Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Bad Back

I have been given the opportunity, alas, to observe pain in the most personal of ways: I'm suffering it. The lower back spasm that started a couple of days ago has developed into the worst episode of this kind I have experienced in quite a long time.

It is, to say the least, a distraction. I was a first-hand witness to the way in which the mind grabs hold of pain during my meditation this morning. I chose to lie prone, rather than to sit, with the intention of starting out with my usual practice of metta, wishing goodwill to myself, my family, my friends, the world at large... Easier, this morning, said than done. The mind had its wonderful new distraction to keep it busy whilst I tried to quiet it down. In the end, I let it have its way, and allowed it to settle on the area of the pain itself and the way in which it radiated out from its center in my lower back. I found--not for the first time--that becoming the observer of the pain allows me to dissociate from it: I find myself watching it, like a sympathetic third party, rather than suffering from it in the first person, as its victim.

This, it seems to me, is one of the great teachings of Buddhism--and not an easy one to put into practice: "This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am." If I'm able to break the attachment to my pain for even a few moments at a time during meditation and experience release, surely the recognition of the efficacy of this strategy will serve as a model, in the regular course of my life, for situations in which I stubbornly prolong pain by clinging to it.

The theory makes it look simple; it's the translation of theory into practice that's hard. I don't know about you, but I too often succumb to those old mental patterns that scream: I hurt. What is it that attaches me to something that I so heartily dislike? It has to be precisely that that need to be "me," to be that person who happens to be suffering, to allow the suffering--however short-lived--to define me for the course of its duration. So I try breathing, watching, dissociating: This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am.


  1. Peter, I agree, it is incredibly difficult to detach from physical pain as it is so present and many times unrelenting. I've tried to see the pain's effect on my mental formations...I don't like this, I need to move, Ouuuccchh!!!

    I feel your pain and hope you find some relief soon.


  2. I routinely deal with massive amounts of pain. While I by no means have a handle on it I've had a number of transient wonderful experiences while meditating in which I feel the pain, but it ceases to cause suffering ... in fact there is a sort of sensation of pulsating massage almost rather than discomfort where the pain is...

    Shinzen Young has written about and works with issues around pain a lot. I have found some of his work instructive at times.

    Hope your back feels better soon. While it can serve as teacher I'd rather have a different one! But certainly as long as I have it I do try to keep that perspective.

  3. A very good example of Buddhism practice. I hope your back pain relieved soon.