Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Controlled Limited Suffering

I'm not sure where I first heard the expression "controlled limited suffering." It might have been in a book on Zen, it might have been from a student, or I might have come up with it myself. If you know where it originated, please enlighten me.

Controlled limited suffering, as I have come to understand it, is what happens to us when we practice vipassana meditation. In vipassana, the aim is not to change anything or to achieve any special feelings, or to achieve anything, for that matter. What happens is that we sit still for an extended period of time (sometimes 45 minutes or more), and using the breath as an object of attention, allow the mind to become concentrated and collected in the present moment. And that's when the good stuff starts to happen.

Usually it starts with something pretty mundane, such as a leg falling asleep or an itch somewhere. And we do nothing about it. We just allow it to be there, throbbing or tingling or annoying the hell out of us. However, this is not the suffering part - the itch or the dead leg are merely unpleasant sensations. So we just sit there and soon the mind begins to react toward the unpleasant experience. It tells us that we have to scratch or something terrible with happen to us; that we have to move the leg or it will fall off; that the bell has to ring or we have to run screaming from the room. This is suffering.

The stories and preferences, the clinging and aversion that the mind throws up, are usually much worse than the physical experience itself. Just like in our daily life, the smallest little upset can be taken over by the mind which then creates dire predictions and catastrophic scenarios until the cows come home. So in vipassana, we just sit with all those thoughts, too.

If we just reached up and scratched the itch as soon as we felt it, or if we simply shifted our sitting position to relieve the nerve impingement in the leg, we would avoid the suffering. Unfortunately, this would not offer us the kind of insight that sitting with the discomfort can provide. It is like we are gently training the mind to think in a new way.

This helps us later in a couple of ways. For one thing, it shows us how our mind thinks, and the way it processes the information it receives. Chances are, the way the mind deals with an itch is basically the same way it deals with a frustrating situation at work or on the freeway. The more we can observe this process in the controlled experience of vipassana meditation, the better chance we might have of recognizing that process in daily life.

Another way the allowing of this suffering helps us is in the way it shows us, through direct experience, the difference between a fact and a thought. When we allow the unpleasant experience to continue, we can see clearly the absurd distances the mind will travel with it, far from the reality of the situation. The fact is that the leg has fallen asleep. This is a physical sensation and it is real. The thought is that my foot will fall off if I don't move.

The fear, doubt, confusion, anger, and a panoply of other emotions that these kinds of thoughts trigger can also be known and allowed to continue. We can then see a third way that the experiment of controlled limited suffering can help us: by letting us see that these feelings, generated from within us, have nothing to do with the fact, but have led us down a path toward more suffering.

Finally, and most importantly, experiencing an itsy-bitsy amount of suffering in our meditation practice gives us the opportunity to practice releasing the tight fist of grasping and aversion. We may really want the bell to ring so that we can move our leg, and we will continue to suffer as long as we cling to that desire. However, when we release the desire a bit, and just allow it to be there as just another present-moment experience, it becomes a little easier to bear. We can still want the bell to ring, but we also know that we can continue sitting without screaming.

So if you give controlled limited suffering a chance, it will lead you toward its own cessation. Eventually it will pass on its own, or you will remember to release the tight, grasping fist. By taking this new path, you can find your way out of destructive, reactive emotional states, you will be able to separate thoughts from facts, and paradoxically, your overall level of stress and suffering will decrease.

From Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot:
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a helpful way to think of meditation practice, and certainly fits right in with Pema Chogren's teachings on "staying put" and not "biting the hook". But I specifically appreciate this idea of practicing with tolerable levels of discomfort or pain. Like Roshi Ed Brown said once, "Practice while the iron is cold" to prepare for the hot ones that are bound to come!