Pain and suffering as practice & how our thoughts can increase the suffering of pain

A student writes:

I experience a great deal of physical pain and struggle to understand why. I can only come up with the fact that everyone suffers. Some people talk as if I could be rid of my pain if I could get my mind set right, which doesn’t help me. I try to stay in the moment and enjoy each moment but would be grateful for some advice.

Lama Shenpen responds:

As far as making sense of the pain is concerned I think the only thing to think is that pain is the nature of samsara*. It is the first Noble Truth** the Buddha taught because he was not out to deceive us. He elevated it to a Noble Truth because until we truly understand the depth and true nature of suffering there is no final Liberation from it. It is going to be with us for the whole of the path whether we want it or not.

We all have to suffer and none of us know when we will have to bear what and for how long. Our situation can change so drastically and so suddenly, and some forms of suffering go on and on. When we contemplate how this is true for every being everywhere, we start to yearn for what goes beyond samsara – a state of mind in which we can face any situation however intense, with equanimity.

This is the highest spiritual accomplishment, it’s called Enlightenment. We can keep aspiring for it and for the conditions that will bring it about for ourselves and all beings. Such an aspiration is not just wishful thinking. Such aspiration is the path itself. The constant aspiration is the path.

Enlightenment itself is not conditioned but we are. We are so easily distracted and discouraged from even aspiring to realise what lies beyond all suffering. But the pain doesn’t go away. Even if it goes temporarily there is no guarantee that it won’t come back until we are Enlightened. That’s when we realise the True Nature of Reality, which is our own being. It is a long path and we have to suffer a lot on the way.

If you can relate to your present suffering with some kind of sense of it being your path, then the suffering itself becomes your practice. Just being able to let go of negative thinking and struggling with the pain and being more simple about it, that already means you are making the suffering into the path.

Gradually as you learn to not add to your suffering by negative thinking, you will find the pain itself has a kind of quality of awareness to it that can sometimes feel strangely okay and you might begin to notice that it is the thinking of ‘I can’t stand this’ that is the real suffering – the struggle – the remembering how long it has gone on and dreading how long it might last.

This is thinking and adding something heavy and stressful to the original sensation of pain. This can be reduced by noticing it is not the pain itself but an added suffering. It is possible to notice it is thinking and has no more status than any other thought. Such thinking can be reduced tremendously by simply not feeding it with the belief that it’s necessary. Such thinking is not necessary, it is just like any other thought that you let go of all the time. It is possible to let it go.

That is a huge thing to learn. It’s massive. But even to learn it a tiny bit brings relief. So that is all I can suggest really. Pain such as yours is a harsh teacher but in the end maybe kind. The rest of us are relatively heedless because we are not suffering that much right now. You have a goad forcing you to search deeply and to long for Enlightenment with a fierce intensity – if you can extend this to all other beings who are suffering with you – and we all will be sooner or later – then you are turning your suffering into your spiritual path. It is not meaningless. I hope this helps.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

*Samsara: The endless wandering round in an endless succession of lives each characterised by suffering. It is existence as experienced by unenlightened beings, whether it’s the tread-mill of living from day to day, going nowhere except into old age and death, or the suffering of being trapped in delusion from one life to the next.

**The Four Noble Truths: The basic teaching of the Buddha as 1. suffering, 2. the causes of suffering, 3. the cessation of suffering, 4. the path out of suffering.

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