause suffering: greed, aversion, and delusion. Aversion can take many forms, such as anger, impatience, or frustration, when something unpleasant is arising in our experience and we strike out against it. It can take the form of grief, over the loss of someone or something very dear to us. And it can also take the form of fear. While anger is aversion striking out, fear is aversion pulling back or contracting within.
I would like to discuss today how fear is conditioned in our minds, and how we can practice going beyond this limitation in our lives. One of the things you have probably noticed, both in life generally and in meditation practice, is that we often encounter a boundary or an edge of what I call our comfort zone. It might be a physical, a psychological, or an emotional comfort zone. We’re going along and everything is fine, but then we reach an edge of what we feel at ease with. It is right at that edge that fears start to arise. It might be a fear of physical pain or really unpleasant emotions. It can be fear of change and insecurity; or it may be fear of the unknown, fear of death.
The problem—and the challenge—when these fears emerge is that they are all fears of things that are true in our experience. There is pain; there is change; there are difficult emotions; there is insecurity. We all will die. So working with these fears is an essential part of our path. It’s not that we can just ignore them, or pretend that they are not important, because then we are closing ourselves off from what is true in our lives.
In order to understand the nature of fear as a mind state, as a feeling, it is helpful to first look at what it is we are afraid of. We each have different fears and limitations, and the path of meditation involves playing at those edges. We explore what these boundaries are like for us and the possibilities of going beyond them. Sometimes when I imagine the Buddha’s mind, I think of a mind with no edges anyplace, a mind completely open. This would also be a mind without fear.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, edge in our experience happens with physical pain. Pain is unpleasant. We don’t like it. We become impatient with discomfort. If there is strong pain due to an accident or disease, both the sensations and our reactions to them are usually quite clear. At these times, we can notice how our minds are relating to the pain. Does it pull back? Does it contract? Does it tense? And even when we are trying to be aware, is it the awareness of endurance or bargaining—“Ok, I’ll be with it…. if it goes away”—or is it an awareness that is really open? These are two very different qualities of mind.
If we are mindful enough, it is possible to say “Okay, let me relax, let me open, let me feel the sensations of the pain.” It can become a very good object of meditation, because concentration can get very strong with a painful sensation. The mind is not wandering much, it is right there.
Many years ago, someone accidentally slammed a car door on my finger. It really hurt. That night I couldn’t sleep at all, so I was just there with that painful throbbing sensation. At first, my mind had all kinds of thoughts and feelings, starting with “How stupid could I be, how could I put my hand there?” and then leading up to fear of what it was going to be like through the whole night. At some point, however, my mind settled down and I was just with the sensation. So I was just watching—throbbing, throbbing—and it was amazing: my mind got very concentrated, clear, and light. It was not a problem at all.
The experience was a good example (though not one I would go looking for) of the times in our lives when pain, from one circumstance or another, just arises. Then the issue is: How do we relate to it? Do we get lost in the fear, both of the pain in the moment and of the anticipated pain, or can we make it part of our practice? It’s not that we will be able to do this perfectly. It takes practice to open to intense sensations and simply feel them. But it is an important way of bringing the practice into our lives.
Learning to open to painful sensations that commonly come in our meditation practice, the discomfort of the knees or the back or whatever, is also good training for illness or dying. In meditation we may have some discomfort, but when we shift position the discomfort goes away. There are many times, though, when pain in our lives will be there and will not go away by a shift in position. It is just what is happening. When we have trained our mind in somewhat easier circumstances to relax into pain, to feel it without fear, then in those more extreme times the mind is better able to relate to it in an open and wise way.
Often in the texts, the Buddha addresses people who are suffering from a grave illness. The descriptions they use for their symptoms are sometimes very graphic. The Buddha then asks of the person: “Even though your body is experiencing all these painful feelings, can your mind be at peace?” This is a possibility for us, but it takes training and practice.
Different Kinds of Pain
So how can we move in this direction? What are some of the ways to open ourselves to the experience of physical pain with less fear? It’s helpful to first understand that there are different kinds of pain so our responses need to be appropriate to what is happening. There is the pain of a danger signal. If you put your hand in fire and it starts to burn and it hurts, the pain encourages you to pull it out. I had one friend who was doing a retreat in a hut in western Massachusetts. He was sitting with his eyes closed when he started to smell something. As a good yogi, he simply noted, “Smelling, smelling, burning, burning, burning…” Fortunately, he eventually opened his eyes and saw that something had caught fire. So it’s not that we want to ignore what our senses are telling us, because some of the uncomfortable or painful feelings will actually be saying, “Is there something to do here?” And if there is, then we should do it.
Another kind of pain, common in meditation practice, is when we begin to feel the pain or discomfort of the accumulated tensions in our bodies. If we can feel these sensations without fear, without contraction, without a further tightening against them—then an amazing opening process unfolds. We are allowing for an unwinding of the many energy knots that we often carry unknowingly in our daily activities.
Sometimes when we feel pain in the body it is the pain of a healing crisis—we become aware of some unhealthy condition of the body. And sometimes, the awareness itself facilitates the healing of the ailment. Sayadaw U Pandita, my teacher from Burma who has been teaching now for fifty years, tells many stories of people coming to the monasteries with serious diseases and being healed by mindfulness practice. I don’t want to suggest that meditation will necessarily cure every disease that we have, but it is helpful to know, and experience, the healing power of meditation when we can open to what’s there without fear.
Sometimes when we feel pain in the body it is the re-living of old trauma, something that happened to the body in the past and has been stored in the body in some way. Once I was on retreat, doing walking meditation, when all of a sudden there was this intense pain in my shinbone. It was so sharp it felt like the bone was sticking out of my leg.
