satipatthana course diary: Adhitthana and pain

The one thing that makes me a little bit uncomfortable about a Vipassana course is the 1-hour adhitthana sitting thrice a day. Adhitthana is a pali word meaning strong determination. The intent for the meditator is to sit a whole hour without moving hands or changing posture. The aches, pains, mental discomfort can be excruciating. However, someone who has calmed his mental fluctuations can do this in a snap. This, for me, is easier said than done.

In the previous Vipassana course I served, I was not required to sit in Adhitthana as I was a server. And I did not. I tried a couple times and failed around the 45 minute mark. Usually, I’d break posture within 30 minutes. But no big deal. No requirement. There was another hard core server who I think did adhitthana but I did not.

So in the satipatthana course, adhitthana begins on the third day and I failed the first three adhitthanas. In the normal sits, I was forced to change postures every 10-15 minutes. So great was my discomfort. Doubts raged my mind. Earlier courses I could be expected to successfully sit in adhitthana 9 tries out of 10. Why was I failing each one now? Was it because I was no longer celibate in my daily life? But so many sexually active people are able to do this. Why was just I failing? Was I so sexually weak that one ejaculation every 4 days was causing this? Was I so sexually weak that one ejaculation every four days caused so much mental fluctuations and turmoil? Would I have to give up sex to continue on this path? In the earlier sits, I was involuntarily celibate in my daily life. So it seemed to me that there was a strong correlation between my celibacy and mental strength. This thought frankly scared me.

Then before the 4th addhitthana sit, the teacher calls me over and has a talk with me and tells me in no uncertain terms that I am just going to have to do it. That I am depriving my mind and body of important experiences with my lack of will. I smiled. I said that I was incapable of it. I was too shy to talk to him about my doubts with celibacy. I put my side of the argument to the teacher

Masculineffort: Sir, is it not better to just break the adhitthana rather than react too much in aversion

Teacher: No. React if you have to. But finish the job

Masculineffort: Sir, the pain is excruciating

Teacher: Try controlled breathing. It diverts some attention from your reaction and lessens the pain

Masculineffort: Sir, controlled breathing causes my body extreme discomfort. *remembering earlier experiences with pranayama*

Teacher: Try deep breathing

masculineffort: Hmmm!

Teacher: Okay, let’s talk this evening. But in the meanwhile you are somehow going to have to complete this one.

I made it through that sit somehow. The problem is not just the pain in the legs. Uncomfortable sensations seize your belly, chest. Sensations of fear course through your body. Breathing becomes labored. Some chemical secretions begin around your heart and throat area. Eyes started rolling. You feel you are choking. That you cannot breathe. That your lungs will burst. In short, I was in misery. And then I experienced something for the first time in my life. The sensations started dissolving. The fire in my knees turned into ice. It was as if someone applied ice to a burning limb. The fire and earth dissolved to be replaced by cool soothing sensations. I had always heard about this. But it had never happened to me. How did this happen? I know I was reacting all through. So how did they dissolve? All I can posit is that all that mental effort of reaction tired me out and sucked out so much of my energy that I had no more energy left to react in aversion. Deprived of the stimulus of aversion, the pain sensations must have just collapsed.

That afternoon there was a discussion with the teacher regarding pain. Some points

1. Pain is just an interpretation of the events happening. There are some events happening around my knees. I am experiencing pain because I am interpreting them as pain.

2. The best way is to continue body scanning as usual and just ignore the pain. Pain in the knee? Then observe sensations in your hands or whichever area you are at in your body scanning with intense awareness. Part of the mind is engrossed in reaction as always, but now some of it is diverted in observing subtle sensations elsewhere on the body. So some relief should be experienced by this diversion of mind. Also observing subtle sensations makes the mind more subtle. The more intense your attention on the subtle sensations, the less pain you should experience

3. Pain is a gross sensation. Reacting to pain makes the mind gross. A gross mind may be unable to perceive sensations at all. Usually, meditators reacting to pain are aware only of blank areas on all parts of the body that are not wracked by pain. In that case you cannot do what is in 2 as there are no sensations anywhere else in the body to anchor your mind and your mind will be dragged to the pain. Too much of my attention is tied up with reacting to the pain. By doing anapana with intense focus, I divide my mind. Part of the mind is engrossed in reaction as always, but now some of it is diverted in observing breath. So some relief should be experienced. The more intense your attention on the breath, the less pain you should experience

4. If the mind is too agitated to perform anapana even, then deep breathing is another way to divert the attention. Part of The mind is occupied in deep breathing and so less is available for reaction.

