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Doctor, It Hurts When I Do This

September 15, 2014


Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I do this. 

Doctor: Well, don’t do that.

 

In our lives, we will experience many different kinds of physical pain. We will experience the pain of injury when we cut ourselves or bruise ourselves or break a bone; we will experience the discomfort of heat and cold; we will feel the pangs of hunger and thirst. There’s no way to get through life without experiencing some physical discomfort.

These pains will disappear when their causes disappear: if we injure ourselves, the pain will disappear when our body heals itself; our hunger will fade away after we eat.

Teacup and spoonPatient: Doctor, Whenever I drink tea, I get a stabbing pain in my eye. 

Doctor: Remove the spoon before drinking.

We will also experience mental pains. We will have painful thoughts that cause us to feel fear and anxiety. We may worry about what will happen to ourselves or to those we love. Even if there’s nothing wrong right now, we may suffer greatly worrying about what might happen in the future. We might relive the past and feel painful regret or burning anger.

We might feel as if our painful thoughts are attacking us. They may wake us up at night. They may prevent us from enjoying our food. Our painful thoughts may cause our body stress, and over time may cause a physical illness. If we examine our experience, we may notice that the majority of the pain we feel is actually mental pain, not physical pain.

Just as physical pains will fade away when their causes cease, so mental pains will fade away when the thoughts that cause them cease. Sometimes this is a surprise to us. Perhaps you can remember a time when you were caught up in painful thoughts, worrying about something. You’re all wrapped up in these thoughts, feeling the mental pain of them, and then you turn a corner and suddenly – WOW – you see the most beautiful sunset. The colors are so intense that they stop you right in your tracks. All the thoughts fly out of your head. While you stare at the beauty of the sunset, your worrying stops and you don’t feel any of the mental pain that the worrying thoughts caused you.

It’s good to notice moments like this. Notice how quickly the mental pain vanishes when the thoughts that cause that pain are interrupted. And notice how quickly the mental pain starts when the thoughts reappear.

Stop hitting yourself!

Stop hitting yourself!

Someone hits you once, and then you hit yourself over and over again in your mind. – The Bad Lama

Imagine this: you’re rushing out of your room, and you bang your elbow into the doorframe. OUCH! And you say to yourself “Wow, it really hurt when I do THIS!” And bang your elbow into the doorframe again. And you say to yourself “Wow, it really hurt when I do THIS!” And bang your elbow into the doorframe again. And you say to yourself “Wow, it really hurt when I do THIS!” And bang your elbow into the doorframe again.

It’s hard to imagine doing this to yourself, isn’t it? And yet, that’s exactly what we do with our thoughts.

Imagine this: Someone says something unkind to you. And later on you think to yourself, “Wow, it really hurt when they said THIS!” And bang the words into your memory again. And you think to yourself, “Wow, it really hurt when they said THIS!” And bang the words into your memory again. You keep thinking about how mean and unfair those words were, and you keep banging them into your memory again and again. You feel more and more mental pain as you bring the thought up again and again, just like banging your elbow into the doorframe again and again.

When we experience this kind of painful recurring thought, we may think that it was what the other person said that is hurting us. But that person stopped speaking a long time ago. What is hurting us is our own continual resurrection of the painful memory. We are choosing to hurt ourselves. The majority of the pain we feel is mental pain, and the majority of the mental pain that we feel is of our own making.

The good news is that we can learn to stop hurting ourselves in this way. The path of shamatha-vipashyana meditation teaches us how to stop hurting ourselves with painful thoughts. For this reason, the primary target of shamatha-vipashyana meditation is the thinking mind, also called the conceptual mind. The primary goal of meditation is to learn to work well with our conceptual mind, to use it to increase our happiness, not increase our pain. We do this by first taming it, and allowing it to calm down, and then by training it, so that it develops deep wisdom.

We should be clear about this:

It is not the goal of shamatha-vipashyana meditation to reach a state that is physically blissful.

It is not the goal of shamatha-vipashyana meditation to achieve extraordinary mental states or powers.

It is not the goal of shamatha-vipashyana meditation to destroy the conceptual mind.

The goal of shamatha-vipashyana meditation is very simple: to learn to work well with our conceptual mind so that we use it to increase our happiness and the happiness of those around us, and to decrease our pain and the pain of those around us.

 

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