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Thread: Pain, Dukkha and Nibbana

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    Forums Member Dee's Avatar
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    Pain, Dukkha and Nibbana

    Hello Everyone,

    Last week, I started to experience sudden increasing pain in one of my teeth. Upon going to the dentist, I was told that the nerve was dying, and a root canal was recommended. The procedure went well, but I spend about 48 hours in intense pain afterward. For the first 24, the pain was severe enough that even the powerful pain medications I was provided did not do much to control it. While in this state, I found the experience a good chance to try to apply and better understand the teachings of Buddhism. Meeting the sensations of pain, I tried to approach them with mindfulness and compassion, noticing the qualities of impermanence and no self within them (in many ways, the quality of dukkha seemed apparent). I did my best to not grasp and cling to the idea of ending the pain. I found doing this helped, but there were times when I could not even maintain a meditative state due to the intensity of the pain.

    All of this leads me to a question: what does it mean to attain nibbana in relation to severe pain?

    Before going on, I think that some clarifications of my views will help in understanding the question. I do not believe that rebirth across lives is certain, nor do I accept the classic understanding of karma. To me, rebirth is understood as the constant birth of new moments arising from the old, and karma reflects the tendency to form habits and patterns (both mental and behavioral) that then generate dukkha in various ways. Based on this, I believe that the goals of Buddhist practice should be things that can be seen in this life. As such, I understand the teachings of Buddhism to help guide a person in how to meet and respond to experiences of such as pain, but does not involve attaining some state where they do not occur.

    I would also add that I am not hoping so much for guidance to any particular teachings (although I will accept any such guidance with appreciation). Rather, I am curious as to what insights others here have found in their own lives by applying the teachings of Buddhism during periods of intense pain (physical or mental). Those could include specific practices that have helped during these times, ways in which those practices have helped, and how others here believe intense pain can be experienced differently from a liberated mindset.

    For myself, I found that noticing the impermanence helped me to experience the pain as something transient, and the letting go of a sense of self helped expand my awareness, which in turn helped diminish the feeling that the pain was all consuming or central. Mindfully staying aware of it with compassion also helped transform the experience of pain. However, there were times when the intensity left me unable to maintain this state, and even when I could, it did not completely mitigate the experience of dukkha. I intend to use the experience, however, to further grow in the Buddhist path.

    I look forward to hearing the thoughts of others here on this subject.

  2. #2
    When I'm in pain, (for example after I'd had an operation in hospital), I note that there is pain and then I gently occupy my mind with something else, or rest.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dee
    what does it mean to attain nibbana in relation to severe pain?
    i don't understand the question, nibbana is said to be the cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion.

    The Buddha still felt pain long after his enlightenment. He mentioned his painful back in sutta MN 53 and his solution was to rest it:

    Then the Blessed One — having spent most of the night instructing, urging, rousing, & encouraging the Kapilavatthu Sakyans with a Dhamma talk — said to Ven. Ananda, "Ananda, speak to the Kapilavatthu Sakyans about the person who follows the practice for one in training. My back aches. I will rest it."

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipit....053.than.html


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    Forums Member Dee's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka View Post
    i don't understand the question, nibbana is said to be the cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion.
    And I agree that this is an important point -- my comment on rebirth was primarily because I have encountered those whose response would be that nibbana ultimately has to do with escaping rebirth where things like toothaches occur. I meant no more that to avoid that particular line of thought.

    I guess to expand on the question, I believe I have been able to cessate the responses of greed, hatred and delusion in many areas of my life to a significant degree. They generally have to do with the relationship with the objects that arise in awareness, rather than the nature of the objects themselves - trying to cling to some and escape others. However, in regards to intense pain, I found that there was an innate quality within the experience that seemed akin to greed for a non-pain state and hatred of being in pain. I don't like those translations in this case, and grasping after non-pain seems more accurate, with the associated experience of dukkha. The experience did not seem to be fully to do just with the relationship with the experience of pain, but something to do with pain itself. Since the ideal is that nibbana ends suffering, but this is not the same as pain, I thought it would be interesting to hear the thoughts of others in their own practical experience. Intellectually, it is easy to grasp that, if I could truly cessate these reactions, it would alter my relationship to the pain, but I am more interested in how others have approached this in practice. Hopefully that helps clarify!

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka
    .......nibbana is said to be the cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion

    Quote Originally Posted by Dee View Post
    I believe I have been able to cessate the responses of greed, hatred and delusion in many areas of my life to a significant degree.
    Does that mean that you believe yourself to be close to enlightenment ?

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    I find when there is severe pain, mindfulness can only do so much to alleviate it (Zen masters no doubt can manage it much better than me). I am always thankful for Ibuprofen or anything than can help and have no shame in using them. Being present, aware and still while accepting that the pain is there will probably at least prevent the pain from pervading the whole mind and adding a layer of negativity which taints everything in your world.

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    Forums Member Dee's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka View Post
    Does that mean that you believe yourself to be close to enlightenment ?
    No. While I have had success in many areas of my life, there are still more than enough areas where I have much room to grow, and moments when my responses are less than enlightened even in areas that I have made significant progress in. However, I also believe that although enlightenment is useful as a reminder to practice, and a guidepost of how to practice, getting caught up in the idea of how close one is to it is an unhelpful distraction. Every moment is a chance to practice and grow, and I do not spend much time wondering how close I am. I just seek to improve my practice over time.

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    Forums Member Dee's Avatar
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    Hello Aloka,

    On a related note, one of the reasons I posted this particular thread is that I wonder if my approach to the pain I experienced is lacking in some way, given the arising of dukkha from it, and that perhaps others here had practical experience that I could draw from to improve my own practice.

    Boots,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I think that is about where I was, seeing no issue with taking pain medications, and able to dissolve any negative attitude towards the pain beyond what it seemed to naturally generate.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Dee View Post
    Hello Aloka,

    On a related note, one of the reasons I posted this particular thread is that I wonder if my approach to the pain I experienced is lacking in some way, given the arising of dukkha from it, and that perhaps others here had practical experience that I could draw from to improve my own practice.
    Okey dokey, I don't have any problem with that.

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    Forums Member daverupa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dee View Post
    I am curious as to what insights others here have found in their own lives by applying the teachings of Buddhism during periods of intense pain (physical or mental).
    With the body, there are some keen tricks:

    1. Tune in to the feeling of the whole body; pains can be more easily localized within the whole phenomenological body, and can be made to shrink down a bit compared to when the pain is being focused on.

    2. 'Within' pain is a change-while-standing effect, an amorphous flux that defines the pain as changing; this, paired with memory of the time before the pain, can indeed help one to rest the mind on the impermanence of this pain flux, knowing it cannot last.

    3. For patience, it can sometimes help to also consider what sorts of pains are still absent. If I have gut pain, I can sense the whole body and note the lack of a headache; I can note the lack of lung pain; so, there are other places to move attention.

    4. Even with emotional pain, that's often got a body component that these things can work on, as well.

    All this can help move the pain a little further away, and this can in turn bring into view the mind's contribution to the pain. This is the primary site of Dhamma practice, and it's here that one can use pain to set up mindfulness at the nasty nature of having a body at all. This isn't meant to be aversion, but instead a foundation for compassion with oneself, empathy with others who also have bodies & pains, and in these ways the mental environment can begin to shift away from indulgence in & focus on pain in isolation.

    This broader contextual view, in turn, can help open the door to an observation of the causes of the current pain(s), possible causes for non-pain, and onward along the Path.

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    Forums Member Dee's Avatar
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    Hello daverupa,

    Thank you for the insight - I had not even considered #3, but I will be sure to include it into my practice for the future.

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