Cutting Edge Psychology

Alan Watts on the nature of pain

Posted on April 22, 2014 at 7:45 AM

The following quote, from my favourite spiritual philosopher, may only make sense in relation to his overall spiel (much of which can be heard these days on excellent You Tube clips of his many recorded discussions- well worth listening to them). These themes are explored in more detail in the final chapter of 'The Hidden Psychology of Pain".


"…how does the mind absorb suffering? It discovers that resistance and escape- the “I” process- is a false move. The pain is inescapable, and resistance as a defense only makes it worse; the whole system is jarred by the shock. Seeing the impossibility of this course, it must act according to its nature- remain stable and absorb.


To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is in pain. The thinker has no other form than this thought. There is no escape. But so long as you are not aware of the inescapability of thinker and thought, you will try to escape.


From this follows, quite naturally, absorption. It is no effort; the mind does it by itself. Seeing that there is no escape from the pain, the mind yields to it, absorbs it, and becomes conscious of just pain without any “I” feeling it or resisting it. It experiences pain in the same complete, unselfconscious way in which it experiences pleasure. Pain is the nature of this present moment, and I can only live in this moment.


Sometimes, when resistance ceases, the pain simply goes away or dwindles to an easily tolerable ache. At other times it remains, but the absence of any resistance brings about a way of feeling pain so unfamiliar as to be hard to describe. The pain is no longer problematic. I feel it, but there is no urge to get rid of it, for I have discovered that pain and the effort to be separate from it are the same thing. Wanting to get out of pain is the pain; it is not the “reaction” of an “I” distinct from the pain. When you discover this, the desire to escape “merges” into the pain itself and vanishes.


Discounting aspirin for the moment, you cannot remove your head from a headache as you can remove your hand from a flame. “You” equals “head” equals “ache”. When you actually see that you are the pain, pain ceases to be a motive, for there is no one to be moved. It becomes, in the true sense, of no consequence. It hurts- period.


This, however, is not an experiment to be held in reserve, as a trick, for moments of crisis. It is a way of life. It means to be aware, alert, and sensitive to the present moment always, in all actions and relations whatsoever, beginning in this instant.


Alan Watts. ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ (1951). P.97

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