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How can an understanding of emptiness help when experiencing physical pain, i have some understanding of emptiness from a mental viewpoint, and I understand that I can direct my mind to perceive the physical pain as karma ripening or that I have a choice of perception of my physical pain, I don't have to experience it as something to have aversion to. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you.

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11 Answers 11

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Pain is just pain, it is empty of a self, it isn't a self; does not belong to a self; is empty of an owner

Seen as being empty of the quality of self or belonging to a self; there does not come to be an 'I am' in regards to the pain; there being no 'I am' in regards to the pain there is no 'I am experiencing pain'; there being no 'i am experiencing pain' there is no 'i am bad because i am experiencing pain'; there being no 'i am bad because i am experiencing pain ' there is no 'may i not be experiencing pain'

Understanding emptiness in this sense removes the basis for aversion that could arise in regards to a painful feeling

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If you start doing meditation and if you are lucky to have a good teacher, it is possible for you to have what we call a mind/body experience, meaning that you will feel that you are conscious of knowing that your mind is a separate entity to your body, you will not feel pain when that happens, but there is no way that you will experience 'Sunyata' ie. emptiness, even at 'Sothapanna state', you will only experience 'Three Universal Characteristics' but not 'Emptiness' that is totally a different experience altogether, about the cosmos where there are no particles/material phenomena (Rupa kalapa) and no formations (nama) other than the natural cosmic primary force which has been experienced as the ultimate truth by Buddha.

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One of the things I've noticed in meditation is what I can best describe as physiological latency. If I'm sufficiently deep, and there is a sudden event — a loud, startling noise; a sudden muscle twinge; a bright flash of light — there is a distinct space between the registration of the event as a mere sensory event and the reactive impulse to respond to it. If that space is clear enough, the impulse to respond can disappear into it, or fail to arise at all. Nothing is left except the perception of the event having occurred, and emptiness reactions would have filled.

Pain is a signal from the body that something is out of whack and ought to be looked to. In and of itself, it is nothing more than a 'mere' sensory event. Of course, almost all of us are conditioned to respond to pain with a mental activity: fear and worry, thoughts about how best to avoid or quickly relieve pain, self-recriminations (because pain is often associated with punishment; the 'reopening of karma' as the question puts it). But it is perfectly possible to find that space between the sensory experience of pain and the reactive mental impulses we are habituated into. And when we do, pain is just a lighthouse shining out over clear, empty waters, telling us where we might go next or what we might avoid later, but troubling nothing directly.

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Understanding emptiness logically is not sufficient. This has to be experienced practicing Satipathana.

Seven days without pain killers.

https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=16532&p=235526&hilit=

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  • Thankyou Sarath
    – Molly
    Jan 15 '20 at 19:34
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"How can an understanding of emptiness help when experiencing physical pain?"

The doctrine of emptiness or shunyata is an extremely advanced topic and not applicable for most lay practitioners. It is among the deepest and most subtle of the Buddha's teaching and extremely hard to understand intellectually even trivially let alone to actually meditate on it and perceive emptiness directly.

I would advise to let go of this doctrine for right now and focus on more accessible teachings of the Buddha which indeed might be able to help with your physical pain.

"I understand that I can direct my mind to perceive the physical pain as karma ripening..."

When you are experiencing physical pain you can try to bring to mind the law of cause and effect and understand that your current predicament is caused by past actions. With this in mind you can resolve to try and steer clear of future actions which lead to suffering and look to the Buddha's teachings as to what are fruitful actions that lead to happiness and what are unwholesome actions that lead to suffering. However, just bringing to mind the law of cause and effect will not stop your current painful physical sensations.

"...or that I have a choice of perception of my physical pain, I don't have to experience it as something to have aversion to."

Having an aversion to physical pain is a shared trait of all physical sentient beings. You are not alone! Unfortunately, you can't just wish this aversion away. Knowing that it is an aversion is good though and in the future you can try to concentrate your mind and activities on cherishing others.

Here is a meditation you can try that might not help with the physical pain, but it will help you use the physical pain to deepen your practice.