5.  4 is not practical in the long term. One must get to the source of the matter and tackle the problem head on. Try to observe, investigate and analyze the pain. In the satipatthana sutta, the buddha calls this the factor of investigation of the Dhamma. Goenkaji constantly exhorts us to divide and dissect not just pain, but every sensation where rise and fall are not immediately apparent.  Is it only one big unified sensation or several smaller ones? Fire element or earth? Is there any rise and fall? Can you figure out the boundary? Is the boundary static or rigid? As you ask and answer such questions while observing all aspects of the pain minutely, once again, the energy that was formerly used to react to the pain now get’s used up in this analysis and observation. Some relief must be experienced at the very least. Done properly with complete equanimity, the pain will simply collapse and you will realize the truth of the first point that pain is just an interpretation.

7. Pain is a gross sensation. A characteristic of gross sensations is that it is of low frequency. This means that there is a big time lag between the rise and fall of this sensation. Subtle sensations rise and fall in less than a second. It is easy to realize those as impermanent. Not so with gross sensations. Plenty of times you only see the rise of pain. You simple are unable to sit long enough to see the fall. So such sensations seem to be permanent. So the idea here is to try to see impermanence in pain. You may be unable to see impermanence in total, i.e. the complete collapse of pain. But we must always try to go as far as possible under these circumstances. In this case try to direct your mind to the boundary of the pain and see the constant shifting of boundaries. Okay, so the core of the pain may be permanent. But atleast the extent and boundary has been seen to be impermanent. Good for a start. Better than perceiving the whole as permanent. Another advantage is that your mind gets sharper observing the shifting boundaries as this is far more subtle a phenomenon than the core of the pain itself. This will sharpen the mind.

8. It is possible that you may be experiencing pain but the mind is not that gross. In that case you can go inside the boundary of the pain, pick a convenient spot on the skin and focus your attention there strongly. Observe the rise and fall of subtle (or any other kind) sensations on the surface of the skin while the pain is raging underneath the surface of the skin. This once again diverts the attention, causes less reaction, makes the mind sharp and teaches impermanence. As your mind gets sharper, you can move and observe the center of the pain directly and do the same. The pain will collapse if done correctly.

9. In the discourse that night, Goenkaji has this to say about pain. He says that nature is very kind to us. That dhamma is very kind to us. When we start to meditate, it first tries to eliminate all the sankharas that will takes us to states of deep deep misery. These sankharas are interpreted by the mind as pain. Remember, that the main effect of these sankharas is in the mind. When the pain sankahara comes up, it’s primary effect is to make the mind gross. This is where they say, “Hell is a mental place, not physical.” It is our mental state that can cause us to perceive heaven as hell. So rejoice in the pain. You are eliminating all the sankharas that will take you to lower planes of existence. If you remember this in the middle of pain, it naturally makes the mind more calm and less reactive. It increases youe enthusiasm. is strengthens one’s resolve to be equanimous. This remembrance naturally reduces the pain as the reaction is less. Also rejoice that sankharas of pain come up only when the mind is equanimous. So you must have been doing something right to bring up this pain. So rejoice in your practice.

