The question as to how much pain and suffering we should bear needs to be referred back to primary aims – the one to purify and strengthen the heart, the other to bring an end to delusion by way of insight.
If the pain and suffering is bearable, it becomes a vehicle to develop patience, equanimity, affectionate awareness and insight. Once we feel, if only temporarily, that we have reached that limit, then it seems wise to find a way to bring an end to the pain, or at assuage it.
For instance, in sitting meditation aching knees are well documented. Unfortunately, the knees don’t bend that way and relief comes only when the tendons at the top of the legs lengthen. In the meantime, we have to deal with the pain. So long as the pain is bearable we can continue to investigate, but when it becomes so painful that all the effort is to endure, then at least we are developing forbearance. But there may come a point when the pain is just too much and then it seems wise to change the posture and not grit the teeth and clench the jaw and be praised for our heroic stance against pain? Our unshakeable endurance! And find we have damaged our knees. This has happened. In fact, I began to have a loose cartilage myself at one point in early Zen practice.
But when circumstances completely undermine the process of spiritual investigation, what point is there in suffering them – save, of course, to build up that quality of endurance. Even here we have to be careful.
A meditator once told me he had a very bad tooth ache. I asked why he did not take an aspirin until he could see a dentist. He said he was building up the virtues needed for greater suffering. I asked him: suppose there will be no greater suffering for you?
It seems to me we should match endurance with the quality of investigation. Not to do so may indeed be an act of pride. ‘I’m bigger than pain’. Such an attitude leads us into self-mortification which the Buddha found to be meaningless torture. Rather endurance should be balanced with care of the body.
For those in dreadful pain, there may arise the option of suicide. Of course, what is considered to be bearable or unbearable is subjective, always personal and individual. The topic of suicide is a delicate one. Suffice here is to say that it is generally understood that only those who are fully liberated can take their own lives without some unwholesome karmic consequences. But this has been questioned.
However, it is important to remind ourselves that understanding how suffering and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) arise, we need to know that the given, be it physical or mental pain and illnesses may have a multitude of causes, but our relationship to them of aversion, fear and despair is self-generated. To investigate how we create suffering and unsatisfactoriness is a path to liberation by way of understanding the Second Noble Truth – the Cause of Suffering is Unwholesome Desire, tanha.
(I’ll have another go at euthanasia – a good death again sometime. I had a shot at it withhttp://www.satipanya.org.uk/essays/Assisted%20Suicide.pdf )