One of the main insights offered in Buddhism is identifying the basic nature of suffering. I sometimes hear students complaining Buddhism is too preoccupied with the idea of suffering. But Buddha was trying to present a teaching that would bring people together through a common experience: the challenge of pain. Even though he could have emphasized the common experience of happiness, that is a bit more ephemeral and depends upon personal and cultural definitions. Pain on the other hand, is pretty specific. Ouch!
Of course there are manly types of pain: physical, emotional, spiritual, etc. Yet, the fact everyone knows the meaning of “ouch” regardless of language, points to a profound shared experience. The sound of laughter is similar, but I will get to that later. So Buddha wanted folks to understand the nature of pain and suffering as a foundation to understanding the true nature of mind. If we are able to create a different relationship with pain, we can change our mind about it. If we can change our mind, we can alter how we deal with pain.
I remember being in the ICU ward of an outpatient surgical center after experiencing a near death moment from too much anesthesia. As I returned to awareness of my body, I felt a great deal of pain. I had a foot in two worlds: being and non-being. I noticed I had a habitual reaction to pain. When I stepped back into the pre-cognitive world, the pain remained but my mind was more relaxed around it. Experimenting with these two realms, I noticed I could carry forward a bit of the non-form world into the one I experienced as form. I could deal with the pain differently.
It seems we develop a lot of coping mechanisms to dealings with suffering on any level. When those coping skills become habitual, we have trouble being flexible when we meet with a new painful experience. We draw upon what we know—not realizing there may be other ways. Through meditation, the mind becomes more flexible, more neurally plastic. Neuroplasticity allows for greater choice in our response to pain. When we settle the mind, we can change our mind.
So, if Buddhism seems to emphasize understanding the nature of suffering, I say, “Yes, of course!” The stress of pain triggers our core issues and mental habits. This is such a potent way to understand the nature of our mind, which is the nature of perception. When we are able to more purely perceive any situation, we become more flexible. The hard edge of experience dissipates into spacious awareness and edge of our pain is eased. Even though we may still wince when the discomfort becomes intense, our mental reaction is pacified.
Which brings me to laughter, the sound of another shared experience. My root teacher was always laughing. Now I understand the joke. If we lighten up, our pain becomes lighter. Laughter is the antidote to heaviness. I remember joking with the nurses when in the recovery ward after my surgery. They thought I was strange. They were right.