Someone recently told me that a central part of their meditation practice involves “not putting attachment on pain, but rather observing it.”
Pain is of course a common object of meditation for many modern people, both in the West and in Asia. Many meditation books and teachers will explain to students how to use pain, especially physical but also emotional, as an object of meditation, allowing it to happen without pushing or pulling on it, experiencing it fully, intimately, and deeply. Having a full and total experience of pain can blow us open into bliss states – this is a central aspect of BDSM play. Intense pain is something that grabs our attention in an unmistakable way, and it gives us instant feedback if we are having an “impure” relationship with it, trying to push it away or manage it, in that we immediately start to suffer.
When I lived in Buddhist monasteries, I’d often be hungry (we didn’t eat that much), sleepy-exhausted (we got up each morning at 3:45 am), and in physical pain (we’d often sit and meditate cross legged and with straight upright spines for twelve hours a day). But, as I just sat there and fully felt all of the pain and discomfort, with no resistance, I often got to the point where the intensity became transparent, and even, yeah, blissful.
My main meditation/Dharma teacher Shinzen Young often explains however that we can can have the same rich, intimate, full, total and liberating experience with any sensation, however; pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, subtle or strong, dynamic or static, mental, physical, or of the external senses. It can even be something as simple as the feeling of the breath in our belly, the clothes on our body, the air of the room on our face, or of our hearts beating. We of course spend much of our time lost in plans, memories, emotions, worries, contingencies, desires, thoughts, preferences, and reactivity. Again, pain, by its nature, pierces through that fog, and demands our attention. But we can have a feeling of transcendence by getting in contact with any sort of human experience, internal or external, allowing it fully without pushing or pulling on how we experience of it, having rich and high-definition perception of it, and giving it spacious loving concentrated attention. Divinity and eternity can shine through any door, as long as we know how to open it. The point is how we relate to the sensation.
[Artist: Virginia Peck]
Shinzen points out that if you read the ancient Buddhist and Vedic texts, it looks like what the old time monks and yogis would do is meditate fifteen hours a day in a single pointed way, to the point that their mind got so settled and deeply concentrated that they would go into flying-high bliss states. In those traditions, bliss states like that are not “enlightenment”, they are not the final goal; the final goal is a full-hearted freedom in any and all states of mind. But, the ancient folks would have a rich, intimate, full, total and liberating awareness experience of the bliss states, and that’s how they would get develop a mind that would be develop the ability to be free in all circumstances, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Most of us modern people don’t have the time or skill to do deep concentration meditation for fifteen hours a day and get into deep bliss states, but, again, working with bliss instead of pain is one possible way to take the path.
For many modern Buddhist people, part of their meditation is to do things like sit cross legged all night without moving much, and to open themselves to fully allowing and feeling all the agitation, exhaustion, and pain of the muscles and joints that comes from that. And some people I know say things like “pleasure is my meditation”, and that they like to get present and deep by having tantric sex on MDMA at a hot springs resort after a delicious filet mignon dinner. My teacher likes to say, both can be legit spiritual practices, and both can be a crock of shit – just being attached to puritanical suffering, or to rutting indulgent pleasure. The sign that a person is really actually meditating on pain or pleasure successfully is that they can do the opposite one also: that the tantric sex epicure can feel the pain of a stubbed toe, a broken leg, or a broken heart with noticeably more equanimity and openness than they would have otherwise, and the serious grim meditator can enjoy a hot tub, great food, and hot sex several times as deeply, expansively, and richly as they would have before they learned to meditate.