We don’t need to add pain to our own or another person’s suffering.
Beginning in 1991, I had chronic back pain with periodic disabling acute back spasms.
In January 2003 I decided to practice Tibetan Buddhist tonglen practice (sending-receiving practice and also called the Great Compassion practice) on a regular basis. With tonglen, I began trying a breathing practice that paradoxically was opposed to how I had reacted to pain in the past.
On the in-breath, I would accept whatever specific pain, dissatisfaction, suffering, uncertainty, fear, anger or other negative or afflictive emotions that I was experiencing and beyond that ask to take the same pain into myself from every sentient being who was suffering similarly.
On the out-breath, I would send a conscious wish (prayer) that all sentient beings would be free of the pain that I was feeling. I would silently say “May all beings be free and released from” whatever was afflicting me.
In October 2003, I had an extremely severe and acute episode with back spasms where I could not stand straight, sit, lie, walk, or be in any position without back spasms. At the time we had Apollo, an African grey parrot. Apollo would echo my grunts and groans of pain and on this occasion, it was no different.
I hobbled to a quiet room where I decided to practice tonglen. On each in-breath, I completely surrendered to and simultaneously accepted my pain and I asked to take into myself back pain from all living beings. On each out-breath, I prayed that all beings be relieved of back pain and experience freedom from such pain.
I’m not sure today how long I breathed in and out, not trying in my mind to run away from the pain. I let go of my fear of the pain. My focus was on relief for others. I did this for a few minutes or it could have been longer because I lost track of time.
I heard a giant “pop” and felt a complete release in my back. I felt some mild soreness. I was free of the pain.
This was a complete surprise for me. I was not practicing tonglen to be relieved of pain. I thought that my attitude toward pain might change – not that the pain itself would leave me.
Since then, I’ve had other experiences with “painful” difficulties and conditions and learned that I had always unknowingly added pain to such experiences. It was my rejection of the experience that added pain.
These experiences inform me that much of my experiential pain doesn’t really exist – it’s my reaction to and rejection of pain that create pain.
More recently in 2011, I sat with my father as he was dying and suffering. I learned that when I held his hand and practiced tonglen for him (as well as other meditations), he seemed to become more peaceful and at ease.
The heart, for me, of these kinds of practices has been their power in moving toward a more generous and unconditioned acceptance of life. These practices teach me that life truly matters – not as a concept, philosophy, rule, principle or anything else in words but as a heartfelt experiential knowledge.
Something changes as we learn to breathe in and accept all of life, including pain itself.
(Original version written April 23, 2009; most recently updated 4 November 2011.)
Satiama would like to express our most heartfelt thanks and gratitude to Daniel Woo for his continued flow of amazing articles, for his assistance to and support of Satiama and for his lovely and open heart. We are most grateful for you, Daniel.