Enlightenment eliminates unnecessary suffering but not pain

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“…to feel deeply and precisely with full awareness is what opens us to both joy and sorrow…you can’t dip your face to the stream and say, ‘I’ll only drink the hydrogen and not the oxygen.’…the life of feeling is no different. We cannot drink only of happiness or sorrow and have life remain life…Thus, to be alive is to feel.” – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have

…and suffering is part of feeling. Having been exposed to numerous meditation teachers through my involvement in the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds with Dr. Richard Davidson, I have two fundamental questions about mindfulness meditation that I keep returning to: (1) When the 4 noble truths talk about the cessation of suffering, are the truths referring to the cessation of suffering or the cessation of unnecessary suffering? (2) If we take interdependence seriously, can we take free will seriously? This post focuses on the first question and will be updated occasionally.

Part of the motivation for this question is to address a disturbing tendency I have repeatedly confronted in mindfulness practitioners who I think of as “the bliss crowd”. These are people who, from my perspective, confuse mindfulness meditation with positive thinking or with the elimination of anything bad occurring in their lives. This sometimes leads to a form of spiritual materialism in which a perma-smile is adopted as self-claimed (but unspoken) evidence of their level of accomplishment as a meditation practitioner. And, furthermore, it can lead to very unskillful and non-compassionate ways of viewing others who are experiencing various forms of distress in their lives, namely dismissing them as unaccomplished practitioners: “those poor people [pity trying to masquerade as compassion] are caught in the wheel of suffering because they aren’t yet accomplished enough to have achieved the cessation of suffering”. It seems to me that this view must come from a misunderstanding of the 4 noble truths. Thus my interest in the question: does enlightenment (i.e., being awake) mean the cessation of suffering or the cessation of unnecessary suffering?

Short answer: Enlightenment means the cessation of unnecessary suffering, but it cannot eliminate physical or emotional pain.

Now, for the longer answer…

The four noble truths:

  1. dukkha (suffering) exists
  2. The origin of dukkha lies in the 3 poisons (see below)
  3. The cessation of dukkha can be achieved
  4. There is a path leading to the cessation of dukkha

A summary of dukkha (from a conversation with a friend about material taught by Andy Olendzki, teaching an Integrated Study and Practice program/class at Amherst College). There are three types of dukkha: (1) dukkha dukkha which is composed of (a) physical pain and (b) mental pain; (2) parinama dukkha: emotional pain arising from change that we don’t want (unwholesome states arising). For example, we age and die; (3) sankhara dukkha which involves my responses to an experience: (a) volitional states (e.g., intentions); (b) actions/behaviors (of body, speech, and mind); (c) dispositions/traits/sum total of our habits.

The conversation with Dr. Olendzki suggested that #1a cannot be eliminated while #2 and #3 can. It is unclear whether #1b can be eliminated. So, using the language of this post, enlightenment can promise the cessation of unnecessary suffering (#2 and #3) but not physical pain. Put another way, if the sensation of physical pain gets elaborated into emotions (e.g., fear), we can deal with the elaboration but not the initial sensation. It’s not clear what #1b might refer to but perhaps could be related to labeling a sensation, for example, as “pain” rather than simply experiencing the sensation itself. In any case, this answer is not very satisfying because it’s hard to understand, then, how suffering is eliminated because we don’t understand enough about what stage in information processing #2 and #3 are associated with and thus it’s not clear where to intersect the processing chain to eliminate them.

In Buddhism, there are 3 sources or poisons of (now we can say) unnecessary suffering: passion (for things that feel good), aggression (for things that feel bad), and ignorance (for things that are neutral, although the texts talk mainly about ignorance of the fact that we are not stable, continuous selves). See this article on the 3 Poisons, interdependence, and unpleasant emotion as information. Hindrances to effective practice arise with these three poisons. Neutral stimuli lead to torpor, pleasant stimuli lead to attachment and grasping (we want them to continue), and unpleasant things lead to aversion, aggression, restlessness, worry, and doubt.

There is a story told by a famous monk who has visited our laboratory. The story is about a teacher (another monk) who has achieved a high state of practice (i.e., near enlightenment or enlightened) and is meant to illustrate what an individual can do in that state. So, once upon a time, this teacher was getting acupuncture treatment. Unbeknownst to the teacher, the burning herbs being used in the process, fell from the needle to rest on his bare skin. The teacher did not move to remediate the situation of his burning skin and his face did not register pain. Instead, the teacher was reported to continue calmly reading his prayer book. When the doctor came in very flustered about his mistake and apologizing, the teacher appeared unperturbed, assured the doctor that he had not been bothered, and continued with his day.

As the story is told, there seems to be nothing laudable to me in the ability to ignore pain that is giving us a true message about something that needs to be changed (unless the teacher was trying to demonstrate something of benefit to the observers). It seems the equivalent of someone ignoring warnings that a bus is about to hit them. In this case (not in all cases), the physical sensation of burning is present for a good reason and leads to a simple and adaptive action that will reduce that pain: removing the burning herbs from one’s skin. Given that perspective, it seems to me that the monk was actually not demonstrating an enlightened state but more a macho one consistent with an attitude in this country expressed by such phrases as “suck it up”, “no pain, no gain” and consistent with suppression or denial, both tendencies associated with poorer mental and physical health. So, if this perspective is correct, then it suggests the tendency for misunderstanding the 4 noble truths even in someone nominated as highly developed by a fellow monk, who is, himself, identified has highly developed by others in his tradition. That is, they appear to believe that pain can be eliminated. But, this just makes it all the more important to understand what types of suffering can be eliminated and what cannot be. The answer would help clarify what the path to the cessation of suffering actually is.

For a much more poetic and touching treatment of this same subject, I recommend this New York Times piece.

10 thoughts on “Enlightenment eliminates unnecessary suffering but not pain”

  1. Random notes from conversation with David M. Perlman, scientist at CIHM at the Waisman Center at UW-Madison:
    (1) dukkha = rough ride; sukkha = smooth ride
    (2) Vipassana (insight) is uniquely Buddhist: e.g., emptiness of self; impermanence.
    (3) Why not believe something if it’s helpful?
    (4) People used to learn traditions in context with teacher who can tailor for each student. Information age, with access to all traditions, creates a problem b/c we can sample decontextualized knowledge without teacher.
    (5) insight into emptiness of self vs. insight into the emptiness of all phenomenon. Self = all phenomenon.
    (6) splash pond, randomly vortex forms = holding-togetherness (autopoesis via Francisco Varela) that become attractors
    (7) Assumption: autopoesis occurs in physical realm but not consciousness/mind/spirit realm. So, the latter arises from the former in materialist view. This can’t be proven, but just recognize it as an assumption. Some traditions reverse this: matter arises from spirit. Some say that they co-arise.

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