Wanting (to be Rid of Pain)

Pain and the desire to be rid of pain arise. What do we do with them?

I recently fell into a trap. I had just read in a Zen koan, “When the mind seeks nothing, this is called the Way.” Yet I get recurrent periods of pain that do not respond to any of a variety of relatively safe pain medications. My mind was at that moment quite insistently seeking relief from the pain. So my thought chain then continued, “Why can’t I get rid of this wanting to get rid of the pain? I must be a bad Zen student.”

This is an easy trap to fall into, since it is in line with a very widespread idea about Buddhist teachings. For example, the popular Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar recently ran an article entitled “The Four Noble Truths.” The Four Noble Truths was, reportedly, the Buddha’s very first sermon. The article repeats the conventional interpretation, which goes something like this:

  1. There is suffering.
  2. The cause of this suffering is craving (or desire).  
  3. Suffering can be ended by eliminating craving.
  4. There is a path to ending craving and so ending suffering.

Early in my practice, though, I came across a book by David Brazier entitled The Feeling Buddha in which he gives an unconventional interpretation of the Four Noble Truths. That interpretation rings much truer to me, and seems much more in line with Zen practice. Let me try to summarize.

Starting with the word usually translated as “suffering” (dukkha), he points out that the Buddha said:

Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.

The conventional interpretation tells us that we can be freed from dukkha by ending craving. Yet the Buddha—a supremely enlightened being, we are told—went on after this sermon to suffer aging, a very painful infection in his foot, other ailments, and ultimately death. That is, he experienced dukkha. Does this mean that the path failed?

Brazier explains how some Buddhists try to get around this contradiction. Many Eastern thinkers, coming from cultures that believe in reincarnation, explain that craving in one life leads to dukkha in the future lives. In their view, the Buddha worked out the last of his karma from his past lives as suffered illness and death, and then—having created no new karma—entered nirvana. In the West we tend to be more hesitant to think in terms of reincarnation. In contemporary English-language Buddhist literature one often finds dukkha defined as the extra psychological pain we put on top of the pain of aging, grief, etc. It’s said that that’s what the elimination of craving will get rid of. There is an important truth in this, in that it is very useful to watch out for when we are piling on unnecessary suffering. But the Buddha didn’t define dukkha this way. The Buddha said that aging and death—unavoidable things—are dukkha.

So Brazier asserts that the Four Noble Truths are not about eliminating dukkha. He suggests, instead, that we consider all four of the Truths as Noble Truths. They are noble in that they tell us how to live a life of dignity and courage. They tell us how to live a life that is authentic, a life we don’t have to be ashamed of. Let’s revisit them from this perspective.

The First Noble Truth

This tells us that it is a noble truth that dukkha exists. It is unavoidable. We have no control over life, death, aging, or grief. Life contains both joys and afflictions. The afflictions are nothing to be ashamed about.

The Second Noble Truth

The second noble truth is, indeed about craving and desire. But the word usually translated as  “cause or origin of” (samudaya), is better translated, according to Brazier, as “co-arising” or “coming up with.” That is, along with dukkha we also have responses that naturally arise. These reactions are also not in our control. It is a noble truth—a truth that allows us to live with dignity—to recognize that such craving just arises. The word translated as “craving” is tanha, which literally means “thirst.” On a hot day, we get thirsty—nothing to be ashamed about.

These feelings all just our “internal weather.” As Joan Tollifson writes about in Painting the Sidewalk with Water,

Is there anyone inside this body-and-mind who is doing the talking, doing the hearing, doing the thinking, making the choices, performing the actions? Is there anyone in control of what is arising and appearing? Is there any owner of the so-called internal weather, someone who is responsible for it? Is there a fundamental difference between a thunderstorm and a burst of anger, or between a cloudy day and a wave of depression or a moment of anxiety?

The Third Noble Truth

While the first two Truths talk about the unavoidable, the third switches to what we can do about all this. Nirodha, usually translated as “cessation” of desire, is better understood, Brazier says, as “confinement” or “containment.” The instruction isn’t to eliminate craving—that is impossible. That instruction makes people think that they have a very long road to walk to “get to” enlightenment. Neither is the instruction to indulge the feeling—let control us; let it fly loose, fanned by the winds of greed, anger, and ignorance. We probably do a lot of damage taking that route.

If dukkha is the spark that starts a fire, and craving is the fire, the Third Noble Truth, Brazier claims,  is about making that fire work in our lives. A fire that is extinguished can’t warm up  anything. A fire that is loose and out of control burns down the house. But there is another possibility, a Middle Way. A fire that is well contained, that is protected from the wind, cooks our dinner.

Brazier describes the Middle Way as “observing feeling while in the feeling,” or being “containers for the feelings.” We do this by stopping and turning. We unhook from focusing on some imagined solution (what he calls the “object” of our desire) and instead turn towards the very thing we want to get away from. The noble thing to do is to feel the suffering and the craving, yet not let ourselves be mindlessly driven  by them.

The image that comes to me is the following. I’m lost in craving, focusing on and reaching towards a supposed solution—say say a pill or a bottle, or a snack, or a smartphone, or whatever it is I think will make me feel better. But what if the I move my gaze to the hand that is reaching, and investigate that instead? “Oh. I’m reaching. I’m craving. I hurt.” That is the beginning of liberation from attachment to “the object of the thirst.” This “turning towards” is the berm we build around the fire, to keep it from jumping out uncontrolled.

