On the last home sesshin (Zen meditation intensive), I saw clearly that in direct experience physical pain does not exist.
Before, I had followed a pretty standard line: physical pain exists and is a given whereas suffering is an unnecessary mental add-on.
According to the standard line, that throbbing in the knee is pain, but the thought, “This is punishment,” and the feeling of fear, “Oh, no, my knee is being injured,” are both mental contributions that are already tantamount to suffering. On this view, we can drop the suffering while simply observing the pain.
But why not take a closer look at that throbbing, huh? Upon closer inspection, it turns out to be simply physical sensations. Must we add the extra label “pain” to the equation? Perhaps not.
As the observations become subtler and subtler, it can be seen that some sensations are “more vocal”–to employ this metaphor–while others are “less vocal.” Compare the “vocal” sensations in one area of the knee with the quite “unvocal” sensations in the middle of the back. (In fact, scan the entire surface of the body to see how sensations are just a vibrating energy field.)
What becomes clear in this close study is that there is no significant difference between the former (the more vocal) and the latter (the unvocal). Of course, each has its own character or qualities, but neither is anything special. Neither is alarming. Neither, thus, a cause of concern. (If a bone in the foot is broken, then it’s broken. Nothing more.)
Let’s see why this study of sensations matters.
- If there are only sensations, then there is no pain.
- If there is no pain, then there is not the arising feeling: “This is unbearable.” Or: “This is not right.”
- If there is not this arising feeling, then there is no craving (“Here is lack: something must be done about this”).
- And if there is no craving, then there is no suffering (“No more of this; I can’t take this.”).
Not a good enough argument for you? Well, what the above felt, intuitive understanding also shows is that one’s identification with the physical body can fade. As it fades, the fear of injury, of dying, and of death can all fade. (And if you believe that you are an ego-self, then plainly you must be afraid of injury, dying, and death. Only denial and delusion hide these fears from you.) In turn, it becomes possible to be much less ego-reactive while in the presence of others (this, for instance, fades: “Hey, watch where you’re going! You just about stepped on me!”) and thus more available to other sentient beings.
Nothing trivial here. I trust you can see now why all of this matters.