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  • Thankyou Yeshe Tenley, very helpful.
    – Molly
    Jan 15 '20 at 19:33
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Whenever there is feeling physical pain, in the moment you can identify the feelings/process of being aware of and identifying pain and at every single moment you feel pain, that same moment you felt pain it means you felt the absence of what was there before that pain. Whenever there is feeling there is something that was unfelt. Pain here means relief there. This is how i deal with physical pain while focusing on voidness and emptiness. For me, voidness is a place in space. It is where i go for the refuge of the immense pain here in samsara. Here where there is nothing but dukkha and pain and cold loneliness. I pray your pain subsides. I pray you learn to harness the power available to us in the void.

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Emptiness in lay man terms - > pain occurs from desire (dukkha) or life over expectation. i.e. over craving for big house/money/power/public recognition/lover or fancy car that outside of your capability. When empty your mind with something impossible or get rid of target that very less likely happen then pain is slowly gone. i.e. in exam, normally your kid scores 20/100 and in 2 weeks in final exam expected kid to score over 80/100 then it's probably creating more pain.

Practice inner self understanding then set a target base on your capability. Slowly adjust your target and expectation that realistic, balance up to yourself and beneficial to surrounding sentient if possible. example on how to understand more about yourself i.e https://truecolorsintl.com/the-four-color-personalities/

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Let's say you own a beautiful shiny red car that was recently purchased.

You park your car at an outdoor car park next to a tall building, then you enter the building. There are other cars parked at that car park too.

Outside, it starts to rain heavily and winds become strong. Inside, you take the elevator to the tenth floor.

An hour later, you hear a loud sound like something big and heavy came crashing to the ground. Someone tells you that a giant billboard with lighting was just blown by the wind, and it came crashing down and smashed into a red car. The car is totally obliterated.

You hear this and instantly panic - "oh no! could it have smashed into my red car?" You rush into the elevator and press the button to go to the ground floor. While the elevator goes down, many thoughts run through your mind, like "Would my insurance pay for this? What about my car loan? How do I get to work daily if I don't have a car? How do I send my kids to school?" Your heart races.

At the ground floor, you rush out to the entrance to look at your car.

Phew! It was another red car that was destroyed by the giant billboard. Not your car. The unfortunate red car was on another side of the building.

Instantly, you calm down and feel relieved. Why? It was not YOUR car that was destroyed. The many anxious thoughts instantly evaporate.

Similarly, when you feel physical pain, you also feel mental pain and anguish - like being struck by two darts when only one hit you (SN 36.6). Why? Because it's YOUR body, YOUR health, YOUR life, YOUR future, YOUR family - that is affected.

If you get admitted to the hospital for breathlessness and chest pain due to Covid-19, you may have a lot of thoughts running through your mind like "Will I get better? Would I get pneumonia? Would I be put on the ventilator for months? Somebody I knew died this way. If I don't make it, what would happen to my family? Who will take care of my kids?" You feel distressed and panic.

This is explained in SN 22.93:

“Bhikkhus, suppose there was a mountain river sweeping downwards, flowing into the distance with a swift current. If on either bank of the river kasa grass or kusa grass were to grow, it would overhang it; if rushes, reeds, or trees were to grow, they would overhang it. If a man being carried along by the current should grasp the kasa grass, it would break off and he would thereby meet with calamity and disaster; if he should grasp the kusa grass, it would break off and he would thereby meet with calamity and disaster; if he should grasp the rushes, reeds, or trees, they would break off and he would thereby meet with calamity and disaster.

“So too, bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling … regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. That form of his disintegrates and he thereby meets with calamity and disaster. He regards feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self … consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That consciousness of his disintegrates and he thereby meets with calamity and disaster.

“What do you think, bhikkhus, is form permanent or impermanent?”—“Impermanent, venerable sir.”…—“Therefore … Seeing thus … He understands: ‘… there is no more for this state of being.’”

