February 24, 2015

Working Skillfully with the Many Different Types of Pain.


The following piece originally appeared on the Shambhala Times, our partners in creating enlightened society. Stay tuned for more hosted articles by our friends at the Shambhala Times!


“The pain never goes, and we will never be happy.”

Every six weeks or so I give a short talk at a local Shambhala center, in St. Johnsbury.

As the weeks to the talk approach, it’s always the same story: I have no idea what to talk about.

I try to wait for a message from the phenomenal world. The year was new and I’d been working out; everything seemed to be going just splendid. But then one morning I had a terrible back spasm, and for the next week things felt completely different. I could barely walk, let alone exercise, and couldn’t even stand for a significant period of time.

So when the email came asking what the topic of my talk would be, I thought it would be nice to share my experience of working with the situation I was in.

I began to contemplate pain.

What is pain?

What is the nature of pain?

Where does pain come from?

I came to the realization that there’s a lot more than just physical pain—the kind I’m currently going through.

Perhaps this can be thought of as “outer” pain. There’s also inner pain, what we can think of as “surface-level emotional” pain, or even emotional suffering.

We’re all familiar with this type of pain. The pain of not getting what we want. A lover disappoints us, a friend has died. When we get fired. We can’t find our keys. These types of suffering I’d also include in the general “not getting what we want” pain.

Then there’s a deeper pain. Our heartache. The pain of living. The sadness of a poem, of a verse that touches you. A flower, a sunset. Chogyam Trungpa calls it the “genuine heart of sadness.” The feeling that arises that causes us to have a tear in our eye, before we start to push it away or say, “Oh, I’m crying” or however we label it.

This sad heart has been compared to having a hook in your heart, that’s connected to a kite flying in the sky—this sad heart is constantly being gently tugged. In Shambhala, this heart is very important, and being able to touch into it is essential. Trungpa Rinpoche also refers to it as an awakened heart, one that is empty and tender. This is different than the previous type of emotional pain, but that type of pain can lead us here. It’s a tenderness that is beyond words, that can only be felt.

I’d also like to add societal pain to this list. I think we all are familiar with this. Bankrupt cities, towns going through heroin epidemics, even Chicago has the nickname “Chi-Raq” because of all the violence. I remember, a few years ago, visiting the killing fields in Cambodia. Horrific mounds that you realize are mass graves. A terrible genocide took place there, and the pain is still ripe. Sadly, there are many places around like this. And you can see it on the faces of everyone and reflected in the culture.

So, as we can see, there are many different types of pain. Some of these we experience more than others, depending on the type of person we are and what’s currently happening in our lives. There are similarities to all of them, because, when we really think about it, we tend to push all them away. When we’re in physical pain we take medicine to make it go away. When we’re upset or broken up over something, we tell ourselves to be strong and convince ourselves that it wasn’t worth it. And when our heart starts to break we do anything we can to distract us from the feeling—whether it be via drinking, telephone, computer or television.

We do anything and everything to get away from pain. Recognizing this is not only the first step; it’s actually a giant leap. We have a different approach. Isn’t our pain just a part of us, equally as much “us” as our happier moments? My back pain is still coming from me and my back, right? How can we tell ourselves to accept ourselves for who we are, to celebrate all our different aspects, and then push away the parts of us that we don’t want to deal with? Doesn’t this sound like a mixed message?

So, this is what’s proposed: We be with our pain. Just like we be with our minds and we be with the moment. We don’t try to push it away, to think that there’s something wrong with us or we’re broken, or create distractions that prevent us from having it.

We experience the pain, and we experience it fully. Whether it’s the pain from a broken heart, the pain of being alive, or the pain from a pulled muscle in your back. We drop into the feeling and we investigate it. What does it really feel like? How does it feel to lower the center of gravity from our heads and move it to the afflicted area? What’s really happening; what’s going on?

Khenpo Gangshar, one of Chogyam Trungpa’s root teachers, said:

“Furthermore, when your body falls sick, don’t indulge in the illness, but rest in naturalness. Look into the painful sensation itself. The pain doesn’t cease when resting like that. However, you will directly realize the innate state of awareness free from any thought about where it hurts, what hurts, how it hurts, as well as the subject and object of the pain. At that moment the sickness grows less intense and becomes somewhat insubstantial.”

By doing this, we find the sensation to be no different than what Ani Pema Chodron advises us to do—she tells us to drop the storyline about what’s bothering us, and to rest in the sensation, the feeling of our existence. Then we just sit in it and experience it fully, without labels or judgment. We accept what is happening in a new way, just as it is.

So, dare I say it, when we become friends with all aspects of ourselves, this includes becoming friends with our pain. Our pain and our suffering present us an opportunity to learn from ourselves. And what we are learning is profound and wise; we are learning to touch into ourselves and to the present moment and be completely on the spot, in the now. This wisdom cannot be found in books and cannot be taught—only we can reveal this inner self-arising wisdom, the wisdom of being with ourselves, just as we are.

Being able to do this even occasionally has really helped me in times of pain. Whether it’s been back pain, a breakup or trouble with another person, being able to drop the words and the excuses and the labels and just be with the feeling takes me to a different place. Often it’s tears. Sometimes I’m able to actually get under the hurt or the anger—the emotion—and end up at a new place that I wasn’t expecting to get to. A place that my emotions were preventing me from reaching. This is a personal journey, one I’m inviting you to take and experience for yourself.

Let us contemplate: what prevents us from touching into our pain?

Recently, my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, spoke in New York City. During the question & answer period, my friend asked him, “Who are you?” After a little bit of light laughter, he answered, “I’m a human being, with feelings and emotions.” This really struck me. What are we, if we are unable to feel our feelings and emotions? How can we be full and genuine with others if we are unable to be this way to ourselves? Understanding ourselves provides a doorway to understanding others and their experience. We can touch into our genuine heart of sadness, and realize that others are working with the same stuff as we are.

So, in closing, we work with our pain. We don’t fight with it, we don’t pretend it’s not there, or shy away from it. Seeing that we want to push it away is the first step in changing our DNA, how we have been programmed to react to uncomfortable situations. We have this new option: to sit with it, to enter it, and to feel it for exactly what it is. Our pain is not different and not separate from any other part of us—and if we can touch into it, we’ll end up in a new place far beyond concepts—a truer, more genuine person.

Chogyam Trungpa says, “The problem seems to be the attitude that the pain should go, then we will be happy. That is our mistaken belief. The pain never goes, and we will never be happy.” What does that even mean? Something to think about…I think the message is to be ourselves fully, appreciate all aspects of what is happening. And perhaps, from that ground, the entire concept of “happy” dissolves and our existence begins to have a new meaning.

And my back pain? My back pain becomes my teacher; by dropping my resistance and resting in it, it reminds that at any time the opportunity to be completely present, to be in the moment, is available.



Blow the Roof Off Your Heart.


Author: Evan Silverman

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikipedia

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