Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Deal With Resistance First, Pain Later

U Tejaniya's Approach to Dealing With Strong Physical Pain.

Ask a different teacher, about best way to deal with pain, and you will get a new answer each time . . .  I like U Tejaniya's approach - from his book, 'Don't Look Down on the Defilements. They Will Laugh at You':
When you experience pains, aches and other bodily discomforts, it means you have a mental resistance to them and therefore you are not ready yet to observe these unpleasant physical sensations directly. Nobody likes pain and if you observe it while still feeling any resistance towards it, it will become worse. It is like when you are angry with someone; if you look at that person again and again you will become even angrier. So never force yourself to observe pain; this is not a fight, this is a learning opportunity. You are not observing pain to lessen it or to make it go away. You are observing it – especially your mental reactions to it – in order to understand the connection between your mental reactions and your perception of the physical sensations.
Check your attitude first. Wishing for the pain to decrease or go away is the wrong attitude. It does not matter whether the pain goes away or not. Pain is not the problem; your negative mental reaction to it is the problem. If the pain is caused by some kind of injury you should of course be careful not to make things worse, but if you are well and healthy, pain is simply an important opportunity to practice watching the mind at work. When there is pain, the mental feelings and reactions are strong and therefore easy to observe. Learn to watch anger or resistance, tension or discomfort in your mind. If necessary, alternate between checking your feelings and the attitude behind your resistance. Keep reminding yourself to relax the mind and the body, and observe how it affects your mental resistance. There is a direct link between your state of mind and pain. The more relaxed and calm the observing mind, the less intense you will perceive the pain to be. Of course, if your mind reacts strongly to the pain (i.e. if you experience pain as unbearable) you should change your posture and make yourself comfortable.
So if you want to learn how to deal with pain skilfully, try this: From the moment you start feeling pain, no matter how weak it is, check your mind and body for tension, and relax. Part of your mind will remain aware of the pain. So check for tension again and again, and relax. Also check your attitude and keep reminding yourself that you have the choice to change your posture if you experience too much pain, as this will make the mind more willing to work with it. Keep repeating this until you no longer feel you want to watch the tension, the fear, the desire to get up, or the unwillingness to stay with the pain. Now you should change your posture.
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It is best to look at pain directly only if you cannot feel a resistance to it. Keep in mind that there may be a reaction at a subtle level. As soon as you recognize mental discomfort, turn your attention to that feeling. If you can see subtle mental discomfort, watch it change; does it increase or decrease? As the mind becomes more equanimous and sensitive it will recognize subtle reactions more easily. When you look at mental discomfort at a more subtle level you may get to the point when your mind feels completely equanimous. If you look at pain directly and if there is true equanimity, mental discomfort will not arise anymore. Remember that you are not looking at the reactions of the mind to make them go away. Always take reactions as an opportunity to investigate their nature. Ask yourself questions! How do they make you feel? What thoughts are in your mind? How does what you think affect the way you feel? How does what you feel affect the way you think? What is the attitude behind the thoughts? How does any of this change the way you perceive pain?
From my work with people suffering from severe chronic pain, and also my experience as a chronic pain sufferer, I very much resonate with U Tejaniya's point about not rushing to observe the pain, whenever strong mental resistance is present. U Tejaniya's teaching goes counter to Jon Kabat-Zinn's body scan approach used during MBSR training, where the pain gets confronted head on, and attitude gets addressed at the same time as the pain itself. 

Definitely a direction I am going to experiment with!

Related posts, with different teachers' perspectives:

Bob Stahl & Elisha Goldstein (MBSR): 3 Mindful Steps to Working with Chronic Pain


  1. "Remember that you are not looking at the reactions of the mind to make them go away."

    A very key reminder for me right now, in my practice, thanks Marguerite.

  2. Thank you Ian. Just left a comment on your blog, as well.