It's because you consider yourself as having a self, and the body, health, life, family, future etc. as belonging to the self, that it causes you mental anguish and panic to realize that you may lose them.

What if the body, health, life, family, future, possessions etc. are empty of a self?

Then it will be like the red car. You will not feel mental anguish if the destroyed red car is not YOUR's. Similarly, if the body, health, life, family, future and possessions do not belong to you, you will not feel mental anguish.

If you realize that the body, the mind, the health, the life, the family, the future and the possessions are not the self, do not belong to the self, not in the self, not part of the self etc. then you will not feel mental anguish or mental pain.

Then as stated in SN 36.6, you may feel physical pain, but you will not feel mental pain because of the physical pain, because you're not taking something which is impermanent and subject to disintegration, as belonging to the self. In another words, it is empty of a self.

And that is the relationship between emptiness (SN 35.85) and physical pain.

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How can an understanding of emptiness help when experiencing physical pain

Understanding how physical pain is "empty" can drastically reduce the intensity in which it is perceived. I have an analogy that hopefully illustrates the dynamics of how this happens.

Imagine you are watching a horror film on television. A monster pops out on the screen suddenly and gives you a fright. Now lets look at this scenario from two perspectives.

If you are absorbed in watching the film, the monster jumping out at you could be extremely scary! If you are invested in the story or put yourself in the shoes of the main characters, you observe this creature as a great threat. And by doing so, your fear response to it can be very large.

On the other hand, if you observe the "true nature" of what is occuring, you would have a very different perspective. You would realize that there is no monster, there is simply a series of pixels being displayed on a television. Although there is an image of a monster on the screen, the monster itself is "empty." It is simply an image. There is no "real" physical monster or any actual threat. Because you understand the monster is simply an image, any "realness" or "substance" is known to be inaccurate. Your understanding of the monster's "emptiness" has the consequence of changing the effect of the jump scare. Now that you don't see the monster as a threat, you may be surprised, but not afraid.

In the same way as the monster, physical pain can be seen in this light. Physical pain's true nature is empty. By this I mean we observe its appearance, but it does not harm or cause any affects. If you believe yourself to be the physical body, then you have the first perspective. You see pain as real and a threat and something to be avoided, for physical pain has real tangible effects on the body. But if you have seen through the grand illusion, and know that what you are is not the body, then you know that physical pain is of no consequence to you, for it can not touch you.

i have some understanding of emptiness from a mental viewpoint, and I understand that I can direct my mind to perceive the physical pain as karma ripening or that I have a choice of perception of my physical pain

Unfortunately, the understanding of emptiness that is required to lessen the effects of physical pain is an experiential one, not intellectual. You can not think your way into lessening your pain. In order to gain this benefit, you have to experience not being the body firsthand, and see through your own experience the lack of substance behind everything we call "the world."

I hope this explanation shed some light on the answer to your question. I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to rationalize how something we believe so strongly to be harmful in reality is not. It is only through meticulously observing your own experience that this seemingly unbelievable statement can be verified.

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There is no such as physical pain arising in what the Buddha called "dwelling in emptiness" and one would be wise not to follow householder's desired practice of "pseudo-emptiness" as the most actually teach and practice, just developing the most dangerous "household-equanimity". If one wished to come to this state one has to walk the path correct which starts in leaving world/house, as understood, first.

There is no physical pleasure or pain for one who had left world, the five strings of sensuallity, beyound.

So what do you thinks would be good to progress wishing for pleasant dwelling of the Arahats?

[Note that this isn't given for stacks, exchange and other "free/empty" trade-bonds but to escape from this wheels]

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What is emptiness ? It is the realisation that none of the five aggregates are me , mine or myself. When none of the aggregates are me , myself or mine then will there be a craving for the existence or non existence of those aggregates ? No. When that is realised your mental agony immediately goes away and your physical pain reduces manifold. You are calm and content... Will the physical pain go away completely? I am not sure but you will have the ability to withstand any physical assault once you have attained Nirvana. Many monks in the past and Buddha himself demonstrated the ability to withstand any misfortune.

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