My interest in Buddhism stems from a turning point in my life when I discovered that much of our pain comes from what we do to ourselves. For nearly eight years, from ages nineteen to twenty-six, I became progressively unable to read. What started as intense eyestrain expanded to symptoms such as dry eyes and sensitivity to fluorescent light. It got to the point where I went to an eye doctor and asked him to sign a form that would declare me visually handicapped. He refused to fill it out, however, saying that my condition might be psychosomatic, a diagnosis I angrily rejected.
My recovery came after a different eye specialist patiently explained to me that my eyes were healthy, but that hypervigilance to minor irritations can amplify pain. While sitting in the chair in his office, I had an epiphany and realized that my anxieties were the source of my pain. I determined to accept rather than fear the pain, and over the next 48 hours, this pain that had plagued me for seven years faded away to nothing.
Soon afterward, I took up meditation. I’d previously looked upon mind-body practices with disdain, but I now understood that anxiety, which we think of as ‘mental,’ can affect what we think of as ‘physical’ pain. My initial meditation class, taught by a yoga teacher at a Y, was quite secular. It took me some time to become interested in Buddhism, as my first visit to a Zen center included chanting in Korean that reminded me all too much of the incomprehensible Hebrew prayers of my childhood.
Eventually, I learned about the four noble truths. The second noble truth, as I understand it, declares that suffering arises from desiring what is unavailable or rejecting what is present. The third noble truth says that acceptance of our situation can eliminate this suffering. This powerfully connected to my experience of recovery from pain.
Being secular, I felt that there must be a scientific basis for my experience. I talked to some experts for an article I wrote a decade ago in Buddhadharma on Buddhism’s Pain Relief. As I discuss in the article, scientists see pain as a kind of neural alarm to warn us of threats to our well-being. But if we evaluate the situation and find it not to be a major threat, the cognitive control regions of the brain can turn down the pain—in effect overriding the neural alarm. To me, this is a validation of the third noble truth.
As I’ve tried to apply this principle in my own life, I’ve been frustrated by the difficulty in determining whether the pain I’m feeling is due to something truly harmful or just my anxieties acting up. That’s why I was delighted to come across a newly published book, The Way Out by Alan Gordon. The author experienced the same sort of amplified pain that I did—including eye pain as well as a symphony of other symptoms I never experienced. After his recovery, he went on to become a psychotherapist and the founder of the Pain Psychology Center in Los Angeles, which treats the sort of pain that he and I experienced.
Gordon calls it ‘neuroplastic pain,’ reflecting the idea that when we become vigilant about a painful area of the body the brain rewires itself to amplify such signals. When you experience unexplained pain, you should, of course, check with a medical professional to ensure it is not an indicator of a serious condition. But pain in tissue that a doctor reassures you is healthy, or pain that persists long after an injury has healed is likely to have a neuroplastic element. An important part of Gordon’s treatment program is mindfulness—turning toward the pain with acceptance. It doesn’t just change your relationship to the pain; it may actually reduce the amount of pain.
My entrée to meditation was due to pain, but the practice has also been the source of a great deal of pleasure. Within a few weeks of practicing meditation, I experienced what some people describe as ‘quieting the mind.’ There seems to be some variation in this among meditation practitioners because some say that meditation doesn’t stop their thinking but rather changes how they relate to their thoughts. For me, though, I really do experience a silencing of verbal thoughts and a hyperawareness of my other senses, so that when I come out of meditation and open my eyes, the visual field around me becomes particularly vivid.
I no longer need to go into a formal meditation to experience this silencing of thoughts. A member of my secular Buddhist meditation group gave us a lesson in Qigong, including the instruction to place the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth. A few days later, I tried this while walking back from a service station after having left my car there for repairs. After placing the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth, I experienced an instant “pop-out” where the visual scenery around me appeared to be intensely 3-D. Verbal thoughts stopped. I found this to be quite pleasurable and have experienced it many times since. Exploring the science behind it, I’ve learned that inner speech is accompanied by tiny movements of the musculature of speech. Anything that would interfere with talking out loud—e.g. going slack-jawed or touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth—also seems to block inner speech. This can free our minds to experience our other senses more fully.
Product marketing, the engine of our economic system, aims to convince us we’re missing out unless we purchase what they have on offer. But we’re only missing out if we think it so. There are, of course, basic human needs such as adequate nutrition, shelter, and health care that are necessary for flourishing, and for which a mindfulness practice is no substitute. Beyond these basics, though, the best things in life truly are free.
Rick Heller is the author of book, Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy — A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard.
Rick leads monthly meditations co-sponsored by the Spiritual Naturalist Society and the the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard & MIT. You can find more information about the meditations here.