Buddhist Meditation as Natural Medicine and Pain Management

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Within certain forms of later Buddhism, people are encouraged to ‘pray’ to an image of the Buddha and recite various mantras as if he were a god granting blessings and relief from suffering as an act of divine will. This would suggest that like a theistic entity – the Buddha in this model – somehow ‘suspends’ the laws of nature, and in so doing supplies a ‘miracle cure’ that relieves all symptoms, and repairs all damage. I do not know of any reliable examples of this actually happening in the real world, although of course, many believe it has happened. My purpose in this essay is to present the ‘original’ Buddhist approach to managing the physical and psychological sufferings common to all human existence.  In the early (Pali) Suttas of the Buddha, the Buddha is not viewed as a god, does not act in a divine manner, and in no way exercises any direct power over the minds and bodies of others. Instead, he uses the power of logical argument and reasonable explanation, setting courses of meditative and physical training which discipline the body, calm the mind and uproot greed, hatred and delusion.  Rather than ‘cured’ in the modern sense, illnesses and injuries are ‘managed’ within the context of continuously unfolding natural (healing) processes. The Buddha teaches that some illnesses and injuries are the product of negative or unwise ‘willed actions’ (i.e. ‘karma’), or the product of natural processes outside the control of the human will. The implication is that through following a life free of greed, hatred and delusion many of the conditions that cause the various physical and psychological illnesses and injuries are removed through not being generated. This may be viewed as a type of ‘moral preventative medicine’. However, as with the analysis of all human experience, the Buddha teaches that sensation should be categorized as a) pleasurable, b) neutral and c) painful. This means if a permanent malady is continuously experienced, the Buddha does not seek a cure from an external source, but rather ‘manages’ the symptoms by cultivating ‘non-attachment’ or ‘non-identification’ with the painful sensation, whilst remaining clearly aware of what type of sensation is being experienced. This practice of Dharma is not easy as it requires a full and complete concentration without the distractions associated with the world of desire (i.e. partner, children, profession, politics and all other elements of lay life). Although a Buddhist monk or nun may possess a body suffering from a painful or terminal disease, their minds could be calm and detached from their physical reality. This is not a ‘denial’ of the reality of the situation, but rather a practical approach of developed will-power and strong insight constructed by a logical mind during a time in human developmental history when medicine was not the science it is today. Today, modern science uses surgery and chemistry to influence the mind and body alongside the advanced science of healing processes and manipulation, etc. During the Buddha’s time this was mostly out of the question due to the taboo surrounding cutting open a body, with natural remedies involving herbs and various other foods, and even the urine of a cow, etc. The Buddha instead advocated the detachment of the mind from the body – whilst the body was subjected to a minute assessment of its behaviour and experiences. Remember that within the Four Noble Truths the Buddha defines reality as starting with the material world, from which manifests sensation, perception, thought formation and consciousness. Like modern science, the Buddha agrees that the mind emerges from the brain, and that awareness and the physical body, although one in essence, are nevertheless distinct in functionality.  His model of pain management accommodates the discomfort being felt within everyday life, with the idea being allowed that within deep seated meditation physical pain can be transcended by the awareness being placed in a position ‘prior’ to the sensation of the pain being ‘generated’ or ‘experienced’. This leads the Buddhist monk or nun from a position of ‘managing pain’ and into a position of ‘not generating pain’. If this transition is successful, then the freedom from pain experienced within the act of prolonged meditation can be sustained and carried-on outside of formal meditation practice and manifested during all other activities of everyday life. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when this state is achieved, the healing processes of the mind and body are ‘enhanced’ beyond that usually expected or experienced. 

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