Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,
Lecture 2, Part 12 of 15 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.
Student: Could say more about moving away from pain, and trying to get pleasure? But I found, oh, with my ankle a little bit of a pop and I feel so much better now that I’m noticing the pressure on it; or oh, if I just shift my hips a little bit, that’ll feel, you know. I needed to attend to it.
CTT: Right. Something I call fidgeting.
Student: Yeah. I’m a fidgeter.
CTT: If we objectively looked at ourselves or at each other, we actually all fidget all the time. It’s like our body is sort of preprogrammed to constantly maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain. Now I’ve got nothing against that, because I certainly like to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain! But to be a slave to that desire, to never be able to sit still if there’s the slightest discomfort, because you always give into the urge to make yourself feel comfortable — that not only keeps you enslaved, it keeps you from becoming acquainted with the full range of your experience.
I’m going to give you an equation. I bet you didn’t expect an equation in a course on mindfulness. So I’m going to write something on the board again.
Student: Well you were an engineer, right?
CTT: That’s right. I was an engineer. I like equations but this one is actually easy.
S = P x R
S equals P multiplied by R. This equation was originally created by my friend Shinzen Young, one of the best meditation teachers around, and one who’s deliberately worked to make traditional spiritual practices more accessible to Westerners.
This equation was part of his putting it into a language that Westerners understand. S is suffering. You all know what suffering is, because you’ve suffered a lot and suffering is a psychological, experiential matter. It’s how you feel. Pain, P, refers to actual physical pain. Which presumably we could measure quite precisely with the right equipment, measuring which nerve fibers are firing, how rapidly, and what kind of chemicals are being released as a result of that nerve firing, and so forth. So P, pain is the actual physical sensation.
R is a psychological factor again. R is what we might call resistance. It’s your attitude toward pain. So suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance.
Imagine that we can rate these things accurately and come up with numerical values.
Let’s say you have a pain of 2, rating on a 10 point scale. An actual physical pain of 2. It’s kind of annoying, but not a very big deal as physical pain goes. And you have a resistance of 10 because you hate pain. Your suffering is 20. You are really suffering greatly from what amounts to a small physical discomfort. This happens all the time.
Because of this psychological factor, this resistance factor, the automatic withdrawal from pain, we suffer much more than we need to… For instance, my ankle hurts. I don’t want anything to do with my ankle! That automatically ups the R factor right away. The opposite of making yourself suffer a lot more than is necessary, given your actual physical condition, is if you can keep that R factor low. You may have very high physical pain levels, but not suffer much. And in fact, you can develop the full Vipassana attitude and skill so R is essentially zero. No matter how big your physical pain, you don’t suffer from it.
Wild idea, yes?
One of the causes for Shinzen developing this particular formulation was a woman, Shirley, I know this story from both sides of it, who came to speak to him about the Buddhist attitude towards suicide. She had so much physical pain that medicine couldn’t do anything about, that she was ready to take her life. She had — I don’t fully understand this medical condition, but you get spurs growing out along the bones of your spine that press directly on the nerves. They could dope her up on all the opium and morphine and she was still in excruciating pain. So she wanted to die. Instead he taught her Vipassana.
He taught her this attitude of, “Look at something moment by moment, clearly, with precision. What actually is it, at this very instant, with equanimity? Try not to have this attitude of pushing it away or grabbing it, but just look at it exactly like it is.”
If you can’t look at the pain in full at first, break it down into components and learn to attend to one of the components (exact location, moment-by-moment, say) with clarity and equanimity. Shirley learned to live with her pain, to reduce her suffering to essentially zero, to go on and continue a very active career instead of suicide.
And it’s worked that way with a lot of other people. He has a book out now on dealing with pain through these meditative techniques. It’s called Break Through Pain. I wrote a forward to it. If any of you have chronic pain problems, I recommend the book strongly. There’s a CD with it, too, that has guided meditations on it.
Shinzen is an outstanding Vipassana teacher, so ITP gave him an honorary doctorate degree three, four years ago or so. Were any of you at that seminar he gave? We had him give a weekend on meditation and everybody loved it. A transpersonal teacher who defined the terms of what the hell he was talking about: Whoa! Such a refreshing change from the typical vagary of meaning in the spiritual world!
Student: Who’s the author?
CTT: Shinzen, S-H-I-N like, you know, like your shin. ZEN like in Buddhism. Young, Y-O-U-N-G. Shinzen Young. A boy from Los Angeles who spent a lot of time studying this stuff in the East, but then realized he had to bring it back to the West.