Is physical pain a source of suffering?

275We are taught from early childhood that physical pain is a source of suffering. The two words – pain and suffering –, sometimes even used interchangeably, as if they were pointing to the same thing.

However, physical pain in the body is nothing more than an arising sensation that is labelled as ‘painful’. When this label is put onto the raw sensation accompanied with a story about how bad this experience is – that is the cause of suffering, not the physical sensation itself.

The word ‘pain’ is not just a simple ordinary word, because it goes hand in hand with a bunch of other labels: ‘having pain is bad’, ‘I don’t want it’, ‘I want it to go away’, ‘I don’t want to be sick’, and so on. So even if just this single word ‘pain’ is put onto the raw physical experience, all the other conditioned labels are also automatically applied. When this happens unconsciously, and not seen for what it is – only a stream of thoughts – the suffering is guaranteed.

The bodily sensation does not have any innate attributes at all. It is just IS as it is. It is not bad or painful, only thought-labels suggest otherwise.

However, in order to see the difference between pain and suffering, it is not sufficient to believe these lines. You have to see it for ‘yourself’; not thinking about it, but LOOKING at it.

Next time when there is a physical pain, there is an opportunity for paying attention to the bodily sensation itself. When all the thought-labels are ignored, what is the raw experience like? Does it have a shape or form? Does it say that ‘I am the pain’?

What kinds of thought-tags arise interpreting the experience? ‘Oh, it hurts’, ‘this is pain’, ‘I don’t want it’… Are there any accompanying mental images about the body or certain body parts? Maybe a picture from the ‘past’ or an image projected onto the ‘future’?

What is left, when all the stories, thought-labels and mental images are just observed but not believed or resisted? When they are seen for what they are – simply thoughts and images passing by, like clouds on the sky… what is left then?

The story about the pain can be very tricky. Apart from some extreme cases, the physical pain is not constant at all. Only thoughts create the illusion of its continuity.

Let’s say, that there is a headache. The first sign of it emerged about an hour ago, and it has been in the focus of attention about ten times for five seconds (at each time), since the first experience of the headache arose. Some (or all) of these experiences have been stored in memory, and every time when the focus of attention goes to the sensation of pain again, the ‘brain’ links the current experience with all previously stored memories and creates the illusion of its continuity, by stating that ‘I am having this terrible headache for more than an hour now’. When this interpretation is believed, the continuity of time has arisen, and as a result, the illusion of a continuously present pain has also emerged.

Maybe it sounds complicated, but it can be observed in direct experience. The following exercise could be helpful to look at this phenomenon, if there is a curiosity to do so.

For the next ten minutes, label all experiences as they arise. When the focus of attention is on seeing, say ‘seeing’, when something is heard, ‘hearing’, when a food is tasted, ‘tasting’, when a bodily sensation arise, ‘sensing’. If thoughts come up interpreting the experience, ‘thinking’, when mental images appear, ‘imagining’, when pain arising, just simply say ‘pain’ or ‘hurting’.

The exact wording does not matter. The purpose of the exercise is to see that pain or any other phenomena ‘exist’ only when it is in the focus of attention. When the attention moves somewhere else, the experience of the pain is gone. Only the mental interpretation links together the memories of the experiences, creating the illusion of their continuity.

The source of suffering is not the experience of ‘pain’.
The source of suffering is the story about the experience.

Am I the body?

265Imagine that you are walking in a beautiful forest. There is a small walking trail meandering away into the distance among the huge trees. Look around. The sun’s rays are filtered through the green canopy, illuminating the fallen leaves on the ground. Breathe in the fresh air. Feel the stroke of the gentle breeze on your skin. Listen to the twittering of birds and the sound of the cracking twigs under your feet. Feel the movements of your body as you walk along the trail. Enjoy the peace and beauty that surrounds you…

Now, wake up. Where were you just a few moments ago? Here, in front of your monitor, or in the forest, enjoying the walking?

If ‘you’ were the body, how is it possible, that you felt the breeze on your skin and the movements of ‘your’ body, while all along the body was sitting in front of the screen, reading these lines?

