Table of Contents
Ven. Sumedha, whose lay name was Aja Iskander Schmidlin, was born in Switzerland in 1932. Being an artist of repute, he was inspired by the natural beauty, the unique culture, and the multi-religious background of Sri Lanka on his first visit to the island in 1970.
In 1981, in the historical Buddhist city of Anuradhapura, he received full ordination as a bhikkhu or Buddhist monk. From that time on, he devoted himself to Buddhism and extended his services to the local community of Sri Lanka. His social services were not confined to religious activities. He set up a first-aid clinic with himself as a barefoot doctor. He trained several locals in first-aid and, in 1987, organized a free first-aid clinic at Dulwala which is still in operation.
Ven. Sumedha was neither a writer nor a scholar, and he understood and explained the Dhamma in a unique way. He often used visual imagery to explain Buddhist concepts. His paintings, some of which were displayed in his cave-hermitage at Dulwala, attest to his artistic ability.
During the latter part of his life, Ven. Sumedha became closely acquainted with the staff at the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital where he himself was repeatedly admitted for various chronic ailments. During his stay in the ICU, he developed a warm friendship with me, which led to his beginning to offer the Dhamma for the mental well-being of the critically ill. He became a regular visitor at the hospital, conducting paritta or protection chanting, offering advice on meditation, and even assisting patients financially to buy expensive drugs. Despite his own chronic illnesses, he was devoted to the needs of others.
On 21 December 2006, at approximately 10:30pm Ven. Sumedha passed away at Peradeniya Teaching Hospital. According to his request, made long before his death, his eyes were donated to the eye bank, and his body was donated to the Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya.
This work, which deals with the inherent nature of mind during pain and chronic illnesses and the Buddhist method of managing it, is based on my personal experiences with Ven. Sumedha. It is dedicated to his memory, as the spiritual patron of Peradeniya Teaching Hospital, and for his invaluable services for over 30 years in Sri Lanka as a Buddhist monk.
Prof. C.D.A Goonasekera
Head, Dept. of Anaesthesiology
Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya
Prof. C.D.A Goonasekera,
Head, Dept. of Anaesthesiology
Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya
Dr. P.N Rajakrishna,
Temporary Lecturer, Dept. of Anaesthesiology
Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya
Dr. A.N.W. Karunarathna,
Temporary Lecturer, Dept. of Anaesthesiology
Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya
Dr. S. U. Ekanayake,
Temporary Lecturer, Dept. of Anaesthesiology
Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya
1. Body and Mind
The human body differs from the human mind at a superficial level. But the fundamental nature of the body and mind share similar characteristics. A description of those fundamentals should encompass the universal nature of mind and matter. An attempt is made here to describe some aspects of the nature of mind and compare it with the human body.
The physical body requires a continuous supply of oxygen and nutrients for its maintenance. Oxygen and nutrients are continually consumed for the synthesis of bodily matter. Whatever matter is formed is unstable and, therefore disintegrates. But sooner or later, completely new matter is synthesized, replacing what is lost, thus the continuity is maintained. It is the continuity of a bundle of unstable matter that appears as a solid body. But in reality, it is nothing but a sequence of changes: synthesis and disintegration. This is the nature of impermanence, the inherent nature of the universe.
The same law of nature governs the mind. Our mind needs a continuous supply of ‘nutrients’ in the form of what we see, hear, taste, feel, smell and think, for its survival. The manifestation of the mind during a particular time period is determined partly by the nature of the ‘nutrients’ supplied during that particular time period. In other words, a change in the surrounding environment can bring about a change in mentality. Just as doctors find the reason for the drop in oxygen saturation of a patient as some fault in the oxygen delivery mechanism, a drop in the mental status of the patient can be due to a change in the patient’s ‘outside’ environment. When the nutrients of the mind are well understood, one knows how to correct them when in abnormal states of mind and restore normal mental health. For example, a tight oxygen mask irritating the skin may be a major reason for a patient’s agitation. The simple loosening of the mask might solve the problem.
Cause and Effect
Any bodily phenomenon is a result of more than one cause. What is important here is that nothing in this body prevails alone, without being a result of causes. The reader may not agree at once that every element of our mind (consciousness) is a result of nothing but a combination of causes, but the important point is that no element of the mind stands alone without a cause. If we accept this then we see that humans are simply bundles of psychosomatic conditions. When this bundle of unstable psychosomatic conditions recognizes itself with ignorance, the notion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ arises.
This ‘I’ has craving and aversion. When the cravings are satisfied, happiness results. When cravings are not satisfied, misery results. But when one realizes that this ‘I’ is nothing but a bundle of unstable psychosomatic conditions, the ignorance of ‘I’ passes away. Such a mind doesn’t see things as to be wanted or rejected. Instead it accepts whatever happens as it is and acts appropriately without any inner struggle. Then craving or aversion can no longer conquer the mind. As the mind is devoid of any impurities, it remains stable in its basic nature — calm and peaceful all the time.
For example: One whose idea of ‘I’ persists says, ‘I am seeing a picture’. But one who sees cause and effect of mental elements perceives that ‘an act of seeing a picture’ has arisen at this moment, and it will also pass away as a result of certain conditions. No notion of ‘I’ is involved. Then the mental impurities attached to ‘I’, such as craving and aversion, will not arise.