10. Statement 9 is well. We were equanimous and therefore pain came up. But the problem starts when we start reacting to the pain and it grows well above the limits set by the sankhara. So the long term solution to this problem is simply to change the habit pattern of the mind from one of reaction to one of equanimity. So when you start the adhhitthana sit, focus more on non craving and non reaction than on trying to feel sensations. In the satipatthana sutta, the buddha says that the meditator first generates the will to prevent the arising of craving and aversion, makes strong effort, stirs up his energy, applies his mind to it and strives. If craving and aversion have already arisen, he makes effort to rid himself of them. So start with two strong determinations. I will not generate craving. I will not generate aversion. Apply your mind to these resolutions and then start the body scanning. From time to time keep checking your mental state. In the beginning you will have to maintain this resolve to not crave or have aversion from moment to moment. Applying your mind to a body part to observe sensation takes secondary importance. So most of your energy should be tied up in preventing craving and aversion from arising and if they have already arisen, in eliminating them. What this does is create the momentum of equanimity. Around the half hour mark as the pain starts to come up, the mind has generated so much momentum in equanimity that one glance at the pain causes it to dissolve.

I’m happy to report that I experienced each point I wrote about. The crowning moment came when i experienced a pain sensation so intense at it should normally have me screaming. Yet my mind saw the pain exactly as it sees a piece of furniture in the living room. It’s aware of the pain. But it sees the pain as something detached from itself. Who in his right mind sees a piece of furniture as a part of himself?

Oh! and by the way. I can continue having sex. Yaaay!


About masculineffort

A Man should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, seduce a woman, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
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8 Responses to satipatthana course diary: Adhitthana and pain

  1. Anshul Kawatra says:

    So wonderful to have read your article, It helped me so much, it has clamed my mind to an extent. I have long been searcihng for a experienced Vipassana Guru who could clarify my doubts regarding some sensations of extreme heat that comes up everytime I do something I am not comfortable with but is the requirement & owning to my habit pattern of my I only tend to increase my misery manifold by constantly reacting to them. I still do not have the answer what to do because somewhere in my head I know I will continue to be bothered by these sensations unless I learn to observe them equanimously which is what I am struggloing with 😦
    May you get all the peace, satisfaction, bliss & sense of fulfilment in life
    with Metta.

    • Friend, thank you for your kind comments. Have you been practicing in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin?

      • Anshul Kawatra says:

        Yes Friend, I have attended five courses, 3 10 day, served 1 course & the latest one being the satipathana sutta. I discussed my problem with a senior teasher today & was told to shit my focus to subtle sensations that I experience on my palms & sole the moment I feel any uncomfortable sensation ( sensation of extreme heat in the chest area in my case ) & this sensation is impermanent & has arisen for my own good & I need to develop a skill to deal with it, to release it & not to get bothered byt it so that I do not avert/ react to it.
        With Metta

  2. Minal says:

    Thank you for giving so much clarification. I am too doing Vipassana in the S. N Goenka tradition. Completed 4 10 days and 2 Satipatthana. During my first 10 days course (in 2010) I was able to observe through all the pain and was getting gentle free flow. However, as I am practicing more deeply now, the free flow has stopped all together. Not worried about it. What brought me here is the excruciating pain n choking that makes me feel I am going to die. Now I realize how deep the sankharas could be and how the mara works. Even with so much practise of daily 2 hours sitting there are days when I am not able to focus even for a moment throughout the sitting. Hope to cross this level by observing the points you have mentioned. Thank you for your encouraging article.

  3. masculineffort says:

    Thank you for your kind comments. I myself have not crossed the levels you are mentioning here. Even if the mind wanders all the time, so what? That is it’s nature. All the benefits that come are because

    1. We find that the mind has wandered
    2. Knowing that the mind has wandered, we do not get upset or agitated.
    3. Knowing that the mind has wandered and having not got upset, we gently bring it back to our original object of meditation

    It is from this three step action that we get our benefit. Mind wandering is not in our control. It is our action on discovering that wandering that brings us all the benefit.

  4. Minal says:

    Yes. This is how mara works by taking away our focus. Even a hardcore practitioner would find that sometimes the mind has wandered away for the entire sitting. We do benefit from being aware that the mind has wandered away but the strength (viriya) lies in trying to get the focus within the 4 smritis(awareness) otherwise the mind will become habitual to wandering away everytime. We have to make a conscious effort for this.

  5. masculineffort says:

    Very Good Friend. I agree with what you are saying. Indeed effort in bringing back the mind to the object of awareness (without conscious strain) in important

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