The Hua Tou and Pain Management


The sensing of external stimuli from the material world enters the body through the senses-organs. The body often responds with involuntary or unconscious bio-chemical processes which are either switched on, switched off, intensified or reduced, etc. This is controlled by the brain and the central nervous system. The mind, as a self-aware extension of the brain, often exercises no direct control of these myriad processes and is highly selective of what it draws its attention to. The deployment of this system supports the logical assumption that the body and brain evolved a long time before the emergence of the mind and existed for millennia without any advanced cognitive ability.

The hua tou practice is designed entirely for the conscious mind and its advanced cognitive ability. It traces material sensation back to its immaterial and non-perceptual root. The non-perceptual root is not a mysterious place but is merely the reality of the percepting process just before it becomes engaged in the machinations of the external world. As such, it represents the position just prior to a thought being constructed within the stream of awareness. Advanced Ch’an practitioners in China have explained that when experiencing pain of varying descriptions, they turn the mind’s attention to following the logical progression of the painful sensation from its manifestation in the body, and backwards to its non-perceptual and non-conceptual root in the stream of consciousness.

Whereas thoughts emerge as a torrent from the empty mind ground, and rush toward corresponding external objects, the hua tou method reverses this process and uses bare awareness to seek out the original non-formed basis of the thought. This is like following a thread from one end to the other by using the conscious mind as a view finder. Once discovered, the non-perceptual basis of all thought is revealed, and the practitioner can choose to stay in this state for a long or as short a time as possible, whilst sat in meditation. Pain can ‘cease’ in this state, whilst the body can continue to suffer. In the case of severe injury or advanced cancer, this detached attitude grants the practitioner a certain cognitive freedom from the material reality of pain. However, on occasion it also seems to be the case that when a Ch’an practitioner reaches the stage of complete psychological detachment from the physical body, the natural healing processes of the body are triggered into operation, and the illness or injury is cleared-up.

When the mind is detached from pain, it does not mean that the pain does not exist. The pain (as an evolutionary, biological process), continues to function, but the Ch’an practitioner has managed (through an act of will) to re-arrange the priorities in his or her mind. This would suggest that by ‘withdrawing’ a particular type of psychological attention away from the body, the body is then freed to initiate its own healing processes. Of course, this does not always work as the illnesses or injuries can be too severe or the body too weak, but no matter what the situation, pain management through non-attachment is always beneficial to the Ch’an practitioner.

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