This may be an absolute example. However, the less the notion of ‘I’ is, that much less the suffering is bound to be. A patient with corrected vision doesn’t wish, ‘I don’t want pain’ or ‘I want pleasant feelings’, but accepts that whatever happens is as it is, seeing the causes and effects, beyond the notion of ‘I’. Then he is living in line with the true nature of mind and matter. The result is the passing away of stress and the establishment of peacefulness.
Actions have an Effect
When the body encounters an injurious agent like a virus, it develops a defense mechanism for its own protection, e.g. an inflammation. But at times such bodily responses do more harm than the injurious agents themselves. Then doctors may medicate to reduce the bodily response by giving immuno-suppressive or anti-inflammatory drugs.
But for the mind this ‘medication’ is the truth. When an unpleasant sensation (= injurious agent) is encountered, out of ignorance one reacts with disliking, aversion or hating. The mental reaction (= inflammation) does more harm than the unpleasant sensation itself possibly could.
Just as the body switches on a vicious cycle of cytokine production in the presence of dengue fever which brings on a state of shock, this mental impurity, anger, proliferates, leading to confusion and agitation. Initially this aversion is only towards the unpleasant sensation. Soon it can spread to the thing or person held responsible for giving the pain. The angry person may start hating anything and everything associated with the suspected cause of his pain. Like a fire catching and destroying any inflammable material, this aversion burns anything that comes to the mind. Therefore it is necessary to give an ‘immuno-suppressor’ to the mind to stop this negative thought proliferation. It is nothing but the correct understanding of the mental impurity of aversion and its antidote, friendliness, gained by examination of one’s own mind.
Physicians gain new knowledge about the human body in three main ways.
Out of the three, the last has a greater influence on the physician’s decisions than the rest. The knowledge that relieves mental stress falls into the same three groups. And the direct experience of the mental and physical phenomena brings about the real change. For example, one may have listened to and read about all the unhealthy effects of anger (first type of knowledge); one may predict the harmful effects of anger, having seen people with anger (second type); but neither gives real relief from anger. It is the direct knowledge gained through pure observation of one’s own anger and cultivation of its antidote, friendliness, that purifies the mind of anger.
The principle of do nothing, but watchful waiting is applied in understanding the true nature of the pathological process going on in a patient. Do nothing because any intervention would mask the true nature of the process. Watchful waiting is to be vigilant in observing what happens.
The exact same principle holds true when dealing with the mind. What is needed to purify the mind is pure observation. Observation equals watchful waiting. Observation is pure in the sense that no intervention of liking or disliking is there. For example, if one wants to know the true nature of anger, he has to see the anger when it has arisen in his mind, without any dislike (or like) of the object of anger. When one starts examining thoughts without any liking or disliking, the true nature of thought begins to reveal itself. Then the law governing the mental elements becomes clearer. He comes to realize how stress and suffering are generated within his mind. Then he knows how to escape from suffering and enjoy peace within.
2. An Exercise to Gain Mind Mastery
First, please note that the application of this method may not be suitable for all patients. Therefore, candidates should be carefully selected for the practice. Most of the time it is not even easy to approach patients when they are feeling overwhelmed by great pain and stress. Therefore careful consideration of the individual patient is needed, and there must be sensitivity in adjusting the approach to suit that particular individual.
Once the patient’s confidence has been built up with the therapist, further guidance has to be planned very carefully. Even though much importance is given to this method of stress relief, a few other simpler techniques, such as the development of loving-kindness, equanimity and environmental modification can also be included.
Listening to pirith-chanting and music therapy are some other beneficial techniques that can be employed. Having understood the peculiarity of each technique, one may use a combination of techniques that best suits a given patient.
The practical aspect of stress relief is more important than any theory already discussed. Only when put into practice does it become practical, otherwise it just remains a matter for discussion.
Physical illness is part and parcel of life. When you are bedridden, you have a chance to meet yourself, you are confronted by your bodily and mental feelings. Often, out of ignorance you may feel helpless, frightened, and mentally depressed in such situations. Yet the period of illness is a great opportunity to observe oneself and to know the truth about oneself. Until that happens, you are always sleep-walking in a world of distractions, always interested in the outside world. When ill, you have a chance to peep into the world inside. What we present here is a practical mental training, which can give insight into ourselves. It can also help us to be mentally healthy even when we are physically ill.
There are three essential steps of the mental training.
One becomes mentally ill due to the presence of mental impurities, such as craving, aversion, and ignorance. So this mental exercise aims to remove them. First, as a pre-requisite, one has to put up defenses against mental impurities. One does that by maintaining purity of verbal and bodily action. Abstaining from telling lies, using harsh or slanderous words, and spreading gossip is vocal purity. Abstaining from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct is bodily purity. When one scrupulously observes these with correct understanding, one is actually blocking the gross forms of craving, aversion and ignorance. This is the foundation of the mental exercise of stress relief.
Based on purity of vocal and physical action, one proceeds to the second step — mastery over the mind. Here the concentrating power of the mind is developed while maintaining its purity. Having developed vocal and physical purity and mastery over the mind, one takes the final step — stress relief through wisdom. There are several techniques of developing the second step. One such technique is learning to observe the respiration objectively.
1. How to Observe Breathing
It is very simple and straightforward. We must just be aware of the natural pattern of breathing by focusing the mind on the area of the nostrils where the sensation of the contact of air can be felt. Make an effort to keep the awareness continuously for as long as possible.
