Pain without Suffering, Love without Attachment
Notes from 10 days of silent meditation, part III
It’s the “strong determination” session; I’m supposed to remain entirely motionless for an hour, scanning my body for sensations. I have a horrific backache.
The shoulder, the elbow, the hand. “Pay attention to me! This is urgent!” my back screams. I ignore it with all my might. The neck, the chest, the belly. When I finally, finally get to the lower back, I try to find the pain. Where is it, exactly? What, exactly, does it feel like? I subdivide the back into tiny patches, examine each one carefully. The harder I look, the less I find — until suddenly it’s like someone has spread a minty ointment over the entire area, which erupts into tingles.
The sensation is staggeringly powerful — but without a trace of suffering. I’m plunged into a storm at sea — a sea of pure power, far beyond the land of pleasure and pain.
Is pain an illusion, then?¹ Like many philosophers, I thought that if I can know anything, I can know when I’m in pain — but in the meditation room, I didn’t know. And it had always seemed self-evidently true that that there couldn’t be such a thing as unperceived pain. Now I’m beginning to suspect that the only pain there is is unperceived, or at most indistinctly perceived… See it completely clearly, and it vanishes.
My worldview is collapsing. I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all.
In bed, my feet cramp in a tangle of knots. The pain which is maybe an illusion keeps me up for hours.
In my dream, I run through long, white, twisting corridors. They take me to an enormous room, its floor packed with colorful balls — like one of those ball pits for children. Above the balls, the room is tall, spacious, wonderful.
The dream comes with a certainty: I am inside my mind.
In the morning, I think of misery, misery, misery. I had been staggeringly less happy than I thought. I had been drowning in the ball pit of my mind, only seeing the world through chinks in my swarming thoughts. I thought I knew beauty, peace, joy… but that had been only a drop in the ocean of happiness that could be mine. And how many more people are like this: run to the ground by their own habits, spending their lives chasing power and glory, fool’s gold worth less than the spiderwebs in their own yards!
I pity not just the poor, the oppressed, the victims — but the millionaires, the oppressors, the perpetrators. May they find their way, as speedily and painlessly as possible, to such joy as I am feeling now; may all beings be happy.
The teacher meets with the students one by one and asks them if they were able to sit still for an hour. No, it was so hard! No, so painful! So miserable!
I feel my chest swell with joy. I’m a better meditator!
What we’re all practicing here is detachment; I’m starting to feel uncomfortable about this fact. Specifically, I’m worried about love. Can you have love without attachment? I always suspected that you couldn’t.
Which is ironic, considering that I’ve had this feeling of unattached love, in one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
I had only been dating my partner for a few weeks when I knew. Knew not just that I loved him, but that I had already loved him for some time. It was like waking to a bell and knowing you’d been counting the beats in your sleep: love had run out ahead of its knowledge. Slowly, it had been flowing in, easing me in, filling the room around me — and when I awoke, I was submerged in certainty.
That moment of realization was perfectly self-sufficient. It was so early in the relationship; I knew nothing was certain. Maybe tomorrow he’d leave; maybe I would. That was completely irrelevant.
This, now, would always be beautiful.
I see a derpy fish, slack-jawed, eyes half open, mouth pointed to the sky. It’s a perfect caricature: I’m meditating so intently that my eyes have rolled back in their sockets and my mouth hangs open.
In my body scans now, I feel tingles everywhere. Am I creating them, somehow? Or are they always there, my mind simply too dull to notice?²
People complain that love weakens with time. Relationships may strengthen over the years, but feelings are flimsy. Two years into it, or twenty, the commitment may be there, but the feeling isn’t what it used to be.
What if it’s not like this? What if, like tingles on your skin, like spiderwebs crisscrossing your lawn, like the highway by which you’ve built your house, your love is always there, as loud and strong as it’s ever been? What if you’ve simply grown numb to it — precisely because it is always there?
I see a stately dog, nose pointed exaltedly to the sky, curly-haired ears flapping in the wind.
Were the visions of the saints and mystics like this? Something less out of a painting and more out of a nature documentary?
They say that when God created the world, he made things one by one. When he was finished, he looked over all he had made and saw that it was very good.
Here, new things are made for me each day. Just now, it’s the tininess of a spider’s abdomen, like an eye of a needle too small for me to thread. Then, the hoppitiness of cicadas, ten minuscule creatures jumping every second where a day ago there was only grass. Then the multiplicity, the sixness, of an ant’s legs.
Things are made for me one by one; I see that they are very good.
It used to make me so sad to think of all the people who gave up their lives for false religions. But what if the ascetics really gave up nothing at all, and gained the beauty of the world? What if even the martyrs felt not suffering, but intensity?
I wept with joy when I understood that I wasn’t a lawnmower. Then I learned that pain is maybe an illusion… and shrugged my shoulders.
Until, that is, I thought of grief. If a stupid backache is a thing of sublime power, then how much more sublime the pain of losing a loved one must be!
I catch a faint outline of this beautiful feeling: a grief without a trace of self-pity. A grief fully concerned with the departed and the relationship, and not at all with the one who remains.