Looking right at the craving, and recognizing craving as craving, gives us an all-important bit of distance. We get to see our suffering and craving more impersonally, just as our internal weather. We can perceive what arises in us as what is arising in the universe, rather than our self as something separate that has to do battle with the universe.

This “turning towards” may give us a moment of choiceful awareness. Viewing our feelings this way may give us some space, allowing us to bring our knowledge and values to bear on the question of what to do next, so that we can perhaps act with more wisdom and compassion, more nobility. As Brazier points out, this sort of freedom is much more consistent with Zen teaching, and particularly with Eihei Dogen’s teaching that “practice and enlightenment are one.” Enlightenment—waking up!—is available right here and right now. It’s not some far-off thing to be worked towards.

A few clarifications may be in order. One is that the sort of “container” I’m talking about is not something small, into which we try to smash down and stuff our feelings. Rather, it is vast and spacious. Intense feelings try to sell us the story that they are huge—that they are everything, that we are completely them, that they fill the world. When we are depressed, anxious, in pain—or on the flip side, lost in the throes of romantic infatuation or temporary ecstasy—the whole universe seems to be just this feeling. It gets directly in our face, taking up all of our vision. Yet holding such a feeling in the vast container of spaciousness allows us to make out its boundaries, its outline. We don’t have to be so convinced by the story it tells us. We have the opportunity to recognize that it is, really, just more stuff that arises. Taking it all less personally, we can recognize, “Oh. Reaching is arising. Craving is arising. Hurt is arising.” We practice paying attention in this way when we practice zazen.

A second clarification is that while we might get a moment of choiceful awareness, where we have the opportunity to respond in a new way, we also may not get any choice, or at least not right away. Yet awareness is itself a very powerful thing. Diane Rizzetto in her excellent book Waking Up to What You Do recommends not initially trying to change what we do, when working with the Buddhist precepts, but to simply become aware of that tiny open space. When we—perhaps much later—finally get the opportunity to act differently, our new response can then arise out of the power of that spaciousness, rather out of self-effort and striving for personal improvement.

So, looking back at my thoughts about pain—“I feel pain. I desperately want to get rid of the pain. Why can’t I get rid of this wanting to get rid of the pain? I must be a bad Zen student”—the First Noble Truth says that pain isn’t a (fundamental, shaming) problem. It is noble. Neither is wanting to get rid of the pain a problem. According to the Second Noble Truth, that just arises too, and is nothing to be ashamed of. The wanting to get rid of the wanting is where my thoughts took a wrong turn, based on the popular misinterpretation of what our practice is about. Dukkha and craving only appear to be problems if we think that our goal is to eliminate them. If our goal is to live authentically, then they are just stuff that happens.

Sometimes I find that the pain is, in fact, bearable, especially if I don’t pile frustration and anger on top of it. Quite often, in my case, the wiser move is to seek some relief in the form of distraction, with a book, movie, or puzzle, or by taking a walk. Once in a while, the wise move seems to be taking a cautious dose of a less safe type of medication. None of these are problems, if my goal is to live my life—my life as it is, not some other imagined pain-free or craving-free life—authentically and with dignity.

Getting back to the line in the koan that I referred to at the start, having “nothing to ask for in our mind,” in this case it meant, for me, not asking for that arising of wanting pain to go away, to go away. In another line of the same koan (Case 21 of The Record of Transmitting the Light), in fact, the teacher speaking says, “I do not know what is enough, but I am not covetous” (or in another translation, “I am not aware of satisfaction, but I am not greedy”). Here is the “container” again: The teacher does not suppress the feeling of dissatisfaction—they are aware that they never feel they have enough. But neither do they mindlessly chase after satisfaction through self-indulgence. I got temporarily trapped because instead of taking this Middle Way, I imagined that a good Zen student exists in some kind of state of desirelessness and neutrality.   

Most of us now are experiencing a great deal of pain and heartbreak about what is going on in our country and our world—illness, cruel leadership, racism, violence, environmental destruction.  It is noble to face up to this. We desperately want things to be different. It is noble to want this. We don’t need to try to get rid of that wanting. But we would also be well-advised to not let that wanting simply flare up in mindless lashing out, or feed self-righteousness or hatred. Contain it. Use it.

Enlightenment and liberation don’t come from being free of suffering and desire, after a long process of trying to get better at snuffing out feelings. Instead, they are available right here, amid suffering and desire. We can be free of any shame at the hardships of our lives, of any fundamental feeling that we are failing because we suffer. We can also be free of the feeling that the universe is somehow ignoble or fundamentally hostile, simply because it doesn’t always go the way we think it should. The First Noble Truth is dukkha. Life is both happiness and suffering.

The Fourth Noble Truth

The fourth Truth describes The Eightfold Path of right view, right conduct, right livelihood, right mindfulness, etc. It gives guidance in how to live our lives nobly, starting right here and now.

Brazier concludes his discussion of the Four Noble Truths with the passage:

“The picture that emerges for me is not of Buddhism as a meek and mild path of graduated virtues, but rather of the cutting power of the Buddha’s insight that it is only thorough the experience of suffering that we summon up the energy to do something truly worthwhile with our lives.”

Let’s do something worthwhile.

An audio version of this talk, with discussion following, is available in the GBZC podcast series.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a senior assistant teacher at the Greater Boston Zen Center; mother of two grown children; and, when energy permits, an avid dancer.

One thought on “Wanting (to be Rid of Pain)”

  1. Dear Master, Julie A. Nelson, I will try to deeply understand your teaching. And I will also go beyond the sea of pain and go to the world of true truth.

    Liked by 1 person

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