Theorizing (and Practicing!) Pain

In achieving consciousness, we realize that the only certainty in life is that it will end.” – Stephen Batchelor (Buddhism Without Beliefs)

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” – Fight Club

I’ve been thinking lately about ways to understand, process and move beyond pain. Writers and thinkers who theorize pain seriously seem often to come to the same conclusions, although their vocabulary may be different. S.N. Goenka’s concept of pain, which informs the whole practice of Vipassana, is that it is a fleeting sensation (“arising and passing”) which can only be mastered by objective, attentive observation completely divorced from any emotional content. To practice reprogramming your relationship to pain and your addiction to “pleasant” sensations (which are really no different, sharing as they do the principle characteristic of arising & passing), you have to sit with your eyes closed for a couple hours a day, emptying your mind of any thoughts except your scrupulous, objective observations of the physical sensations passing through your body. As I’ve said before, I find that running serves the same purpose.

Say what you will about David Fincher’s cult film “Fight Club” (1999). I recognize elements in this movie that are juvenile, and I realize that the philosophy it espouses jumps from one source to another and isn’t fully fleshed-out – nonetheless, there’s something I will always love about it, and besides that I also think it’s one of the most culturally important movies of the turn-of-the-century. This scene I’m embedding below is interesting because it’s conceptually consonant with Vipassana’s theory of pain: Edward Norton’s character tries to distract himself from the sensation with visualizations and mantras, and Brad Pitt chastises him. “This is the greatest moment of your life, man, and you’re off somewhere – missing it!” On the surface, the film is making fun of new-agey spirituality and meditation, but it simultaneously reaffirms a classical Buddhist ethos:

Pain is an inevitable sensation, but the anguish which we experience from it comes from the displacement of the consciousness from the present moment, in either the geographical or the temporal dimension. If we imagine ourselves physically elsewhere, or in past or future moments, this is what creates misery, not the pain itself. On the contrary:

Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive – or at least a partial sense of it.” (Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running 171)

Haruki Murakami has a lot to say about experiences of pain, and I think this is part and parcel of his interest in endurance sports, even though it’s an equally prevalent theme in his fiction. Murakami is a passionate amateur marathoner who’s still going, and once he ran a 100k, an experience which he describes vividly in his memoir on running. Murakami continually returns to the idea of “passing through” a barrier, beyond which no pain is felt. What follows is a selection of everything he had to say about what was happening around Mile 47:

I felt like a piece of beef being run, slowly , through a meat grinder. I had the will to go ahead, but now my whole body was rebelling. It felt like a car trying to go up a slope with the parking brake on. My body felt like it was slowly falling apart and would soon come completely undone. Out of oil, the bolts coming loose, the wrong cogs in gear, I was rapidly slowing down as one runner after another passed me…

…As I ran, different parts of my body, one after another, began to hurt. First my right thigh hurt like crazy, then that pain migrated over to my right knee, then to my left thigh, and so on and on. All the parts of my body had their chance to take center stage and scream out their complaints. They screamed, complained, yelled in distress, and warned me that they weren’t going to take it anymore… I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead. That’s what I told myself. That’s about all I thought about, and that’s what got me through… It’s a strage way of thinking and definitely a very strange feeling – consciousness trying to deny consciousness. You have to force yourself into an inorganic place. Instinctively I realized that this was the only way to survive.

…While I was enduring all this, around the forty-seventh mile I felt like I’d passed through something. That’s what it felt like. Passed through is the only way I can express it. Like my body had passed clean through a stone wall. At what exact point I felt like I’d made it through, I can’t recall, but suddenly I noticed I was already on the other side. I was convinced I’d made it through… In this state, after I’d passed through this unseen barrier, I started passing a lot of other runners.” (Murakami, Running 107-113)

Pardon the extended quotation and all its ellipses. I found Murakami’s story all the more compelling and realistic because of the prosaic, repetitive, and conversational nature of his language. Any ultrarunner will recognize these feelings and see in this an excellent description of the ultra experience (at least, any of the ones I’ve talked to or whose writing I’ve read). But also, any Vipassana meditator who reads this passage will recognize, in Murakami’s description of a “migrating” pain, the classic symptoms experienced during meditation… the pain appears, disappears, moves freely over the body, as if – wary of being scrutinized – it is trying to escape objective confrontation. In confronting the pain as it reappears in all these places and finally disappears entirely, we have a cathartic experience.

This narrative dates from 2007, but Murakami’s 100k was on June 23, 1996. Interestingly, he uses the image of passing through a stone wall as a central part of the narrative in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which he wrote throughout 1994 and 1995. Toru Okada, the protagonist, spends long hours meditating at the bottom of a dry well in an attempt to reach another psychic dimension where he believes his wife is being held captive: at a sort of turning point in the novel, he returns from this dreamworld and experiences a powerful sensation of having passed through a stone wall. When he finds himself back sitting in the well, he inexplicably has a blue mark on his face which doesn’t go away until months later, when he climactically beats his brother-in-law to death with a baseball bat in the dreamworld. I’m not sure what to make of all that, but I found the double usage of the “passing through a wall” image interesting.

Pain is also central to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. One character, Creta Kano, experiences extreme physical pain of all kinds from early childhood until she finally tries to kill herself at age 20 by the strange and ineffective method of driving her brother’s car into a brick wall. After the accident, she is unable to feel any pain whatsoever and becomes equally miserable. Finally she is reincarnated yet again:

My new self was able to feel pain, though not with that earlier intensity. I could feel it, but at the same time I had learned a method to escape from it. Which is to say, I was able to separate from the physical self that was feeling the pain. Do you see what I am saying? I was able to divide myself into a physical self and a nonphysical self. It may sound difficult when I describe it like this, but once you learn the method, it is not difficult at all. When pain comes to me, I leave my physical self. It’s just like quietly slipping into the next room when someone you don’t want to meet comes along. I can do it very naturally. I recognize that pain has come into my body; I feel the existence of the pain; but I am not there. I am in the next room. And so the yoke of pain is not able to capture me.” (306)

Creta Kano’s metaphor of geographical displacement (“in the next room”) as a method of evading pain sounds dangerously close to Norton’s character’s new-agey “cave” techniques in Fight Club, but I think this is different and more what Murakami & I are going for. Although she is “not there,” she still feels “the existence of the pain.” Another character, the teenage May Kasahara, finds inner peace working in a wig factory:

… It absolutely does not bother me that I’m now just a part of the work I do. I don’t feel the least bit alienated from my life. If anything, I sometimes feel that by concentrating on my work like this, with all the mindless determination of an ant, I’m getting closer to the “real me.” I don’t know how to put it, but it’s kind of like by not thinking about myself I can get closer to the core of myself.” (447)

I want to pass through the wall. I want to be mindless. Buddha sat down under a tree and meditated there for 49 days, until he achieved enlightenment. Bodhidharma allegedly stared at the wall of a cave for nine years, but he doesn’t appear to have been that much better off for it. I’m running across Canada. Why do people do these things? I guess because there’s always the possibility of breaking through to something.

What is there to say about my training? I run many miles each day. It is cold and life is hard.

Parting thoughts on the essence of endurance (attn 1:50 to 2:27):

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~ by edmundmilly on January 25, 2012.

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