A grief that, in the end, is only another form of love.³
The visions turn kaleidoscopic. Vivid geometric shapes tessellate with body parts. Meditators form paper doll chains. Then they are only legs, connected by long wooden planks, walking, walking, walking…
It’s raining again. On the uneven parking lot, the puddles turn to streams. Motion piles on motion: swaying curtains of rain running raindrop-feet across rivulets, joining into wind-ruffled rivers.
I know that I am like the rain — flowing, flowing, flowing…
If love is a sea, then grief is a storm at sea.
And if the storm comes — when the storm comes — let me be there fully. Let me not hold my head under, let me not fight the waves — but only feel them breaking against my skin.
This is what I’m practicing for.
Goenka warns us not to get too attached to the pleasant tingles. This surprises me. Pleasant? I find the feeling interesting, but emotionally neutral. (Occasionally, when it keeps me up at night, it’s mildly annoying.) The sensation itself is very similar to the feeling of my feet waking up from numbness…
What if that’s exactly what it is? The feeling of being alive, of blood circulating in my veins — normally noticed only after the flow had been cut off, but really always there?
What if love is like this too? What if I had always felt the love I discovered at the start of my relationship? What if it’s always the same love: the love for our parents we are born with? A love we can redirect and multiply, but never lose?
What if we are born into love and die in love?
What the hell would that even mean, that “it’s always the same love”? Isn’t love just some cocktail of neurotransmitters, anyway?
Okay, so I’m probably wrong. How calmly this thought comes! I am learning humility and patience; yesterday’s profound insight is today’s idiotic nonsense, but it may also be the seed of tomorrow’s wisdom.
For the moment, what is sprouting from this broken seed is curiosity. What is love, scientifically? What about pain? What happened in that meditation room, when my pain turned to tingles — was it something in my brain, in my back, both? Is pain built up of tingles, the way an image on a screen is made up of pixels?⁴ Or did I somehow use my mind to give myself a massage, the way a cat can soothe herself with her purring?⁵ Is purring a form of meditation? How do cicadas make their music? When an ant walks, in what order does it move its legs?
When have I last felt this curious? When have I wanted to know not because it would be the missing piece of my brilliant argument, not because one ought to know, not because it was difficult — but simply because it was interesting?
This answer, too, comes calmly. I never wanted knowledge; I wanted to be smart. Even the logic puzzles from childhood: I loved the thrill of solution less than my dad’s admiration. And now? What sort of person goes to Oxford, then Harvard, to study mathematics and philosophy, maybe the purest of disciplines? Who locks herself into a degree with no career prospects beyond academia?
Someone who loves knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Someone who wants you to believe that.
God help me, I am appreciating the asphalt… So much texture, so many little different stones! On top of this: the glorious randomness of scattered acorns, their shadows in the evening light long and blue, their caps as dappled and detailed as the ground.
What if everything is beautiful?
It’s the last session of the day, and I am collapsing with exhaustion. I give up, uncross my legs, give in to the warm woozy feeling.
I see kittens and puppies wrapped in soft blankets.
If my hallucinations reveal anything about my subconscious, it’s that I really love adorable animals.
 From what I understand, the Buddhist orthodoxy is not that there is no pain, but that pain and suffering are two different things. By itself pain doesn’t necessarily lead to suffering (i.e. there’s nothing intrinsically bad about pain) — but resistance to pain does. According to meditation teacher Shinzen Young, suffering is pain times resistance to the pain (see John Yates, The Mind Illuminated). If that’s right, my experience was one of removing the resistance so thoroughly that the pain vanished.
 Like the visions, the tingles may also be a sign of relaxation. They happen more often when I’m sleepy, even if I’m not particularly focused. However, since the retreat I’ve also been experiencing tingles in my face when thinking hard, which appear to be correlated with the tip-of-the-tongue, edge-of-an-idea feeling.
 If Shinzen Young’s formula is right, such grief would have all of the pain of ordinary grief, without any of the resistance to the pain, and hence without any of the suffering.
I used to find Buddhism shallow, a worldview motivated ultimately by the avoidance of suffering. But if suffering is avoidance of pain, then avoiding suffering is avoiding avoidance — not so shallow after all!
 This is extremely suggestive of reductionism about the mind, a view on which e.g. pain is nothing more or less than a brain state and consciousness is nothing more or less than a structural property of the brain. Intuitively, this can’t be right — how could pain, as felt from the inside, “just be” a complex physical state? But this meditative experience makes me more sympathetic to the view. Maybe, just maybe, if I meditated hard enough, I would see not just my pain, but even my consciousness, reduced to a physical property.
 If I had to bet on it today, it would be the mental massage option. It’s notable that my pain was caused by muscle tension, and not implausible that what I experienced as letting go of resistance to the pain was simply a matter of relaxing my muscles. However, I suspect that in other cases meditation interacts with pain in more interesting ways. In a 2005 study, subjects shown real-time fMRIs of their brain areas associated with pain were able to reduce activity in these areas and their subjective experience of pain. (More recent overview.) Meditation seems to provide a more direct way of doing the same thing, with introspection instead of brain scans.