Fear is the major ingredient of pain. It is what makes pain hurt. Take away the fear and only feeling is left. In the mid-1970s, in a poor and remote forest monastery in northeast Thailand, I had a bad toothache. There was no dentist to go to, no telephone, and no electricity. We didn't even have any aspirin or paracetamol in the medicine chest. Forest monks were expected to endure.
In the late evening, as often seems to happen with sickness, the toothache grew steadily worse and worse. I considered myself quite a tough monk but that toothache was testing my strength. One side of my mouth was solid with pain. It was by far the worst toothache I had ever had, or have ever had since. I tried to escape the pain by meditating on the breath.
I had learned to focus on my breath when the mosquitoes were biting; sometimes I counted forty on my body at the same time, and I could overcome one feeling by focusing on another. But this pain was extraordinary. I would fill my mind with the feeling of the breath for only two or three seconds, then the pain would kick in the door of the mind that I'd closed, and come bursting in with a furious force.
I got up, went outside and tried walking meditation. I soon gave that up too. I wasn't 'walking' meditation; I was 'running' meditation. I just couldn't walk slowly. The pain was in control: it made me run. But there was nowhere to run to. I was in agony. I was going crazy.
I ran back into my hut, sat down and started chanting. Buddhist chants are said to possess supernormal power. They can bring you fortune, drive away dangerous animals, and cure sickness and pain -- or so it is said. I didn't believe it. I'd been trained as a scientist. Magic chanting was all hocus-pocus, only for the gullible. So I began chanting, hoping beyond reason that it would work.
I was desperate. I soon had to stop that too. I realized I was shouting the words, screaming them. It was very late and I was afraid I would wake up the other monks. With the way I was bellowing out those verses, I would probably have woken the whole village a couple of kilometers away! The power of the pain wouldn't let me chant normally.
I was alone, thousands of miles from my home country, in a remote jungle with no facilities, in unendurable pain with no escape. I'd tried everything I knew, everything. I just couldn't go on. That's what it was like.
Desperation Opened the Door to Wisdom
A moment of sheer desperation like that unlocks doors into wisdom, doors that are never seen in ordinary life. One such door opened to me then, and I went through it. Frankly, there was no alternative.
I remembered two short words: 'let go'. I had heard those words many times before. I had expounded on their meaning to my friends. I thought I knew what they meant: such is delusion. I was willing to attempt anything, so I tried letting go, one hundred percent letting go. For the first time in my life, I really let go.
What happened next shook me. That terrible pain immediately vanished. It was replaced with the most delectable bliss. Wave upon wave of pleasure thrilled through my body. My mind settled into a deep state of peace, so still, so delicious. I meditated easily, effortlessly now.
After my meditation, in the early hours of the morning, I lay down to get some rest. I slept soundly, peacefully. When I woke up in time for my monastic duties, I noticed I had a toothache. But it was nothing compared to the previous night.
Letting Go of Pain
In the previous story, it was the fear of the pain of that toothache that I had let go of. I had welcomed the pain, embraced it and allowed it to be. That was why it went.
Many of my friends who have been in great pain have tried out this method and found it does not work! They come to me to complain, saying my toothache was nothing compared to their pain. That's not true. Pain is personal and cannot be measured. I explain to them why letting go didn't work for them using this story of my three disciples.
The first disciple, in great pain, tries letting go.
'Let go,' they suggest, gently, and wait.
'Let go!' they repeat when nothing changes.
'Just let go!'
'Come on, Let Go.'
'I'm telling you, Let! Go!'
We may find this funny, but that is what we all do most of the time. We let go of the wrong thing. We should be letting go of the one saying, 'Let go.' We should be letting go of the 'control freak' within us, and we all know who that is. Letting go means 'no controller'.
The second disciple, in terrible pain, remembers this advice and lets go of the controller. They sit with the pain, assuming that they're letting go. After ten minutes the pain is still the same, so they complain that letting go doesn't work.
I explain to them that letting go is not a method for getting rid of pain, it is a method for being free from pain. The second disciple had tried to do a deal with pain: ' I'll let go for ten minutes and you, pain, will disappear. OK?'
That is not letting go of pain; that is trying to get rid of pain.
The third disciple, in horrible pain, says to that pain something like this: 'Pain, the door to my heart is open to you, whatever you do to me. Come in.'
The third disciple is fully willing to allow that pain to continue as long as it wants, even for the rest of their life; to allow it even to get worse. They give the pain freedom. They give up trying to control it. That is letting go. Whether the pain stays or goes is now all the same to them. Only then does the pain disappear.
TM or How to Transcend-Dental Medication
A member of our community has very bad teeth. He has needed to have many teeth pulled out, but he'd rather not have the anaesthetic. Eventually, he found a dental surgeon who would extract his teeth without anaesthetic. He has been there several times. He finds it no problem.
Allowing a tooth to be extracted by a dentist without anaesthetic might seem impressive enough, but this character went one better. He pulled out his own tooth without anaesthetic.
We saw him, outside the monastery workshop, holding a freshly pulled tooth smeared with his blood, in the claws of an ordinary pair of pliers. It was no problem: he cleaned the pliers of blood before he returned them to the workshop.
I asked him how he had managed to do such a thing. What he said exemplifies why fear is the major ingredient of pain.
'When I decided to pull out my own tooth -- it was such a hassle going all the way to the dentist -- it didn't hurt. When I walked to the workshop, that didn't hurt. When I picked up the pair of pliers, it didn't hurt. When I held the tooth in the grip of the pliers, it still didn't hurt. When I wiggled the pliers and pulled, it hurt then, but only for a couple of seconds. Once the tooth was out, it didn't hurt much at all. It was only five seconds of pain, that's all.'
You, my reader, probably grimaced when you read this true story. Because of fear, you probably felt more pain than he did! If you tried the same feat, it would probably hurt terribly, even before you reached the workshop to get the pliers. Anticipation -- fear -- is the major ingredient of pain.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Lothian Books, Australia. www.lothian.com.au
(North American edition published under the title: "Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung?: Inspiring Wisdom for Welcoming Life's Difficulties" published by Wisdom Publications. ©2004. www.wisdompubs.org)
Opening The Door Of Your Heart (Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung?)
by Ajahn Brahm.
The 108 pieces in the international bestseller Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? offer thoughtful commentary on everything from love and commitment to fear and pain. Drawing from his own life experience, as well as traditional Buddhist folk tales, author Ajahn Brahm uses over thirty years of spiritual growth as a monk to spin delightful tales that can be enjoyed in silence or read aloud to friends and family.
About the Author
Ajahn Brahm is the abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia and the Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. He is widely regarded as a meditation master with great insight and humor, known for his inspiring and enlightening talks. He regularly teaches in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore and visits many other countries as a guest teacher and motivational speaker.
Books by this Author