What not to do?
What barriers are there?
While trying to practice in the way described above, it is natural to encounter difficulties. They are just barriers to be met and overcome. If you overcome the barriers, then you are at the goal and nothing else has to be done. Later with practice you understand that barriers are various manifestations of the three root mental impurities.
Problems and Solutions – Basic Level
I do not feel the sensation of breath clearly
The problem is that you want it to be clear, then it is the truth at that moment. So just accept the truth. Do not try to change what you experience. This wanting a change is craving and is therefore a barrier. When you accept whatever you experience as it is, craving passes away, and your mind calms down. Let that calm mind observe the breath more clearly without your wanting it to be clear.
Having observed one or two breaths, the mind wanders here and there. After some time I remember that I have to observe breathing. But after observing one or two breaths, it starts wandering again. Then I get angry or give up observation.
There is no real problem at all. The true nature of the unpracticed mind is that it wanders. So when it wanders, just accept that the mind wanders. Then you are automatically with the breath again. This may happen thousands of times when one practices. So understand that it is nature. Do not interfere with it. Do not resist it. With each such experience your awareness develops. Finally it develops to the extent that, as soon as you miss your focus you get back to the focus in an instant.
You got angry because you wanted the mind to be concentrated. This wanting is breaking the law of nature — the wandering nature of mind. You suffered with anger as a punishment. It is good that you encounter this barrier, this anger. This is a good opportunity to realize how you generate stress by not knowing the truth. You have to learn this from your own experience.
When I start observing, breathing becomes intentional
Initially the mind wants the breath to occur in a pre-conceived, or a mentally-imagined way. So it tends to become self-conscious breathing. So give up the intention of breathing in a way that you like. Instead, allow nature to maintain its own pattern of breathing. Your task is just to be aware of it. As soon as you can do this, you start experiencing real peace — perhaps for the first time ever in your life. Then you realize the real cause of your stress. Learn to read your own body and mind, not what is written in books. Because books are just guides to the truth, not the truth itself.
I feel pains and aches. They disturb me.
In reality, pains and aches cannot disturb you mentally. It’s only you who disturb them by trying to remove them. Instead, just ignore them. If your attention still goes there, observe them as you observed the breath, without craving or aversion. This is really the next step of the mental exercise.
I fall asleep
But try not to sleep during meditation. If you sleep once, then it becomes a habit. Practice, ignoring sleepiness until you break the threshold point. Thereafter you become very alert. Understand that sleepiness is a form of craving.
Problems and Solutions – Advanced Level
I experience very pleasant feelings when the mind gets concentrated. But soon they vanish.
We want pleasant feelings not to vanish. This is craving — a mental impurity. Observe how we become agitated when craving is there. If the pleasant feelings vanish, just accept it. Then you are at peace. You will learn how to live without generating craving.
Do I have to understand that this is the law of nature, that this is how to live in line with it, that this is impermanent and so on?
All of the above are words about truth: a means of showing what reality is. They become obstacles if you hang on to them. All you have to do is to observe your mind and body in a simple and direct way, without building up theories and philosophies. You will discover the way of stress-relief right within you.
When I do breath-examination, I feel relaxed. Otherwise, I am as stressed as I used to be.
It is important to realize that the examination of breath is just a technique to understand how to live stress-free. Once the purpose is served, you do not need to keep on examining. But you must learn to apply it in day-to-day life to get the real benefit. Here breath serves as a tool.
Note: It is good to read what follows after having done the exercise, otherwise, one may be pre-occupied with it, instead of letting the knowledge develop on its own.
While practicing, we realize the following through experience.
Note: the ultimate goal of this practice is only to learn how to deal with things without attachment. Breathing is a tool only. One who does breath observation, but doesn’t apply what he learns from doing so in day to day life will not get the proper benefit.
3. Mental Exercises to Manage Pain
These are modifications of the four mindfulness meditations, to suit individuals who struggle with illness. The aim is to develop awareness of four areas of oneself, namely body, sensations, mind and mind objects. With proper awareness of oneself, one changes the habit of having an impulsive reaction into a habit of equanimous observation.
For example, a patient’s thoughts when they are simply reacting can be depicted as ‘Oh! It’s painful! Why does this happen to me? I hate my pain, this bed, the doctors, that nurse! Oh! I can’t bear this any longer. Please help me. I will die soon. I will no longer see my loved ones.’
Whereas, a meditating patient’s thoughts would be ‘This is the beginning of pain, this is the end of pain, the character of pain is changing, etc.’ Although this puts it into words only for the sake of understanding, a meditating patient should only observe true pain from moment-to-moment without any imagination or mental verbalization.
Patients need step-by-step training as they often have vulnerable minds. In step 1, the mental exercise is performed with the help of the therapist; in step 2, the same exercise is repeated with the help of a cassette recorder; in step 3, the patient goes through the exercise himself.
The following instructions show how a therapist might guide a critically ill patient through the final step of wisdom in the meditative training of mind.
Step 1: Where do you feel pain? (Figure 1) Can you locate the sites? Now locate an area where there is no pain. Do you feel anything there? Try to hold your attention on this feeling for ½ minute.
