Pain & pleasure pattern awareness

Awareness of life patterns can help one lead a mindful life, one that helps you cherish happy times in a meaningful way and prepares you for life’s many difficulties. While some may choose to avoid difficulties at all cost, others choose a different approach. Contrary to what one might think, focusing on one’s pain and its patterns can weaken its power. A doctor may ask, what is the pattern of your pain? Is the pain constant or does it come and go? Where is the pain? Does pain occur predictably after certain activities or at certain times of the day? Recognizing a pattern can help you find the best method to alleviate the tight grip pain can have on your life.

Many kinds of pain are limited to a specific body part. The pain may be sporadic, coming and going frequently. Even when pain is local, restricted to one part of a body, and temporary, that pain can be powerful and affect your life more broadly. Severe pain can change your life, by influencing your emotions and restricting activities. One must take care as to how one focuses on pain, because, while it can help alleviate it, when we dwell too much on the pain in an unhelpful way, we can take a temporary local pain and blow it into a “global negativity.” We can negatively assess not only the local pain but many or all things, future and past. We project a feeling in time in space, becoming anxious about the future and even ruminating the negative in the past and projecting that feeling on moments of the past that may have actually been neutral. And while human minds have the gift of planning good things for the future, this can distract us from the good things present right now. Likewise, human minds have the marvelous ability to reviewing the past, seeking for patterns of pain and pleasure so that we can learn what works and what doesn’t, this can lead to painful rumination. When something disturbs our bodies, our minds can amplify it like waves emanating from pebble dropped into a pool of water. As Vivekananda said, “The mind is like a lake, and every stone that drops into it raises waves.” Ruminating or mentally dwelling upon past or temporary pain can make it more global and powerful.

While awareness and rumination both focus on the painful event, there are significant differences regarding how one emotionally engages with the past. Practicing awareness of pain patterns, meditating upon the sensations of pain, often lessen its power. Rumination, on the other hand, is extremely emotionally engaged. Mindful awareness takes a different approach to considering the past. It is an ancient practice that is still practiced today. You quietly meditate upon sensations as they arise and dissipate. Watching the fine details of the changing sensations can be relaxing in itself, but the purpose is to learn about the nature of the sensations, where they occur, how long they last, and even the emotions we experience. Practicing awareness of our patterns of thoughts and feelings as well as sensations leads to many benefits, including better understanding of how our thoughts and feelings relating to a pain sensation can globalize (enlarge) or amplify the suffering.

One common meditation method is to focus on the breath, noticing any thoughts and feelings that arise. As you breath, notice the patterns of movement, the up and down motion of belly, or notice the feelings against the tip of the nose. When a thought or feeling arises, notice it’s nature, without judgement, including sensations in the body. Then bring your attention back to the breath.  If any painful sensations arise during the meditation session, treat it in the same way as any other sensation that comes up, noticing any associated physical sensations and thoughts, without passing any judgment, then returning attention to the breath. 

On the one hand, simple pain pattern awareness is a basic part of learning what to avoid. An infant tries out many things and if they repeatedly feel pain after certain activities, may learn to avoid it. If I eat too much, or eat the wrong things, I feel pain. If I feel pain after a certain activity, then perhaps I should not do the activity or see a doctor. On the other hand, our minds often create suffering in addition to physical pain, or even when there isn’t physical pain. As Seneca said, “We suffer more in our imagination than in reality.” In fact, if pain is a focal point of the meditative practice, one can learn to take apart a negative feeling, break it up into its constituent parts over time and space. This may lead to an understanding of patterns of suffering, which in turn, can lead to greater tolerance of pain. This is helpful in those cases where pain avoidance prevents us from engaging in life, learning and growing.

Thinking about the big picture patterns of feelings, one may realize that pleasure and pain tend to cycle, one after another. Such was the conclusion of the Buddha about 2,500 years ago. When one is unaware of patterns of feelings, one may repeatedly try to pursue pleasure, but repeatedly fall into suffering, because pleasure can’t last. One alternates from pain to pleasure, trying to avoid pain and gain pleasure. The Buddha called this the “cycle of suffering.” Jesus said, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt.” Humans crave things of the world, but these things are impermanent, so this leads to suffering. Then we repeat the mistake, lured by the potential for pleasure. Again and again we seek to gain things that don’t last. The cycle of suffering, patterns of pain and pleasure, is the stuff of drama. It is a common theme in stories. Some stories, such as the Mahabharat and others we introduce under “life pattern stories,” attempt to raise awareness of patterns of worldly gain followed by loss and suffering. But the cycle of suffering, as depicted in much literature is tragic, because recurring suffering is presented as ubiquitous and unavoidable. However, a great many experimental studies confirm that meditation can lessen suffering. A way to escape the cycle of suffering is to become aware of the patterns of pain and pleasure, the impermanence. One can go further and meditate upon the awareness itself. We realize that objects of our meditation are impermanent, yet consciousness remains.


“The mind is like a lake, and every stone that drops into it raises waves. These waves do not let us see what we are. The tree is reflected in the water of the lake, but the surface is so disturbed that we do not see the reflection clearly. Let it be calm.”  Swami Vivekananda