Discourse Practice Teaching

Is Pain Vedanā? (And Why Does It Matter?)

(TL;DR: No. Pain is not Vedanā.)

On a recent retreat, a participant asked, “Is pain Vedanā?”

I was dissatisfied with the answer; here’s my attempt.

(TL;DR: No. Pain is not Vedanā.)

Interoception vs Vedanā (Valence)

In a recent post I discussed the difference between Interoception and Vedanā:

interoception is the process of the body sending signals to the brain, and the brain using these signals to predict the state of affairs on the body budget.

Vedanā on the other hand is the Valence, the pleasant, unpleasant, or Neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant sensation that comes after the brain has interpreted these signals with respect to the present body budget.

Pain is Interoception

Here referring to pain which arises from damage to body tissue, pain is a communication from the body to the brain. As such, it is Interoception.

Vedanā Is The Interpretation Of Pain

Vedanā, as Akincano says, is the “Oooooh!” or “Ehhhhh!” of experience. The brain interprets the interoceptive signals given present body budget and outputs the unpleasant/neither/unpleasant Valence/Vedanā.

So What?

Pain is unpleasant. End of story, right?

Maybe not.

In the suttas it says that ‘Neither’ Vedanā, when paid attention to, becomes Pleasant. Unpleasant Vedanā, when paid attention to, becomes ‘Neither’.

I can report from my own experience, and have heard from others, this same phenomenon.

It is sometimes possible to hold the physical interoception of pain without reacting to it. When this is done, it seems the brain settles, recognizing that the body budget is not overtaxed. Vedanā can shift from unpleasant to slightly less unpleasant, to neither, and sometimes even to pleasant.

By understanding the difference between pain and Vedanā, we can learn to suffer less.

More of that, thank you. :)

2 replies on “Is Pain Vedanā? (And Why Does It Matter?)”

I heard a talk by Ajahn Vajiro just recently in which he pointed out that, if we consider “pleasant” as something we want to go towards, and “unpleasant” as something we want to go away from, then “neutral” can actually be pleasant, because we can accept it, go towards it, rest in it. I agree with what you said above, in that in my own experience I think it has sometimes been possible to “rest” in pain – at least occasionally during meditation. I think it takes a lot of work to expand the limits though; I still wouldn’t trust myself to be a great secret service agent under torture…

Liked by 1 person

Dear Luke, Hello!

Do you have a link to that talk? Or was it just something ephemeral you caught in passing?


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