Fig. 1: the darkened area depicts how a patient feels pain at step 1: it is felt as gross and stable
Step 2: Locate an area where there is pain, and find the center of the pain, or the area of maximum pain. (Figure 2). Feel the pain as it is for ½ minute. Do not try to remove the pain. Do not react to the pain. Let the pain manifest itself. Just feel the pain as long as possible.
Fig. 2: as concentration improves the patient feels pain at varying degrees
Step 3: The moment you do not react to pain, negative emotions weaken, stress is reduced and the pain dissolves into minute painlets (Figure 3).
Fig. 3: the area of pain disintegrates into minute ‘painlets’ which are constantly arising and passing
Step 4: Now scan all your feelings in the body, from head to foot in an orderly manner (Figure 4). Do not generate any liking or disliking towards any feeling. Do this exercise repeatedly and continuously to remain aware of all feelings without reacting.
Fig. 4: feeling various physical sensations all over the body characterized by changing
After several repetitions check the patient’s progress. Locate an area of the body. Ask the patient to focus attention there. Does the feeling of pain remain the same, or is it changing? As the concentration improves the changing nature of the pain will become clearer. Appreciate the changing nature of pain.
Step 5: Can you control the change of feelings by wishing? Appreciate the uncontrollable nature of any bodily feeling. Not trying to control something that cannot be controlled is the way out of stress. All your feelings are equal in their changing and uncontrollable nature.
Fig. 5 Witnessing non-self nature. The body is experienced as a flow of sensations, and the boundaries of the body disintegrate
There is now no ‘I’, but just an occurrence of change (Figure 5). Observe all the bodily feelings from top to bottom repeatedly. Try your best to remain with the changing nature of all feelings without reacting to them. As your concentration improves, you begin to experience more and more physical feelings. Then you do nothing but remain aware of them as you scan your body from head to foot.
Remaining unstressed under stressful conditions is a skill to be developed through meditative training of the mind, for which illness is an ideal opportunity not to be missed.
4. The Universal Law of Nature
Unless one recognizes the Universal Law of Nature, which is simply how things happen and do not happen, he might break the law. One who breaks the law is punished; one who keeps the law will be rewarded. Punishment is nothing but suffering, stress and misery. Reward is happiness, calm, and peace within.
What is the Universal Law of Nature?
The universal law governs mind, matter, and phenomena, including our bodies, mind, and all that we see, hear, smell, feel and taste. Let us understand this universal nature by considering the following example: What is the true nature pertaining to a candle flame?
The flame is a result of the combination of oil, twine, oxygen and heat. The existence of the flame is summed up in the following formula:
Flame = oil oxygen in ambient temperature
If the flame is seen for 3 seconds, then
Time scale (seconds)
In the first second
Flame = oil oxygen
In the second second
Flame = oil oxygen
In the third second
Flame = oil oxygen
Make a note that the amount of oil, oxygen or twine used for the first second is not available at the second second. For the existence of the flame a completely new amount of oil is always needed. Therefore, the flame is a result of a continuous process of consumption of causes. The flame cannot exist for even a single moment without consuming its causes, and at every moment the total life span of the flame reduces towards complete disappearance. This changing nature pertaining to flame is termed its impermanence or quality of being aniccā.
Although reality is impermanent, we are under the impression that the same stable flame existed for the three seconds duration, which is a deceptive perception. If you attach to anything as permanent, when it is in reality impermanent, the result will be stress or dukkha. This is the second factor of universal nature.
A flame is dependently arisen through the combination of oil, twine, oxygen and the ambient temperature. Therefore, its behavior is not as a single, independent self-originated entity. Its apparent existence relies on its causes, hence cannot be controlled by one’s wishing, liking, or wanting, it can only change if the causes are changed. This is the non-self or anattā nature of the flame.
The human body and mind and the whole perceivable universe operate in accordance with this law. Similar to the flame, the human body needs oxygen, nutrients, ambient temperature and so on in appropriate proportions for its existence.
To summarize the law then:
In this the term things includes the mind, the body, and all that we see, hear, smell, taste, feel and think, i.e. the perceivable universe. Concisely put, anything in the universe dependent on causal factors is denoted by the term thing.
How do we ignore the law?
One who sees things as
These ignore the law of nature.
The three illusions above are the direct opposite of the real nature of things. They describe an ignorant person’s vision of reality. Anyone, irrespective of race, religion, caste, class, level of education, or culture, who thinks, talks or acts based on these three illusions ignores the laws of reality and ends up being punished immediately with suffering.
What is the mechanism of punishment?
Again it is the nature of cause and effect itself. Let us consider the following examples to understand this mechanism more clearly.
1st example: A patient is diagnosed with cancer. The doctor informs the patient. Then the patient becomes very miserable.
Exposition: Cancer doesn’t consider whether or not there is an ‘I’ or ‘mine’. Cancer arises though causal processes, and is, therefore, the mere effect of causes. The human body as such has no control over getting or not getting cancer. Through this we can understand the non-self nature of our body. But the patient had the illusion regarding his body: ‘I won’t get cancer; my body can’t get cancer.’ This helps us to understand the illusion of the self.
In a similar way, when there is disease, one’s health is changed. Health is unstable; not permanent. Therefore, once attached to it, there is bound to be suffering. A patient is under the illusion that his health cannot or will not change, because he likes health. The patient has, therefore, ignored the universal law. Understand how, because he has broken the law, he has been punished then and there. The punishment comes in the form of his suffering and misery.