When you are dreaming at night, all the happenings in the dream seem so real, but the body is lying immovably in the bed, and still, ‘you’ experience a ‘different’ body moving from one plot to another in dreamland.

For ‘you’ the dream is real. ‘You’ have no idea that this is just a dream and the body is lying in the bed. ‘You’ seemingly have another body now. So, are ‘you’ the body?

What is the body anyway? If you look into the mirror and observe the sight you see, can you say with certainty that image in the mirror is ‘you’?

Take a childhood picture and compare it with the image of the mirror. Which one is ‘you’? Could both of them be ‘you’? What if none of them is ‘you’? What if there is no ‘you’ at all that could own the body?

If you close your eyes, where is the body? You could say that I can see an image in my head about my body. Are you sure that this body-image is the body? This image is just a fabricated mental construct about the body, but NOT the body itself.

Where is the body without this mental image? What is left? Only pure sensations…

In direct experience, without this image, without referring to any memories, does the body have any shape or outline or a clear boundary? Without images and mental labels, where does the body end and the clothes start? Is there an inside or outside? Does the body have a size or a height?

The body-image is nothing more than a concept stored in memory about how we imagine the way our bodies look like. This image is heavily layered with conditioned thoughts and stories about the body and particular body parts.

The origin of human suffering is the belief that there is somebody inside the body, separate from everything else. When this belief is taken to be real, a seemingly existing ‘me’ energy is ‘created’ with doership and a need for a constant protection from the rest of the world.

There is no solid person, a ‘me’ inside the body.
What you think you are does NOT exist.
‘I’ is just a label on the body.
But the word ‘I’ does NOT refer to anything real.
The body is real*, but you are NOT.

* (The body appears real in conventional reality, but not in direct experience)

Whatever IS, I don’t want it


Humans are almost always not satisfied with what IS. This dissatisfaction can fluctuate on a spectrum from mild discomfort to full blown suffering, and can be artificially divided into two categories.

Probably the most unbearable sufferings can come from self-referencing beliefs, which are the building blocks of ‘our’ seeming self-image or identity with a core belief in ‘my’ incompleteness, unworthiness, unlovingness, guiltiness or whatever it might be – because deep down most of us ‘feel’ we are somehow not good enough, not complete; something is missing. But is this really the case? Is it really true? Where is this apparently deficient self? Where?

The other type of suffering is much more subtle; it is a constant arguing with what IS. No matter what is in this moment, but one thing is sure: ‘I do not want it’. Either I want the previous moment back or the next moment, but definitely not THIS. But actually, the statement ‘this moment is not good enough’ – is just a thought, nothing more.

256In the morning at breakfast, there is a fantasy about how good biking will be later in the afternoon. However, when biking happens, the mind wanders imagining eating the cooled watermelon from the fridge when I will be at home. Later, while eating the watermelon, thoughts come up demanding to check the emails. When reading the emails happen, it is labelled by the mind with a thought as boring, with an accompanying fantasy about how much better biking around the lake in the afternoon was.

Meanwhile, the sense of ‘me’ is sustained by being lost in the story of ‘my’ life. And the whole story revolves around only one character, called ‘me’. The ‘I’ is the centre of the universe, centre of its own projection. Everything is interpreted through the filter of a huge web of beliefs that constitutes the self.

The sensations in the legs while pushing the bike, the pumping of the heart in the chest, the warmth of the sun and the stroke of the breeze on the skin, the sight of the glimmering lake and the sounds of the twittering birds, the coolness of the watermelon in the mouth – are all lost and replaced by a dream

There is a constant dissatisfaction with what IS.
Because in this moment ‘I’ do NOT exist.
In this moment, without a mental commentary, there is no self to be found.
The ‘me’ lives only in thoughts.

But the thoughts or the stories by themselves are not problematic, only believing them creates the illusion of their realness. In direct experience, there are just thoughts and images passing by – empty, meaningless. Their meanings emerge only when they are believed and not seen for what they are – simply just thoughts.

Suffering comes from resisting what IS.
Without resistance there is no suffering.
Without arguing with what IS, there is peace.

