Pain According to Buddha

“Just Observe” he says.

S.N Goenka

After 1 x hour of sitting straight, my legs are completely numb and the back painful. Sitting in meditation, scanning the body from head to toe, the awareness and concentration of the meditation finally comes to the back region.

Every part of me wants to avoid identifying it, or seeing exactly where it is, but the idea is to march on forward systematically and scan the body in a detached manner.

“Observe every sensation, and then keep moving” He says.

“Realise that every sensation has the same characteristic, it arises for some time, then passes away….keep moving keep moving”.

It feels like I’m marching into a battle, with every sensation bringing something different, moving to one spot, it’s heavy. Another spot…is cold. Another spot feels intense….how wide is that intense spot?

The idea is not to identify with any type of sensation, or start liking a particular type of sensation or feeling, just  be totally neutral and observe like a silent witness watching the flow of water and all its contents go by as you stand on the bank of a river.

At first it’s super hard, the painful spots feel, well….painful. But after some time and practise I begin examining what the nature is of that sensation. Where does it start, how wide is it, is it heavy, cold? Then I continue to move, knowing that lingering around might actually be another form of craving.

The Buddha is one of the most well known figures in human history. Statues adorn gardens, houses, paintings and sometimes the tattooed skin of spiritual seekers.

Buddha apparently became enlightened during a long and deep meditation under a tree. Following that, he transmitted his knowledge of Vipassana meditation to whoever would listen. 

Gautama the Buddha, over 2500 years ago, began the transmission of the “noble path”. And thousands of years later, his words and teachings have echoed into the hearts and souls of potentially millions of people, through what some might term exhaustive 10 x day silent meditation retreats.

Vipassana meditation, is a meditative practice about experiencing the reality of the sensations on the body, in an attempt to purify the mind and realise the ultimate truth on an experiential level:


So, being an Acupuncturist in Hobart fascinated with pain, I’m imagining a question. And if Bhuddha were alive, I’d ask him:

“What is pain??”

I sort of know what he’s going to say, but my human curiosity wants an explanation that is going to solve the crux of how to permanently dissolve pain, so that I never have to experience it again.

“Pain is just a sensation”. That’s what I imagine him saying.

It’s not what I want to hear. 

But the teachings are clear. Keep observing ALL sensations without judgement. No sensation is better or worse. All sensations have the same characteristic…they arise, then pass away. In one moment at the very same area, a particular sensation might be in a slightly different spot, or be less intense, or more feeble. 

On my very first 10 x day retreat (to find out about Vipassana meditation visit here), I think it was about the 5th or 6th day, when a realisation came during an extensive meditation practice.

About 50 minutes into it, in a meditation where you were asked to stay as still as possible and not move, the pain, or “sensation” in my back kept intensifying to the point I felt like there was no other choice but to cease immediately this “retreat” experience.

As that was happening, I tried to refocus my mind, and kept with the idea that ALL of this is just a sensation. I kept moving onto other parts slowly and deliberately. And then something happened. What could only be called the silent witness came and all the intensity that was magnified 1000x suddenly evaporated, leaving me so detached and light that I began observing everything as something that could not hurt me, because I was just aware. Sounds hippy la doo doo right?

The pain evaporated once I realised that pain was just another sensation, there was no need to attach to it, it couldn’t harm me.

After the meditation I was super excited. I rushed to meet with the teacher.

“What happened teacher?”. I launched into the whole experience with gusto.

“Ahhh” she said . “You’ve now realised there is no I…..there is no ego” 

I was perplexed.

Losing the ego, was in a way losing the attachment over the body and all the judgements that came along with it. All the identity politics that we place upon ourselves, what something might mean, or might do, what this sensation means, judging something as good or bad.

Retrospectively looking back, I was experiencing the present moment in its absolute truth, observing the subtle and obvious feelings and sensation that manifest on the body as it was, with each and out. Being so completely absorbed in the present moment the truth was able to reveal itself for what it is.

When there is no judgement, we are just awareness.

What the Buddha taught, obviously had much more depth than this tiny point I’m trying to make, but the point of this article is to talk about pain as a type of sensation.

I have not managed to continue the level of meditative practice I once had. The depth of my understanding is limited to my few brief years experiencing these practices and learning the fundamentals of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture, which has a different spin on things. In Chinese Medicine, the types of pain that exists translate into treatment protocols and channel selections in a clinical setting. Because “just observing pain” as a sensation is not always helpful to people who need real tangible options for dealing with that experience.

Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine is a system that has continuously evolved over thousands of years, utilising diagnostic principles that can work out how the nature of the pain relates to how we treat the body in question. It also uses the location and channel of the pain to find appropriate treatment options for that unique situation, along with appropriate clinically relevant diagnostic questioning to narrow down particular organs of imbalance to support the overall treatment.

The Buddha might disagree a lot with how Chinese Medicine treats and observes pain, however I think there are important things we can take away from both paradigms.

Whilst finding the true cause of the problem, or the root of the issue is generally what Chinese Medicine aims to do, the Buddha attempted to address the reactive nature of the mind that was responsible for creating and multiplying our problems.

In the Buddha’s eyes, I would assume that he thought reacting to pain was of no benefit and would only serve to multiply the problem. Observing the truth, the reality, the sensations, from moment to moment, brings you into the present moment. To a place that helps you actually experience things instead of jumping from the past to future. And just like the Wim Hoff idea of jumping into a cold shower (article here), you have no choice but to face it.

Observing might not be a cure all, but understanding different spiritual and psychological perspectives on how pain and sensation is perceived (read more about paradigms of pain) , can only serve to give more depth and clarity to other modalities including Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.

And maybe being flexible in what approaches and perspectives we use will help us navigate better end goals for health and well being. Maybe that provides us further opportunity for more resilience and happiness in life.

Thank you for reading.

Chad Wuest

Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Practitioner – Hobart

“This article is a work in progress and will be updated from time to time”

Images and Credit: – Buddha

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