2nd example: One month after the diagnosis, a letter comes from the doctor to the cancer patient saying, ‘I apologize for misdiagnosing you as a cancer patient. A wrong histology report has caused this grave mistake.’ The patient becomes very happy.
Exposition: In reality, the patient was not a cancer patient. Still he suffered as a cancer patient for a month’s duration, as he had the ‘cancer of delusion’ within him.
If you ask the patient what the cause of his suffering was before he received the letter, he would have replied that it was because of the cancer. But actually he had no cancer. Then one may say, ‘It was the knowing of having a cancer that brought the suffering, because if he had no knowledge of having cancer, he wouldn’t have suffered’. This answer is a little more correct, but it is still a wrong answer compared to the reality.
Then what is the real cause of suffering?
It is the dislike towards the cancer. Cancer is not a thing to be liked or disliked, as cancer itself has a non-self nature. If the causes are met, cancer develops. Whether there is cancer or not, if dislike is there, suffering is bound to be there.
Thus the real cause lies always within us, as its effect, suffering, is also within us, and through this we can understand that seeing the cancer, even as a contributory cause of suffering, is an illusion.
Why is it called the real cause of suffering?
Because it is the universal cause of all suffering. If one is not deceived by the three illusions, whether he gets cancer or not, he has no mental suffering at all. That is because he has removed the real cause. Then the reward of peacefulness remains within him at all times.
How to act in line with the law of nature?
Living in line with the law is not breaking the law. Things are unstable: they arise to change, change to pass away, and pass away to arise again. Then how to live in line with this?
Thus one will be living in line with the universal laws of nature.
5. Stress and its Alleviation
The mechanism of stress is obvious, and yet we often fail to see it. This chapter helps to reveal what it really is. We present the mechanism of stress in a question and answer format for the sake of clarity. One who discovers the truth about stress within himself gets rid of it, but not by mere intellectualizing about the unsatisfactory nature of existence. It is the systematic wise attention to the cause of stress by means of the mindful observing of the arising, changing, and passing away of feelings that triggers the transcendence to the non-stressed state. Now let’s observe ourselves and ask some questions.
What do we human beings actually do?
Whatever we do falls into three categories:
Why do we do what we do?
To bring about a change in what is already there. Whatever we do brings about a change. Isn’t this universal to every human activity? For example, we eat to ameliorate hunger; we earn to improve our economical status; doctors treat patients to overcome ill health — these are all types of change.
Why do we need change?
We constantly act to change the environment in order to gain stability because our internal and external environment is constantly changing and unstable. For example, we need to feed ourselves repeatedly because the ‘non-hunger state’ is unstable.
If we do not act to change, misery, mental suffering, or something we dislike, will result. Sometimes we need change for comfort, and we need comfort because, otherwise, there is misery. For example, if we do not eat to change hunger, what is left is the misery of hunger; if we do not earn to improve our economic status, we would experience the misery of poverty; if doctors do not treat patients to change their ill health, those patients will continue to suffer and may even die.
We are in a constant struggle to get rid of misery by trying to change an already ever-changing nature. But the same struggle to get rid of misery puts us in further misery.
For example, to change hunger, you need to find food. So you struggle to earn money. Yet earning is not easy; you need a job. Then you are put in the struggle of finding a job. And once found, the misery of doing the job comes.
So what is the proper way of getting rid of misery? Is it by trying to change nature or by trying to change ourselves to be in harmony with nature? The answer is explained as follows.
How does misery or mental suffering result?
Only in two ways:
Let us analyze these two ways of suffering in order to understand the mechanism of all sufferings and stress.
Happenings and non-happenings are events existing in the world. They are always a result of a series of causal factors. For example, the growth of a coconut plant is a happening resulting from the combination of coconut seed, water, fertile soil, suitable temperature, etc. If these particular causal factors are there, the particular happening or non-happening is bound to be there. Things do not occur just according to one’s wishes. For example, you cannot hope to get a coconut tree after having planted a jack seed because happenings are in accordance with nothing but their respective causes.
Likes and dislikes are mental. People say, ‘I like to live a healthy life’, or ‘I dislike cancer’. The illusion is that people think that they really don’t get cancer, because they dislike it. They are under the impression of having ‘constant health’, because they like health. But cancer or health has no sense of liking or disliking. They are mere effects of respective causes.
But we consider ‘not getting cancer’ as a reality without knowing whether we have the risk factors for it or not. Thus, when likes and dislikes come in, the delusion of not seeing the causes and effects come in. It is this discrepancy between the liking-disliking world, which is an delusion of the mind, and happening and non-happening in the world that gives rise to stress or suffering. Isn’t this universal to all human problems? If your heart says no, then your mind is still in delusion.
How to stop generating stress?
A person whose vision is devoid of likes and dislikes and who sees happenings and non-happenings as resulting from appropriate causes will learn to live in accordance with nature. Living in accordance with nature means being aware of the cause-and-effect nature of reality. When he needs something, he adjusts the causes to get the proper outcome. But he never anticipates the outcome with desire. Instead, he allows nature to give fruits, freeing himself from any struggle within. For example, you can plant a seed, water it, fertilize it and protect it. But you cannot grow the plant, because it is the plant that grows. That is how you allow nature to play its own role, and just help it along. But if you desire that the plant grows within two days, then you are trying to grow the plant, and it will not succeed.