I cannot make you feel happy… it’s impossible…

137Can I make you feel happy or sad? Do I have the power to have an effect on your mood or feelings?

Assume that I am on the verge of telling you that I want to end our relationship, but I am not brave enough to bring the topic up because I am afraid of hurting your feelings. But do I really have the power to hurt anybody’s feelings?

If I leave you, you may feel sad, abandoned, angry or unloved. But is it true that I am the cause of your suffering? Can I make you suffer?

If I believe that I can do all of these to you, it means I am believing a story about my omnipotence. In the current version of the story of my life, I am playing god.

I have no power whatsoever on anybody’s feelings. It is literally impossible.

If you think that I am responsible for you feeling unloved and abandoned, it means that you project your own self-image onto me and blame me for your misery.

While the belief in the deficient, unloving self is intact, each person and situation reflect back, in one way or another, some version of this core belief. You cannot see me, you cannot hear me, because you perceive me and the whole world through this lens. No matter whether I treat you lovingly or not, you will see and interpret my actions as unloving.

When I decide to leave you, you find this as a proof of your unlovingness, which in turn, fortifies the core belief of the incomplete, unloving self that is the basis of your identity. Thus, it is projected outward again and again and making others responsible for your own creation.

You cannot see me; you only see your story about me, which is your story about ‘your’ self.

Reality is neutral. In the action of leaving you there is no inherent attributes of pain, abandonment or lack of love. Only your story about ‘me leaving you’ hurts you. Your thoughts are hurting you, not me. I cannot do that.

But if I believe that I can hurt you then I create my own suffering by feeling guilty or responsible for your feelings. I do this to myself by projecting the belief of my incomplete self onto you, which will be reflected back to me, and thus the story of the deficient self keeps going.

‘You’ and ‘me’, we are not that special.
‘I’ have no power to do anything with ‘you’.
Only ‘you’ can hurt yourself by believing ‘your’ story.
By believing that there is a ‘you’ that could be hurt.

What would you be without ‘your’ story?
Would ‘you’ be?

Beliefs – the building blocks of ‘our’ identities

026There is a freedom not believing any thoughts. Attachment to beliefs is the origin of suffering. Some people are even ready to die for their beliefs. But why are beliefs so precious for us? What are beliefs anyway?

Assume that you have just arrived home after a day of work. Your mind is full of the story of the happenings of the day, how your boss treated you unfairly and how bad the traffic was on the way home. The only thing you want is to lie down on the couch and tell ‘your’ story to your husband. You want him to listen to you and comfort you. As you start outpouring the intricate details of the happenings of your day, your husband suddenly interrupts you and instead of standing on your side he defends your boss. Immediately, you feel angry and frustrated due to the thought that has just popped-up ‘in your head’, ‘my husband never listens to me’. This single thought triggers a loop of other ‘disturbing’ thoughts; a very familiar and conditioned story that you thought thousand times before. ‘He doesn’t care about me, because if he cared about me he would have listened to me and stood by my side instead of making me wrong.’

‘He never listens to me’ or ‘He doesn’t care about me’ are just conditioned beliefs. Beliefs are nothing more than unexamined thoughts which are believed to be true, to be the accurate description of what IS.

Beliefs are very important for the ‘I’, because beliefs are the building blocks of ‘me’.

The ‘I’ never sees what is, because it always tries to interpret what IS according to what it learned previously, what this or that means to ‘me’. Everything is filtered through a huge web of beliefs before the interpretations and assumptions about what IS arise.

When we are talking and I believe the thought that ‘you never listen to me’, then I stop listening to you. I stop hearing what you are saying, because the thought in ‘my’ head overrides what you are saying. I cannot hear you, I cannot see you, I can only hear ‘my’ thoughts I believe about you, and see the constructed image in ‘my’ head of you. So the belief that ‘you never listen to me’ overrides what is presently here, in the now.

When you say something that contradicts ‘my’ belief systems, the ‘I’ hears them as a criticism not as a help, because it feels threatened. In defence of ‘my’ beliefs – which are the building blocks of ‘my’ identity – the mind wants to gather ‘proofs’ to support its existing belief systems, and not to take part in uncovering or destroying them.

