June 18, 2012

Eight Things I Learned from Pain.

 We learn a lot about ourselves when we’re in pain.

We learn what we are made of, what’s really inside and how strong we are when we are in pain.

With physical pain, our reactions are pretty basic and survival-oriented. I’m rarely sick, but every few months I get a headache. You know, a headache bad enough that I’m instantly convinced I’m dying and that I hate everyone and everything (except the person I want to offer me sympathy. I hate everyone except him or her, naturally).

I have one right now.

Typically, I’d run away from it, or at least try to ignore it. Maybe if I was feeling especially kind towards myself, I would get a massage or do some self-care things to help it go away faster. Same thing with emotional pain. When I’m distraught, I go for a run. The cadence stills something in me. Or, oddly enough, I also do the opposite. I’ll meditate to try and still whatever is crazy making at the moment.

What if instead of running away from pain—or numbing it out—we leaned into it and listened to it?

I don’t mean being masochistic.

That said, this is the image that comes to mind:


What we learn from pain shouldn’t be how to escape it.

We don’t need to “go to our happy place.” The point of meditation—even tonglen—isn’t to run from pain. I don’t take deep breaths when I’m in pain in order to get over it or past it—or make it go away faster. I take deep breaths through pain so that I can stand to sit with it, to listen to it. I take deep breaths through pain so that instead of suppressing it, I can look at it, and look at myself, see what I’m really made of.

And now I’m not just talking about the brain numbing headaches.

I’m talking about pain. I’m talking about when we feel so hurt, so angry, so _________ . I’m talking about that thing that we don’t seem to have fierce enough, profane enough words to describe. That feeling that takes your breath away—and not in a good way—but makes you feel like you have a scream permanently lodged in your throat. Pain.

In America, sitting with our pain, physical or emotional, is unheard of. Take a pill. Be entertained. Cheer up. Watch something funny. Do whatever it takes to make it go away. Pain is bad. We don’t like bad stuff. Get rid of it.

Pain is a message from our bodies or from our hearts that something is wrong. If we never stop and listen to it, how can we really make anything better? How can we learn from it?

Eight things I learned from pain:

1. When we acknowledge that it’s there instead of trying to “think positive” or be happy and will it away, we feel better faster.

Ironic, no? I love how Pema Chodron sums it up:

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”

Hello shitty day. Hello pain. Yes, you’re here. I don’t like you, but this is what it is right now and instead of cutting myself off from the present moment by pretending otherwise, I’m going to sit down and have a cup of tea with you and look you in the eye.

2. When we try to avoid feeling something, it doesn’t leave.

That anger that is stuck in your throat isn’t going anywhere unless you deal with it. That sadness that you keep throwing happy Youtube videos at would be better dealt with by a long hot bath, a good cry and acknowledgement that it’s there. You can’t go somewhere else and then begin to deal with your pain. You have to start where your pain is.

3. Physical and emotional pain are good friends.

One usually brings the other with it. Sometimes it’s tough to tell which one came first. The great thing about the mind-body connection is, if you sit and deal with one, you are dealing with both. If I deal with my emotional pain, I will notice physical aches and pains peak, and then subside. If I deal with my physical pain—acknowledge and treat my body with kindness—my mood will improve too.

4. Acknowledging pain and wallowing in self-pity are two different things.

You know it, and I know it. We know the difference between being honest about the difficulty of the present moment, and cuddling up with sorrow and self-pity. Self-pity is closed-off, self-centered and is about replaying your hurts and picking at your wounds. Acknowledging pain is about opening up, without resistance, and staying open.

 5. Hugs and music are incredibly transformative.

Maybe it’s something else for you. But for me, when I feel horrible and headachey and angry and momentarily nihilistic, a nice long hug really helps. A serendipitous just-walked-in-the-room-and-it-came-on song is second runner-up.


This isn’t about escaping from pain. This is about the things that help us as we sit with pain, like your mom holding your hand while you got a shot as a child. The warmth of a hug when you are in pain makes it easier to stay present.

6. Pain is the ultimate teacher of patience and impermanence.

It’s temporary. It’s all temporary. We don’t like to remember that when good stuff is going on. When we sit with our pain, it’s the best time to connect with that knowledge of impermanence. It hurts right now. It hurts like hell. It didn’t hurt yesterday. It might not hurt tomorrow. I can be okay with the fact that right now is painful, in part because I know it won’t last.

7. Anger turned inward becomes depression.

Want to be depressed? Suppress your pain, suppress your anger, instead of dealing with it head on. What is it about physical and emotional pain that makes us angry sometimes? Do we feel like it’s unjust? Like we don’t deserve it? Pleasure is available to all of us. Life is full of simple and complex pleasures. We accept that readily. We need to also accept and acknowledge the dark and difficult parts of life. (And P.S. the pleasure is so much sweeter when we do. If we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel everything, we cannot fully experience anything.)

8. Being strong isn’t about being impervious to pain.

I’ll say it again another way: We aren’t strong because pain doesn’t affect us. We are strong because we let the pain affect us. We feel it fully. We open up and acknowledge it. Fearlessness isn’t being a brick wall in the face of pain. Fearlessness and strength isn’t a calm facade that doesn’t allow pain to touch us. It’s the opposite. Fearlessness is a product of tenderness.

Our strength is in our raw, broken-open reality.

Don’t push it away. Don’t look away from it. Listen to it.

You are so much stronger than you know.


Photo: Pixoto

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