May 27, 2013

The Brighter Side of Pain. ~ Shanna Mumm

Finding the Lighter and Softer Side of Suffering.

“Life is pain, highness. Anything who tells you differently is selling something.”

Wesley says this to Buttercup just before they tumble down the cliff and he yells, “as you wish…” revealing his true identity.

Pain. Is life pain?

I went to a yoga talk with Rameen Peyrow, founder of Sattva Yoga, the other night and the subject of pain and suffering was brought up.

It’s funny: I was in such a joyous moment of my reality that I disregarded the topic a little. You know, thinking it didn’t really apply to me.

“Oh. I don’t suffer. I’m so blessed!” It’s true. I am blessed but I suffer too. And I feel pain. Ask anyone close to me how much I complain about my woes, aches and ailments.

I was reminded of this as I sat in meditation yesterday. One thing I like to tell students as they begin meditation is that it is not all bliss and it will not necessarily be easy. In fact, it may be one of the most excruciating things you’ve ever done.

We sat and sat. And we sat for a really long time. I certainly have less pain than when I first began meditation. Or at least the pain takes longer before surfacing to rear its burning aching tingling head. Eventually the pain came. It is right under my right shoulder blade, deep deep inside me.

I used to get annoyed at this particular pain, wishing it to leave me. Yesterday I realized that the pain was there for a reason. I did or am doing something to make this pain exist.

This pain is teaching me something, teaching me to let go. Teaching me to heal.

I allowed this pain to be and relaxed into the sensation. I even apologized to the pain for treating it so unjustly, as if it was the pain’s own fault for existing. The result was profound. Had I been alone I would have wept uncontrollably. The pain was not gone today but we’re getting to know each other better, and I’m being nicer to it now.

Today I had another familiar pain, likely related to the shoulder tension. I awoke with a migraine coming on. I took a shower and a pain reliever.

The pain decreased and I headed off to yoga training. The pain never left me all day (except while I was pressing my shoulder blade tension into the corner of a wall), but I tried to relax into the sensation. As I walked home I had had enough. I contemplated phoning my sister to come get me (it would have taken her longer to get to me than it took me to walk home though).

I was concentrating so hard on how much pain I was in, on how miserable I was when I realized: if I stop concentrating so hard on this pain, if I breathe and experience the newly budding leaves on the trees, hear the birds sing and walk to the rhythm of life then I’ll get home with much less suffering, and then I can take a hot shower in the dark after eating another pain killer.

This realization was useful. Even more interesting, perhaps, was the idea that was sparked by my realization about a possible purpose of pain. Perhaps, just perhaps, we have pain to help us to learn one-pointed focus or concentration, known as dharana.

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I definitely focus on my pain when it’s there. One almost cannot help but focus on pain. So pain teaches us concentration? Maybe pain teaches us how to choose when not to concentrate on something. I guess I’m trying to see the bright side of pain, in a way.

So I have some pain and suffering to think about. It does apply to me. Everything I learn and hear applies, is useful, is worthy of pondering; otherwise I wouldn’t hear it, I suppose.

It’s no surprise that when I began reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s, The Dispossessed today at the bus stop, migraine in head, Shevek, the main character, had this to say:

“Suffering is a misunderstanding […] It exists. It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years. And in the end we’ll die. That’s the condition we’re born on. I’m afraid of life! There are times–I am very frightened. Any happiness seems trivial. And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding–this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain….If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could…get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self–ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality–the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness–that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.” (pages 60-61-Perennial Classics ed. 2003)

Is there more truth in suffering?

What is comfort and happiness anyway?

Is it simply the absence of suffering?

If you were truly free from suffering, how would you even recognize comfort? Is comfort not merely the absence of pain?

I remember taking a very strong painkiller once when I had a migraine. I think it might have been Demerol. My body had never in my life ever been so void of discomfort and has never been so free from pain since.

Is there a thread of beauty in pain?

This is what Rameen says, that there is always a thread of beauty running along inside the pain.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’  that is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.” ~ John Keats.

So we’ve got beauty and truth in pain. But we seem to want to chase our pain away?

Or can we learn to soften into it, letting the pain teach us what it is we need to know?


Shanna Mumm leads a life of loving, learning and laughing. Life long learning sums it all up nicely. A loving and proud mama of Xavier, she is also currently doing a PhD in French literature and culture. How to balance such a life? Yoga, of course.


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