And when you interrupt and override me is not just simply a conditioned habit, but a defence. You try to defend your point of view what you believe is ‘your’ self. You are not simply interrupting me; you are literally fighting for your life in that moment, fighting for ‘your’ identity.

Observing, examining and questioning beliefs cut through the attachment to them.

The self is ‘made of’ beliefs.
Without believing the content of beliefs, there is no self to be found.
This is freedom. This is freedom from suffering.

Nature of thoughts

149One of the biggest calamities of the human race is that we take ‘our’ thoughts too seriously and we suffer as a consequence. When there is a tendency to being lost in the content of thoughts, which is the habitual state of humanity, ‘we’ are at mercy of whatever thoughts might pop-up in ‘our heads’. An almost constant flux of thoughts appears on the horizon which can trigger a wide range of conditioned emotional responses.

Let’s say you are working on a home improvement project and try to assemble some furniture what you never did before. At first, some enthusiastic thoughts may come up with images about your beautiful new table and the approving smile on the face of your spouse. This fantasy may trigger some pleasurable emotions with a feeling of contentment which enhances your self-image. Later, when you start working on your project, some disturbing thoughts might arise: ‘This is much harder than I thought. I don’t know how to do it. What if I screw it up?’ – accompanied with images of a badly-built, wobbly table and the face of your wife frowning at you. Feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction go along with this story and your previously inflated self-esteem is now plummeting. What’s going on here?

Thoughts come and go as clouds on the sky but when they are believed they seem to become real for ‘us’. There is an emphasis on the word ‘seem’ because in reality – meaning in direct experience – a thought is real, but never its content. Its content is just a dream, a fantasy. When this is seen, the grip of the heaviness of thoughts is gone.

The function of thoughts is to make a mental description or concept about what IS for a later storage in memory, but this doesn’t mean automatically that this concept is accurate or real.

When thoughts are seen for what they are – mere thoughts passing by – their emptiness and powerlessness become apparent. They don’t point to any real thing.

The mind is a labelling machine.
Thoughts pop-up out of the blue, and ‘you’ have no control over them.
‘You’, who think you have control over ‘your’ thoughts, is just another thought.
There is no ‘you’ to have thoughts.
Thoughts are real, but you are NOT.

When this is seen, there is freedom.
Freedom from the grasp of thoughts.
Freedom from the constant need to become or to appear as somebody in the eyes of the ‘other’.

What is suffering?

109In order to answer this question, first, we have to make distinction between pain and suffering.

Imagine that you have bought a beautiful framed picture and you are just up to put it on the wall. You position the nail to the marked spot on the wall, lift the hammer, but a sudden sharp noise distracts your attention and you hit your thumb with the hammer instead of the nail. Abruptly, you feel a sharp pain.

Just in a few seconds, a chain of self referencing thoughts emerges: ‘What a fool I am! I should have been more careful. Oh, it hurts so much! What am I going to do now? What if I am not able to work tomorrow? I won’t be able to type, I’m sure. How will I explain it to my boss?’ – and it goes on and on. This is suffering.

The physical pain is real, but the suffering is optional.

When this string of selfing thoughts, which is a story put onto the experience of pain, is seen for what it is, and not believed or taken seriously, then what is left is just the raw experience of pain in the thumb.

Suffering is the byproduct of a belief in the illusion of the self, who ‘lives’ separately from the rest of the world. When the ‘I’-thought is seen through then there is nobody who could suffer from anything.

From the point of view of the separate ‘individual’ the suffering seems very vivid and real, because all the thoughts that generate suffering are believed. Like in the movie analogy, when the character identifies with its role, all the happenings in the movie of the flow of life are taken very seriously. As the story of ‘his’ life plays itself, the character is just tossed around in the endless waves of the ocean being at the mercy of the elements.

When the story is seen through, it becomes translucent and loses its sharpness and seriousness. It becomes lighter and entertaining as a movie intended to be. Even if the story takes a ‘darker’ turn in the form of sickness or some kind of loss – pain, sadness, frustration or anger may arise but they cannot stick to anywhere and linger, since there is no ‘you’ to stick to, who could suffer from them.

