Bearing the Unbearable by Robert Beatty, January 2003

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The pain in my legs gradually went from bad to agonizing. Desperate to move, I continued squatting before Venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw in his monastery in Rangoon, Burma. It was January 1979. Twenty monks gathered to ordain me as a Theravadin Buddhist monk surrounded me. The two closest to me crowded together to support my weight with their hips. In moments when my mind was absorbed in the chanting, the pain dropped out of awareness. The surrounding eyes said, “bear it, there is no alternative”. I survived. No damage was done to my legs. I learned that I could bear more than I had imagined, and I had a glimpse of how suffering waxes and wanes depending upon how much the mind accepts or fights against pain.

For the next week I kept the very strict Duthanga vows, which some forest monks follow in addition to their other rules. These vows stipulated that at no time would I lie down. Nights were spent in a sling back chair. They were filled with intense desires to lie down and get some sleep. Waves of painful emotions passed through and my mind re-experienced every long and torturous bus and train trip I had taken traveling third class in Asia. When I observed my mind feeling sorry for myself I tried to remember that Taungpulu Sayadaw had spent twenty-eight years in a cave.

I soon found myself on a plane back to India when my one-week visa expired. I had a shaved head and warm memories of the love that had been showered on me by my Burmese hosts. I felt greater confidence that I could bear whatever came my way, and a growing interest in how attachment creates suffering.

Even without Duthanga vows, Mindfulness meditation practice results in a direct encounter with all the realities of being human. Some of are of the pleasant, easy to bear kind: delightful body sensations, desirable moods, getting what one wants, being with those one likes to be with, being healthy, and living in peace. Others are difficult to bear: sickness, old age, death, bodily discomfort, painful emotions and mental states, not getting what one wants, being with those one does not want to be with, and living in conflict and insecurity. The Buddha called these experiences that are difficult to bear, “Dukkha” which is commonly translated as “suffering”.

Assuming a comfortable upright posture, the meditator goes beyond the instinctive mammalian conditioning of seeking pleasure and avoiding discomfort. S/he sits still with the intention of remaining still, conscious, and fully present with every experience that arises. This is in stark contrast to the constant movement, avoidance of discomfort and seeking of pleasure that characterize our unexamined lives. When we meditate, pains that normally would go unnoticed come to the foreground and challenge our capacity to sit and remain conscious. Even if we do manage to sit still, the mind becomes lost in the past, future, doubts, sleepiness, moods and inner dialogue. Painful emotions and thoughts arise spontaneously. As the meditator bears with these experiences it becomes evident that these experiences are quite bearable when they are observed with mindfulness, concentration, compassion and equanimity. Further practice reveals that all experience arises and passes away. One learns that suffering arises through clinging to some experiences and rejecting others.

A superficial glance at these ideas might lead one to determine that Buddhist meditators are masochists, delighting in suffering, sitting in their own misery. Quite to the contrary sitting still to examine ALL the experiences of the human mind/body is the suffering that leads to the end of suffering.

The practice of mindful listening illuminates a particular suffering that the Buddha called attachment to view. Just as we grasp our possessions, body and people to provide a sense of security, we also hold tightly to our ideas and worldview. We create a self with this web of beliefs, perceptions and emotions. A challenge to our views can provoke the fight/flight/freeze response of our mammalian heritage. Sitting with this reactivity in full awareness allows us to see the nature of our attachments to our conditioned ideas and views.

When we take our seat in meditation and surrender to being there for an extended period of time we forgo the habit of chasing pleasure and avoiding discomfort. This sitting becomes a laboratory in which the forces that create suffering are brilliantly illuminated. Just as the inner structure of a crystal is revealed by shining a laser into it and studying how it scatters the light, shining the light of awareness into the human body/mind reveals the structures that create suffering.