Common Zen wisdom says to observe everything and stay in the present moment. This is where joy is. Observing everything means even the nasty parts, like pain.
Have you ever explored what pain feels like?
For me, I’ll readily admit that I have a superficial sense of it. It hurts. That’s the extent of my familiarity with it. As soon as the pain registers, my instinct is to run away from it because, well, it’s unpleasant. I don’t enjoy it and I don’t want to experience it any longer than necessary.
Lately, though, I’ve been trying not to run away from pain. I’m intrigued by the Zen buddhist guidance to stay with it. Can pain really contain joy within it? Aren’t pain and joy two opposite ends of the spectrum? It sounds paradoxical at best, illogical at worst.
Luckily for me, I have developed a chronic condition that keeps the pain with me, involuntarily. Even if I wanted to run away, I can’t really.
So, I’ve seized the opportunity to study it. In the process, I’ve noticed that pain has a shape to it. It’s a revelation that pain even has a shape, and beyond that, sounds and taste to it as well.
My pain right now feels like rounded hills across a vast landscape with gophers pushing hard from within against some parts of the hills, as if to burst out from the underground. They dart here and there. A dull thud resounds and fades. Another one erupts in another part of me. From time to time, a little rivulet of heat drizzles across, spreading its ooze. Air whizzes past. A sharp, metallic taste sends sparks periodically.
As I observe the contours of my pain, the sharpness melts away. There is no suffering and it feels like a misnomer to call the sensation “pain”. It is, quite simply, one type of sensation, neither good nor bad. In the act of becoming acquainted with it, I discover new things about myself, like layers of dimensions that have the covers thrown off them. I am more open than I understood about myself. I have a greater patience, a higher threshold for staying put. I have a generosity of spirit hitherto unknown, as reflected in my ability to hold this pain even when my instincts tell me to scoot. I have a curiosity that allows for unexpected angles to reveal themselves and be accepted.
Inevitably, however, the mind plays mischief and is ever eager to add on a layer of judgment. “This is not fun!” it declares. “We’re not enjoying this, make it stop!” It’s these thoughts that make experiences unpleasant, not the experience per se.
Realizing this, I try to stay focused on understanding the experience, watching it for the way it throbs here, dissolves there, reappears. When I’m using my attention for this, I am fine. When the thoughts push their way to the forefront, that’s when I feel miserable. It reaffirms that we are solely responsible for our suffering. The moment we allow judgment to add its hue to something that is happening, unhappiness is born.
Therefore, the trick is to stop judging. Feel, they say. Occupy the entire space to experience a sensation fully. This is where joy resides. Stay put here and embrace the limitless bounty of joy.