I looked down to see what had happened, and right in that moment I had a memory of myself as a young boy running across a field flying a kite and running right into a cement bench. It was amazing to me that even though the physical pain had ceased forty years before, something was stored in the body all that time. In the process of meditation there can be this purifying of things that have been long held.
How we relate to physical pain can show us a lot about how we habitually relate to in our lives. Do we have an ability to be with unpleasantness, or does the mind just respond, either with anger or with fear?
Often there is a fear of anticipated pain, pain not even actually present. We might be feeling some unpleasant sensation that is quite okay. We are with it, and it’s not really an edge or a boundary. But then the mind starts imagining what that pain will be like in half an hour, or an hour, or by the time the bell is rung at the end of the sitting. We create this whole scenario in our minds—and then get afraid. There is a Zen story of an artist in a cave who paints a tiger on the wall so realistically that when he is done he looks at it and gets frightened. We paint all kinds of pictures in our minds of what will be, and then become frightened of our own imaginings. But it is not how things are now; it is just a product of our imagination.
I find it interesting to see how fear of anticipated discomfort often feeds into desire. One example of this stands out in my mind, though it happened many years ago. I was doing a retreat in England with Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw. He was one of the great monks of Burma, the grandfather of this whole tradition. He died quite a few years ago now. On this retreat we all took eight precepts, which means one doesn’t eat after the noon meal. So every morning we would come down for breakfast, and I would go through the line, taking some cereal, two pieces of toast, a piece of fruit, and tea. But as I was eating, I realized that one piece of toast was enough. Then the second morning I took the same breakfast, including two pieces of toast, and the same thing happened—one piece was enough.
We paint pictures in our minds of what will be, and then become frightened of our own imaginings
By the third day I was starting to actually look at my mind, wondering, “What’s going on here?” I saw that in the moment of going through the line I was worried: “What if I’m hungry later in the day? What if I don’t have enough?” It actually took me about six days of watching this process until I worked up the great courage to leave the second piece of toast. Although it was a rather trivial circumstance, it was revealing of how fear and desire play out in our lives. It was all a fear of something imagined, not of something actually present.
Gateway to the Dharma
If we can open to unpleasant painful sensations, without fear, even for some moments at a time, much of the Buddha’s teaching is illuminated. We gain insight into the impermanent, selfless nature of experience. When we look carefully, we see that what we call pain is a constellation of physical sensations changing moment after moment. They may all be unpleasant, but it’s not a solid, unchanging thing. There’s throbbing, pressure, burning, stabbing, all with varying intensities. When we feel them closely, the impression of solidity begins to break up and we see them as part of a changing flow. We also see these sensations as selfless, meaning they are outside our control. On the night of my throbbing finger, I could not simply wish the pain away. The conditions and causes were there for it to arise. That’s what selflessness means. Things are not subject to our will or our command. They are following their own laws.
Goldstein’s law of practice: If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
This leads to a realization that can begin to defuse or decondition the habit of fear, namely, the growing understanding that painful sensations arising in the body are not some mistake. It is not that we’ve done something wrong. It is the nature of the body that at different times pain is going to arise. So often something happens and we think, “Oh, if I’d only done something differently, then this wouldn’t be happening.” Well, possibly, but given the nature of the body, at some point or other, painful feelings will arise.
In this regard. I’d like to share with you two of my favorite insight mantras, the first being ‘Goldstein’s law of practice’: If it’s not one thing, it’s another. If it were not the finger in the door, it would have been falling off my bike, or something else. Things happen.
The second law, which has also been a profound reflection for me, is: Anything can happen any time. We can be going along just fine in our lives, and suddenly there is an accident or an illness, or some dramatic change in the conditions of the world. Some people may hear “anything can happen any time” and think, “Oh, that’s depressing.”
But rightly understood, it’s not depressing at all. It’s really freeing, because in understanding this, we are not living in delusion. The mind actually relaxes, lets go of fear, and is much more open because we acknowledge the truth of change rather than deny it.
On a more subtle level, as we refine the quality of our mindfulness, we begin to recognize that which knows the pain; we explore the nature of consciousness itself. One of the most startling aspects of meditation practice is that whatever the object of our attention might be, the nature of knowing—that open, empty, aware nature of the mind—remains the same. It is completely unaffected by what is known. It simply knows, whether it is pleasure or pain.
A couple of images might help illustrate this. The first is considering the mirror-like nature of the mind. A mirror just reflects what comes in front of it. Beautiful, ugly, the mirror doesn’t care; its nature is simply to reflect. Likewise, the nature of the mind is simply to know. Another image pointing to the nature of awareness is the openness of an open window. Everything is perceived through the openness of the window, whether it’s sounds or sights, or whatever. The openness itself is unaffected. The openness doesn’t care whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. This is the nature of awareness. Beginning to recognize and understand this helps us develop a certain quality of fearlessness with respect to what’s arising, because we see that the knowing is unaffected.
Henry David Thoreau offers an inspiring example of this possibility. He died in his forties from TB, but even as he lay sick and dying, he had an amazing understanding of the body and the mind, seeing both as part of the great natural world. As people were consoling him in his last days, he replied, There is as much comfort in perfect disease as in perfect health, as the mind always conforms to the condition of the body. That’s a remarkable statement. Our awareness just knows whatever the condition of the body is and the knowing itself is unaffected by it.
As we explore the edge of physical pain and discomfort in our meditation, we bring this understanding to other life situations. We begin to apply the same principles of open mindfulness to difficult emotions and mind states and we learn to find in ourselves the same place of freedom.