6. Overcoming Mental Impurities
What are mental impurities?
They are the forces which make us break the law, and as a result we are thrown into misery. There are basically three of them.
All the rest, including such things as envy, jealousy, agitation, laziness, regret and so on, are various manifestations of the three basic roots of impurity.
1. How Craving Generates Stress
A middle-aged woman (V) is worried over a grand-daughter’s death. She meets a counselor (B). What follows is the dialogue between the two (based on Udāna 8.8).
B: Why are you looking so sad?
V: My son’s daughter has passed away.
B: Would you like to have her back, alive? Would it alleviate your sorrow?
V: Of course sir, ... but, she has gone forever.
B: You seem to love her very much. Would you like to have all the daughters in your city as your own daughters?
V: Yes. I would have great love towards them.
B: If so, you will be crying every day.
V: Oh! Why is that?
B: Because every day a daughter passes away somewhere in your area.
V: (amazed) ... So why am I worried?
B: Would you be worried, if you had never seen her before?
V: No sir. If I had not seen her, I wouldn’t have been attached to her.
B: Attachment, attachment is the cause of your sadness not the death of your grand-daughter!
Death is a natural phenomenon. If there is birth, it is inevitable there will be death. Let nature manifest itself without going against it by expecting to live forever. That will be the end of your suffering.
Mother, as long as you think that death is the cause of your suffering, you suffer because you are trying to change that which cannot be changed. Once you realize that attachment is the cause of your suffering, you can try to change what can be changed, and through that you get rid of your suffering.
2. How Anger Generates Stress
Let us consider the common example of driving a vehicle in a traffic jam. Mr. Angry, the driver of the vehicle, becomes very stressed in the morning trying to pass vehicles on the crowded road. Carefully follow the discussion below.
Q: Why are you so stressed while driving?
A: You know, people don’t obey the rules. Pedestrians cross the road wherever they like. And three-wheeler drivers are the worst! Their driving is totally unpredictable. Today I shouted at two bus drivers for parking their vehicles in the middle of the road. How can I drive peacefully, if people do not obey the rules in this country?
Q: But still you managed to arrive without any delay?
A: Yes … but I wouldn’t be so stressed if the roads were clear.
Q: There is a way you can drive peacefully even if there is heavy traffic.
A: How is that, sir?
Q: Control what is within you, your anger, and cultivate friendliness instead. Then see the difference. You will find it very peaceful.
A: If every one begins to think like that, traffic congestion will never clear! There should be someone to shout at! And a way to solve the problem.
Q: Of course! You can shout and scold if it is the proper solution. But be sure you are shouting with the base of compassion within, not with a base of anger. When you accept the congestion without any agitation within, you will see a better solution for the problem.
3. How Ignorance Generates Stress
Ignorance is a necessary supporting factor for craving and anger. In the above two examples ignorance of the true nature of things resulted in stress. Apart from generating craving and anger, ignorance itself can cause misery in several ways. One such instance is illustrated below.
A person who is concerned for his safety walks on a path. When he sees stones, thorns, and pot holes on the road, he avoids them. Vision helps him to identify any danger. When he sees grass and sandy areas, he takes that path enjoying the touch. Thus he escapes from any injury during the walk.
The following factors helped him to be safe:
The same principle applies in the relief of stress. The factors to be practiced to be stress-free:
What happens when mental impurities are eliminated?
One’s mental, vocal and physical actions become harmless to others. Then whatever actions he takes, they bring happiness and calm to others. Then he loves everyone without any attachment. Then his love becomes universal love. He lets go of whatever happens without liking or disliking. So no suffering is generated within him.
What about physical pain?
Whoever lives in line with the truth of nature leaves physical pain to the body. He will not make it into a mental pain. He still feels the pain, but he leaves feelings to feel pain, and no ‘I’ is suffering. Then pain is just another sensation which has arisen due to causes. Pain doesn’t think that there is an ‘I’. The body doesn’t think that there is an ‘I’. Even the mind is not ‘I’. They are all the unstable effects of causes, and that is all. Only someone who is deluded sees an illusionary ‘I’.
If everything is left to nature, do I do nothing?
Doing is a way of creating causes. When causes are there, results follow them. Then one can make his living in line with the nature of cause and effect; one can earn money without attachment to it; one can even live in a luxurious palace without any attachment, knowing the truth of impermanence, stress, and non-self. Then only does one begin to live life in full, without any stress at all, always peaceful.
I agree with what is said here, but it is not practical.
Our habitual patterns of liking and disliking are so strong that we tend to think that overcoming them is beyond our limits. But that wrong habit pattern is based on falsehood. Therefore, when the truth is known, the problem is solved by itself.
Having developed understanding in the above way, one can observe the physical pains and aches that arise due to illness. Then he realizes that pains and aches are also impermanent, stressful and non-self as long as one is attached to them. Then he knows how to deal with bodily pains. He still does feel bodily pains, but he does not suffer mentally. The feeling part of mind feels pain, but there is no reaction in the form of liking or disliking. The story ends with the awareness of pain. As he practices like this, he soon sees the cause of stress as ignorance, which he was unaware of all the time. Thereafter he experiences and accepts pain or pleasure with a balanced mind.
Physical pain is unpleasant and something to be avoided.
