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Thought… What is it? Part 2 (Focus on Pain)

Buddhist art at a temple in Sisaket province, Thailand.In the first “Thought… What is it? Part 1 I looked at the nature of thought from the standpoint of thoughts produced by sounds. Today we’ll look at thoughts produced by pain in the body.

Recently I’ve started meditating again on a rather regular basis and my back has been steadily pounding with pain. I injured my back a long time ago (1983) while playing a soccer game for my highschool. I was a very emotional player and that worked to my disadvantage in this case. When emotional – the muscles are easily pulled in the back for some reason. The chiropractor I went to after the injury – which was god-like in his ability to instantly remove the most serious throbbing pain told me so. I had no reason to disbelieve him – so I guess it’s true. I also noticed over the last 25 years that I tended to re-injure my back during times I was angry or anxious about something. Bizarre how state of mind can affect state of nervous system.

The pain I feel is in the nerve, it doesn’t really go away for a long time once it starts. A long time meaning a month or so.

So, this is a good time to focus on thoughts about pain.

Is pain real, or is pain a thought?

What a question. If it’s not real – it might be able to be controlled. Some people undergoing severe torture report that their mind goes to a different place as they experienced extreme torture. Some people dissociate from their bodies or from themselves they say. Some create multiple personalities – one that deals with everyday life and one that deals with stressful or painful situations. Children sexually and physically abused typically display some form of this, though not always outright separate personalities.

As I sat to meditate I looked at pain. I’ve done this before as my back really hurt the first month or so I started meditating many years back.

What is pain as a thought?

Back pain, is given a location inside the back – not surprisingly. It doesn’t show up on the visual field of view like sounds did from part 1 of this thought series. Back pain is in the nerves in this case, I picture the pain to be not just in one tiny spot, but along a nerve cord. Of course that is thought creating that mental picture because when I really look at it – the pain is just generally in one spot. It’s strong and throbbing until I direct my attention on it.

At times then it grows in intensity… other times, it dwindles. What is going on? I notice when I direct attention at it and really feel the pain – the discomfort – the negative aspect of it, that it creates feelings about it. I get angry that I have this pain. I get upset, wishing that it were otherwise. I get a bit frustrated that I can’t do things I want to do – even sit quietly and meditate without pain because the feeling is so overwhelming it demands attention.

As I pay more attention to the pain I notice – it throbs… Sometimes it throbs many times in a short period of seconds – other times it arises slowly and reaches a peak – throbbing more as I feel it more. It seems that pain is not static- but, changes. No matter what pain I’ve observed as I meditate – in my feet, my muscles, my back, a fly biting me, sweat running into my eyes… I notice that pain is fluctuating. Never staying the same for very long.

If I attempt to focus attention elsewhere the pain escalates to see if it can grab my attention. It’s finicky like that. It’s like a child craving attention. Once attention goes away, the bad behavior of the child escalates. Pain seems to do this.

If I focus attention on the pain for a long time I notice that it isn’t really perceived as pain anymore. Guys training to be Muay Thai fighters here in Thailand at some point start to kick with their shins at boards or trees to toughen their shins and dull their response to pain. It’s really to habituate themselves to the pain. The pain is incredible at first, then lessens the more they do it. Back pain is like this… if we avoid looking at the pain – it seems so strong. So powerful. If we focus on it – and just experience it for long periods, minutes or tens of minutes it loses it’s power to affect us much. And the pain lessens.

I noticed that thought about pain can make the pain much worse. The more I think about what the pain means – like in the case of a cut finger or foot – the worse the pain appears to get. Thought worsens the pain by attributing horrible scenarios of the future resulting from the pain. Suppose a laceration gets infected with staphlococcus? What then? Oh, I can really feel it hurt then.

What if the back pain I’m feeling means that my nerve is permanently malfunctioning and I’ll feel this same level of pain the rest of my life? Or, what if it means that my vertebrae are misaligned and one wrong twist at the hip will cause a vertebrae to cut my spinal cord or cut into it – effectively paralyzing part of my body?

Thought makes the pain worse when it’s thoughts about how the future could be affected by the present pain.

I notice that when I talk about pain – tell whomever I’m with how much it hurts… sometimes on a daily basis… it hurts more. I notice it more. I notice that when I stop talking about it completely – it isn’t noticed as much. If my mouth doesn’t say anything about it – it lessens. Or, it’s perceived as less pain. If my thoughts don’t exaggerate the meaning of the pain – it’s lessened. If I direct my attention and focus of my mind to the pain and really look at it – it hurts for no longer than a minute or two now, then I go back to whatever I was doing and can ignore the feeling for a while before having to consciously re-focus on it.

Is pain real?

It’s real in the sense that it’s there. But, we can manipulate it without medicine if we just apply attention to it. Really look at it and feel it. Eventually the power it has over us lessens. It’s amazing to see.

Pain has a thought component and physical component. The physical component seems to be easily manipulated by the thought component. To what degree would depend on to what degree your mind needed to change it. Some people walk across desserts with blistered feet. Some live with migraines. Women live through horrible menstruation cramps every month. How? Their mind deals with the pain to lessen it.

I think there is a lot more to say about the subject but I want to get on to examining other thoughts in our minds. Next we’ll look at the sense of touch – and how that looks to our minds, what thoughts are created as we experience touch with our hands and other body parts, maybe even a little bit about sex if I dare. Shhhh.

Best of Life!


Oh, almost forgot – the image of the guy with the saw blade embedded in his head comes from a Buddhist temple in Sisaket, Thailand. There is a display of all the different types of suffering that man feels during his life. This one was physical pain. I’ve not posted the series anywhere because there are some that are much crazier than this one! Sorry if this image offends anyone, it’s wire, concrete and paint if that helps you deal with it any better… 😛

One thought on “Thought… What is it? Part 2 (Focus on Pain)

  • at 2:37 pm

    Hi Vern, You hit on a LOT of key points here with pain and the mind. I used the mind/body connection to heal myself of chronic pain and several chronic illnesses. 2 main techniques I had to use were NOT focusing on or talking about it and focusing on future health. I wrote about it in detail on Alex Blackwell’s blog “The Next 45 Years” ( in a guest post. I adopted the “Paging Me” System which brings me to the moment and allows me to still be pain free 18 months later (and on NO pain pills). Thanks Vern for addressing this issue — when I was sick I saw a lot of people that were convinced they would always be in pain — and guess what — as long as they believe it — unfortunately they can expect nothing else. Gratefully, Jenny


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