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We can’t rid ourselves of bodily pain, but by changing how we relate to it, we can awaken our minds.By Ezra Bayda Pain, by definition, kind of sucks. So unpleasant emotions like fear and anger often arise along with it, making for an especially demoralizing experience.
We usually try, then, to simply get rid of it. Being cured of pain is the outcome our culture teaches us to expect—we carry a sense of entitlement that life should be free from pain. But one of the worst parts of the pain syndrome—whether the discomfort is short-term, as in meditation, or long-term, with chronic pain—is that our physical pain and our urge to nullify it feed off one another in a most unfortunate loop, and our life comes to revolve around our discomfort.
It is essential to understand that both our pain and the suffering that arises from it are truly our path, our teacher, in that we can learn from them and experience our life more deeply as a result. Once we understand that pain is our path, we can begin to work with our pain and our suffering in a more conscious way. At the very least, we can consider our pain an opportunity to learn from our many attachments—especially our attachments to comfort, to body image, to control, and in the case of chronic pain, to our seemingly never-ending misery.
Yet practicing with our pain gradually frees us from these attachments. When pain arises, instead of immediately thinking, “How can I get rid of this?” we can say “Hello” to it, and ask, “What can I learn from this?” It’s not always easy to do this, but when possible, it turns the whole experience upside down.
Once we do remember to ask what we can learn, it’s essential that we notice the difference between pain itself and how we relate to it. Often we conflate the two as one confused whole. Pain is the physical experience of discomfort; how we relate to it, meanwhile, is mental and emotional. For example, in meditation, when we relate to knee or back pain with fear or self-pity, it exacerbates the uncomfortable physical sensation. If we relate to pain with an element of curiosity, however, the experience becomes much more tolerable.
That said, there may be times when nothing provides relief. In such cases, it’s healthy to intentionally distract ourselves from our bodies and minds. This might include activities we genuinely enjoy—like walking in nature or listening to music—since it’s so easy, when in pain, to forget about the things that bring us happiness. By diverting our attention in this way, we bring lovingkindness to ourselves and our situation.
Even though practicing with physical pain and its related emotional dis-ease can prove difficult, it’s most often worthwhile.
First off, in working with the emotions that we associate with physical pain, we need to recognize our judgments—especially insofar as we normally accept them, unquestioned, as the truth. This recognition allows us to see how our blind belief in thought solidifies our unpleasant physical experience of pain. One particularly pernicious tendency is catastrophizing, automatically anticipating the worst. If we get a pain in the belly that lasts for a few days, we may start believing we have cancer. To counter such thinking, we can deploy a simple phrase to remind ourselves that these imagined ailments are “not happening now.” Another pernicious tendency is selective filtering, whereby we ignore positive experiences and magnify negative ones. In the case of that same belly ache, we may focus all of our attention on how our pain bothers us, rather than how our eyes, ears, legs, and all the rest work fine…