This represents the usual psychological response to pain. In the presence of pain we try to get rid of it — we see pain as our enemy. That is why when there is pain; patients shout, twist and become restless.
At a superficial level, it seems that we suffer because of pain, but in reality we suffer because of the habit of suffering within us. It is the aversion towards pain that misleads us into saying that pain is unpleasant.
Pain is pain. Mind is mind. If there is pain on a physical level, let it be there. Do not allow the mind to be entangled in it. Once it gets entangled, pain proliferates in the emotions. Often people cannot accept this, because they have not observed themselves mindfully. After doing so, it becomes evident that feelings and mind exist in separate spheres, and there is no need of creating negative emotions in the mind.
Initially, when we feel pain, an impulsive reaction of aversion builds up. We need to become mindful at that moment and to try to keep the mind in balance, without any liking or disliking. Naturally, for a beginner, that is going to be a difficult task. We may feel more and more pain. Sometimes we become much more agitated than before. But if we do not give up, beyond a threshold point, the mind becomes quite calm in the presence of pain.
With such an experience we realize that pain is there as it was before, yet the mind has so calmed down that it has no intention of removing the pain. Only then does it become clear that suffering has been a mere habit pattern, and we have become prisoners of that mistaken habit. Pain is just a sensation, not to be liked or disliked, but to be let go of. Thus we become masters of ourselves, not slaves of our debilitating habits.
Previous chapters emphasized the importance of removing mental impurities. The next step in stress relief is to fill the vacuum with wholesome thoughts. Loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity are four wholesome thoughts which can nourish the human mind.
When we imagine a kind person, we think of a saint whose verbal and physical responses are mild and timid. But it is not necessarily so. A kind person can use strong words to change another’s harmful behavior, but with a lot of love and compassion within. Think of a kind parent correcting a child’s behaviour. Correction may be the only language that the child can understand. There it is for the good of the child. Not a trace of anger will be found in that action when loving-kindness is there.
There are a few essential steps in practicing loving-kindness:
This means that a stressed person will not be able to truly practice kindness to others until he relieves his own stress first.
Compassion is the desire to relieve others’ stress, and should be devoid of any attachment. Stress cannot be generated out of compassion, with compassion you help others, but you do not expect anything in return. Even if the one you have helped harms you, you cannot generate anger when true compassion is present. Compassion in its nature always keeps the mind calm and generates inner happiness.
Sympathetic joy is the opposite of jealousy. It is the quality of being happy with others’ success. This quality arises in the mind when the ignorance regarding self or ego wanes.
Equanimity is the quality of showing no change in mood between difficult and easy situations. It is a quality to be developed by training the mind to be steady in the changing circumstances of daily life.
In practice, one has to examine his thoughts from moment-to-moment and cultivate wholesome thoughts in place of the various antagonizing mental impurities. If the practice is done on a continuous basis for a longer period, the mental impurities can be overcome.
In a hospital setting, where patients find everything strange and stress-producing, a kind word from a nurse or doctor can do much good for the patient in relieving stress. In fact, such words are free medications that every patient needs and can be given easily. Hence the spiritual aspect in hospital care should be identified as an important area to be worked on.
8. The Patient’s ICU Environment
The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) as perceived by the patient and the doctor is not the real ICU. The ICU itself is the real ICU. When a critically ill patient begins to experience the ICU as it really is, he will also begin to experience a cessation of his pain and stress.
In order to understand this, let us consider the following simile. Suppose that a person is wearing a pair of sunglasses and that he is unaware of it. When he looks at the outside world, everything appears dark. Wanting to see the colors of the world, he tries to rub away the darkness, but still sees only darkness. Thus he remains in the dark and is unhappy.
Of course, the darkness really exists not on the outside but owing to the sunglasses. Similarly, his wrong perception is due to his own ignorance. As long as this ignorance persists, all his efforts to erase the darkness and to see other colors is fruitless. He reaps nothing but misery.
With advice from a wise and kind person, the man can learn to see the sunglass lenses before seeing the outside world. When he realizes where the unwanted colour comes from, his ignorance passes away. Then he learns to remove the darkened lenses and enjoy the real outside world.
Now, it is understandable that the dark colored world is not the real color of the world. The real color of the world is the color of the world itself. The ICU environment has to be understood in a similar way.
Patients admitted to the ICU are wearing not just a single pair of sunglasses but a number of them. So they always see the ICU as colored and distorted by those lenses. They wish they could change the ICU and its environment. But it could easily be changed if they see the lenses. These lenses are misperceptions, wrong beliefs and ignorance. As long as they wear these lenses they react with anger – and misery is generated out of anger.
What is meant by the patient’s ICU environment is the world created within the patient’s own mind. The real ICU environment itself, being neutral, selfless and ever-changing in nature, just supplies the stimulus for the creation of the patient’s mind-made ICU environment. All patients live in their own mind-made worlds and all their behavior patterns are responses to what is found there.
All the real causes of pains and stress are found there, not in the outside ICU setting. Those real causes are nothing but a set of mental impurities. Identification and understanding of the true nature of the impurities by pure observation, eliminates them. Observing one’s own mind and body without any liking or disliking is pure observation. All that is needed is to learn the correct technique of observation.
