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what’s good about back pain?

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In Buddhist terms there’s neither good nor bad back pain: “pain just is.” Not a comforting thing to say to someone in acute pain, annoying and callous-sounding in fact, but there it is. If, as in my case, a soft disc between vertebrae slips its moorings (herniation), it can push against a nerve running nearby, causing protective muscle cramping which in turn exacerbates the pain. Nothing to do with “me,” not something I’m responsible for or can undo. It happens and there it is: pain as a phenomenon of the physical body.

Along comes the ego, the me, the so-called small self. O no, it exclaims, that’s not good. Poor me, I don’t like pain. This is unfair and inconvenient; not what I desire, like, want, deserve, how I envisage the good life. I won’t be able to do this and that; now I’m getting old and decrepid for sure. In short, it enters a mind state of what in Buddhism is called dukkha (from Sanskrit), translated as suffering, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, anguish, misery, and frustration. The Buddha is said to have taught that–

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

I’m writing all this with … a grin on my face. I’ve already had to cancel a day-long retreat for today (with apologies to all who’ve had to change their weekend plans). The grin is about the experiment before me: how to live with something for which there’s no medical remedy (other than ameliorating treatments) and to observe how my mind will handle suffering as it comes and goes. 

source: Thanissaro Bhikku. (1993-2001). (trans). Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: setting the wheel of dhamma in motion. Retrieved today. image: (top)


6 responses »

  1. much metta to you Peter. I have had many occasions to watch how I deal with pain! And this little me mostly rejects it, needs to be constantly reminded not to argue with “what is” and that doesn’t stand against visiting the wonderful gentle chiro I have found here on the island or seeking other healing that may come up as good to do.

    thanks for this reminder. I need to hear this often!

  2. Let us be truly present with healing, too:)

  3. Thank you Peter for sharing your journey through dukka, and for your smile along the path. Life gives us so many lessons each day to practice our relationship with suffering, all leading up to our final day, our final breath. Your guidance at meditation last week to sit next to my pain has helped me immeasurably. I hope you may share tea with your pain soon and watch the suffering leave.

    I wish you metta and miles of smiles.

  4. Peter B. Reiner

    Neurobiology clearly distinguishes between pain and suffering – pain is a relatively simple matter of a signal relayed from some external part of our body into the spinal cord. Much higher in the cortical mantle, that pain (or really, anything for that matter) can turn into suffering. The trick is to find a way to disconnect the rather robust connection between that pain signal and the parts of the brain that encode suffering. Easier said than done, but the point is that there is a completely plausible materialist underpinning to this central buddhist tenet.


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