Suffering is optional.
Without believing thoughts, there is no suffering.

How is the self constructed? (part 2)

Around the age of two, the ‘story of my life’ started its lifelong, ragged journey. The ‘I’, who is the centre of the story, has been constantly and uncontrollably expanding out to the universe.

119The human mind is a labelling machine, meaning that it interprets and judges everything it encounters. It cannot help doing it, this is its job.

The original self-construct, which is an identification with the ‘I’-thought – ‘I am Charlie, I am this body’ – is further expanded with a huge array of adjectives picked up from the environment, like ‘Charlie is a good boy, so I am good’, and later, generated within the system itself by thinking, ‘I screwed it up, I am a failure’.

These deductions that ‘I am good’ or ‘I am a failure’ later become beliefs and the attributes of the ‘I’, which are nothing more than unexamined thoughts. In addition to these self-generated beliefs, a huge web of social norms have been gradually internalised into the dream of sense of ‘me’.

‘I’ have learned what is good or bad, what ‘I’ should and shouldn’t do in order to be accepted by the seeming ‘others’. But social norms are nothing more than beliefs – unexamined thoughts – but we believe that they are accurate descriptions of what IS.

So, when a slim body becomes the beauty ideal of society, then the slimness is labelled as high value, as a means for the ‘I’ to gain approval and attention from others, while its opposite, a ‘fat’ body is tagged undesirable, ugly and worthless. But these labels are just beliefs. The body itself does not have any innate attributes of worth, beauty or ugliness, regardless of its size. The body cannot be young or become old. ‘Young’ and ‘old’ are just mental constructs, labels put onto the mental image of the body. The body just IS, as it IS.

But since these labelling thoughts and beliefs are believed and not seen for what they are – a stream of thoughts passing by like clouds in the sky – they become the attributes of the sense of ‘I’, which leads to suffering.

But this is just a story, nothing more.
There has never been a self, an ‘I’ in the first place.
The self is just a fiction, an illusion.
‘I’ do not exist.

This is freedom.

How is the self constructed? (part 1)

Human suffering originates from the belief that there is somebody inside the body, a solid entity, an individual, who is separate from the rest of the world. As a result of thinking, a seemingly existing ‘me’ energy is ‘created’, an autonomous entity, with free will and doership, who acts independently from everything else.

103But how is this self created? What is the sense of ‘I’ made of? When ‘I’ was a baby, before learning the language ‘I’ think in now, the aliveness of the body was there, but the ‘I’ was not. As the brain developed and acquired the capacity to learn a language, the word ‘I’ was learned – alongside with thousand others, but not being particularly more important than any other words – as a means to localise bodies in space, to differentiate this body from others. Consequently, the sense of aliveness in the body has become associated with the word ‘I’.

In the meantime, the body was given a name, ‘Here comes Charlie’, and it is learned that this name refers to this particular body. From these associations, an idea is constructed in the developing brain: ‘I am Charlie, I am this body’, – and the sense of self was ‘born’, believed into reality.

Later on, as picking up the language went on, different verbal names for emotions were adopted from the surrounding environment and labelled the pure sensations that arose in the body. Thus, the sense of self expanded with the inclusion of ‘my feelings’. ‘I am Charlie, I am this body, and I’m happy’.

Meanwhile, as the developing brain reached the capacity to retain long term memory, the sense of ‘I’ further expanded with images from the ‘past’, thus the ‘story of my life’ started its journey with the hero, the ‘I’, at the centre of the dream. From there, the self, which is constructed from the ‘past’, is being projected into the ‘future’.

A separate individual was ‘born’ out of nothing, without any real substance.
The only reality is the sensations in the body, the sensory perceptions and the arising thoughts.

But where is the self?
Has there ever been a self, or is it just a trick of the mind?
Where are ‘you’?
Is there a real ‘you’ in the body?

Or there is just a movement of energy, like the waving of the ocean, the blowing of the wind or the warmth of the sun.