Getting Rid of the “Bigger Hammer” Approach

Dr. Charles Tart


Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 5, Part 8 of 18 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: This third method, doing Vipassana meditation on unpleasant sensations and going into them, is a very interesting method. I strongly recommend Shinzen Young’s book, Break Through Pain, I think it’s called. He specifically tailors the instructions for Vipassana for dealing with pain, especially chronic pain that you can’t do anything about. You’re not going to get a medicine for it, or get better; you’re going to have to live with it.

And he thinks this meditative approach is a pretty universal cure. I don’t know if it’s a universal cure. I personally do not want to find out if it’s a universal cure! I don’t want to ever get some pain that can’t be fixed in any other way so I have to develop meditative skill to deal with it.! I’d prefer that to remain in the realm of theory for me rather than practice.

But it’s certainly true that bringing mindfulness and openness to sensations that are painful can change the way you experience them enormously. At least in some cases, judging from my own experience, that’s a very effective way to deal with pain.

But it’s a tricky attitude. It’s not like, “Well, here’s this pain. I’m going to pay attention to it in order to make it go away,” because that’s not really being equanimous about it, or really open-minded about it. That’s saying I think I know a way to sneak up on this thing and get rid of it, which is back into a forceful approach.

Forcefulness is appropriate sometimes, but really being open to the pain can change things enormously. Again, that equation we’ve talked about earlier – suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance. Now that can be expanded out to cover so many dimensions, and even the attitude of “I want to get rid of this” can be seen as a form of resistance that creates more suffering than is really necessary for the pain. And the equanimity part of it, I guess, also involves the fact that sometimes we just have to accept the fact that we’re in pain. That’s how it is.

I remember I was in horrible pain once. My wife ended up calling an ambulance, and they took me to a hospital up in Northern California. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I wanted them to give me something. To take away the pain! But they couldn’t give me something until they knew what it was, because otherwise giving me something might be bad for it. So whether I wanted to be accepting or not, I had to be accepting. It turned out to be a kidney stone that was passing, and they’re pretty awful. But when they finally diagnosed it and gave me a double shot of Demerol, I really liked that!

While I was in this horrible pain and trying to be cooperative and a good patient, the doctor from the next cubicle in the ER comes over and says, “You may not remember me, but I was in one of your altered states classes at UC Davis ten years ago, and I thought you’d enjoy knowing at least one of your students turned out to get into an honest profession.”


And I’m thinking, “Is this social time here? What the hell?”


So sometimes – what’s the saying? – if you use force and it doesn’t work, you need a bigger hammer. That’s what’s necessary sometimes. But if that’s the only way you can deal with things, by forcing it – you’re limited.

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