When a patient learns to see things with pure observation, his inner world becomes balanced. The patient’s experience of the ICU environment gets closer and closer to reality. When the reality is seen, the conflict between the mind-made world and the real outside world ends. Such a patient’s mind gains balance and whatever happens outside becomes acceptable to him without any reaction. Such a mind doesn’t want what cannot be gained, doesn’t reject what is there, but acts for what could be gained and withdraws what can be withdrawn without any struggle within. This state of mind is not pessimistic but realistic.
For example, when an unpleasant pain is encountered, the wise patient feels the pain as a sensation, and realizes that it is just an element of the mind that subsequently categorizes this sensation as unpleasant. Then there is no place for aversion. Pleasant sensations are also seen in the same manner without craving for them. Experiencing this truth makes the patient develop equanimity towards the sensation.
He also sees the beginning and end of the pain at subtler levels. So the mind becomes balanced and unstressed. It experiences peace within all the time. It should be emphasized that mere intellectual understanding doesn’t achieve this state. What is needed is the moment-to-moment awareness and experience of things as they are, through a well-guided practice.
Buddhist philosophy teaches a unique methodology to help those who are in pain, under stress, and ill. Unlike current methods such as surgery, analgesics, sedatives, anti-depressants, etc. or alternative methods like aqua-therapy, energy therapy, massage, etc., this method relieves pain without the help of an external chemical or energy source.
The pharmacological agents exert their effect by blocking signal transmission at various levels of the nervous system; alternative methods may bring temporary relief to the body. The Buddhist way differs from both. It teaches one to pay bare attention to every experience in order to explore its inherent nature. Clear understanding of the theory behind it, together with practical mental exercises leads one to gain its benefits.
The Mechanism of Stress from a Buddhist Perspective
A patient is in a constant struggle to get rid of his unpleasant experiences, such as the unpleasant mental and physical sensations resulting from the disease, the strange hospital environment, etc., and to obtain pleasant experiences. This effort is a an impulsive reaction, and it is stress in itself. This reaction makes the patient wander in his past memories or future imaginations, but not to stay in the present moment where reality is. The impulsive reaction is based on not knowing the true nature of one’s own experience.
The Way out of Stress
When the true nature of one’s experience is realized, the impulsive reaction ceases, and this relieves the stress. The reason the average person doesn’t see the reality of his experience is because his reactions distort the truth. For example, pain is seen as a sensation that should be removed as quickly as possible. It is labeled as unpleasant and intolerable.
However, if one stops reacting in this way and feels pain as it is, from moment-to-moment continuously, focusing his full attention on the pain and remaining equanimous at the same time, then he comes to know its true nature. Interestingly, at such a level of understanding one finds that all sensations are equal and that there is nothing to react to. He realizes that reaction is a senseless habit, and he becomes an observer of such sensations. His mind becomes still.
Incorrect Views are Responsible for Stress
Patients often see stress as a result of external causes, which are often uncontrollable. But they don’t have the habit of seeing the controllable internal causes of stress, such as aversion, craving and delusion.
This needs an exercise enabling them to examine their own thoughts. Patients are under the impression that they must suffer a state of prolonged unpleasant feelings. They need to observe the unpleasantness to see its impermanent nature. Patients perceive unpleasant experiences as things to be removed. But as they learn to see the causes of unpleasant experiences, they find themselves in a position to accept and live with the so-called unpleasant sensations without reacting to them.
Patients, who earlier saw an ‘I’ suffering with illness, realize that this ‘I’ is just an occurrence of sensations, as they practice in line with what was written above. No ‘I’ is involved anymore. Finally they will realize that the main cause for their stress was incorrect perceptions of themselves and that correct attitudes release the mind from stressful reactions.
The Ways of Attending to Mindfulness (MN 10)
The Removal of (Unwholesome) Thoughts (MN 20)
Mindfulness while Breathing (MN 118)
Mindfulness related to the Body (MN 119)
The Characteristic of Non-Self (Samyuttanikāya 22.59)
Material Dealing with Pain and Illness:
The Dart (SN 36.6 – the two pains, physical and mental)
Nakula’s Father (SN 22.1 – advice on dealing with sickness)
The Sick Person (AN Bk.5.121 – five things to cultivate when sick)
The 1st & 2nd Discourses about Sickness (SN 36.7,8 – enduring through wisdom)
The Story of Pūtigatta Bhikkhu (DhpA 41 – the Buddha tending to a sick monk)
The Righteous Laymen (DhpA 16 – Chanting for a Sick Man)
Discourses Chanted when Ill:
The Sick Person (1-3) (SN 46.14-16)
Girimānanda (AN 10.60)
Ven Visuddhacara: Loving and Dying
Lily de Silva: Ministering to the Sick and Terminally Ill (online)
Sangye Khadro: Preparing for Death and Helping the Dying
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: On Death and Dying
Stephen Levine: Healing into Life and Death
Vidyamala Burch: Living Well with Pain and Illness: The Mindful Way to Free Yourself from Suffering
Darlene Cohen: Turning Suffering Inside Out
Jackie Gardner-Nix: The Mindfulness Solution to Pain: Step-by-Step Techniques for Chronic Pain Managment
Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief (Guided Audio Meditations)
Ajahn Thanissaro: Beyond Coping (online source book for teachings on this subject)
There is a lot of other material available online, from chantings for the dying to mindful ways of dealing with sickness and death.
Try searching for “mindfulness dying” or “meditation sickness” or something similar and see what turns up.
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