I am writing this post for anyone who has ever experienced pain. Emotional pain, physical pain or mental pain. If you have experienced any sort of pain, or are currently in pain then maybe this will help you. I never thought that at my age (31) I would be experienced in dealing with pain. Even writing it seems surreal. Yet there have been times when I have been in such a lot of pain that I have been left hopeless with agony (you can read about one of these happy occasions here).
I awoke last Sunday at 2.30 am in such excruciating pain that I lay in bed howling like a wolf. The pain was nauseating and it felt like both my hip and my foot were being torn in two. This was made worse by an over active mind intent on panic and leading me into the dark pits of hell. Unfortunately, this always seems to be where I end up when I’m in pain, above and beyond any other fabulous destination. I don’t tend to wake on these occasions with such whimsical thoughts as, ‘Oh dear, my leg feels like it is being torn from my limb, but I’ll be fine.’ Instead, my thinking goes something like this ‘Oh my fucking god, I am dying! ‘I am going to be a cripple forever!’ ‘What have I done?’ ‘Have I done more damage?’ ‘Have I ripped my hip from its socket?!’ Visualising this I panic as the stories grow bigger and more dramatic with each tick of the clock and I dive headfirst into the pain spiral until I am at its epicentre, ‘Am I losing my mind?!’ ‘I CAN’T HANDLE IT?!!!!!!’ Yes, this is me at 2.30 am. I am not cool, calm and collected when in agony and I tip my hat to anybody who is. Please, tell me your tricks – only, hear mine first.
Pain is remarkable. For those who aren’t familiar, chronic pain is incessant, distracting, exhausting, debilitating, and above and beyond – painful. Alone it can be managed. Tie in the catastrophic thinking, the fear, and the idea that it is wrong and you have a recipe for disaster. Tara Brach tells a story about pain and it goes a little something like this:
One day a monk was found sitting on a stone, holding a pair of pliers with blood running down his face. His fellows asked him what he was doing with the pliers and he responded, “Well, I have been having serious issues with one of my teeth and there is no dentist for miles. I made a decision to pull it out myself.” The other monks grimaced in agony and said, ‘But wasn’t that excruciating?!’ The monk looked at them and said, “Well, after making the decision I got up from my seat, and that didn’t hurt. I then walked to the shed, and that didn’t hurt either. I found the pliers lying on the bench and picked them up and that didn’t hurt. I sat down on a seat with the pliers in my hand, and that didn’t hurt. I opened my mouth and placed the pliers over my teeth, only experiencing a slight discomfort. Then I pulled my tooth out with the pliers and it was only then that I felt pain. This lasted a short while, before lessening to a dull ache. In fact, you are probably in more pain now just thinking about it than I experienced doing it.”
As this story demonstrates, it is often the fear of pain and the stories we tell ourselves about pain that lead us to resist it and so we suffer. In my present situation some of the stories are, ‘I have pain in my foot and it means I can’t walk,’ and ‘I wake in the night in pain and it means I will be tired tomorrow and I can’t handle being tired.’ These are just a few examples of the beliefs I hold on to. These keep me stuck in the pain and, thus, prevent me from learning from my experience, growing, and moving forward.
PAIN X RESISTANCE = SUFFERING
When I bring my awareness to the pain and let go of the stories I have created it is also simply a sensation in the body that does not have to be accompanied by the type of thinking I have so neatly demonstrated because pain is not wrong.
I love synchronicity. I love the fact that every time I seem to be in some sort of crisis or, less attractively, in the midst of a meltdown I have moments of synchronicity that make me remember that everything is happening exactly as it should. Today, as I was writing this post the following quote popped up on my news feed from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, written by my favourite author, Haruki Murakami:
“The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness.”
Similarly, pain is not wrong. If you resist it you suffer, the world diminishes. If the world diminishes, you are left with darkness. However, there is a way through the darkness. It involves disengaging from pain stories and telling yourself new ones such as ‘I am okay’ and ‘My body feels calm even though I experience pain in my foot.’ It involves open yourself up to the knowledge that you are experiencing sensations in your body and that it is not wrong. It involves doing everything in your power to get a decent night’s sleep. This is sometimes one of the hardest things to do when you’re in pain, but it is the most important. When we’re in pain our sleep is often disturbed because it’s so difficult to find a comfortable position. Due to the effects of interrupted sleep our bodies become less tolerant to pain as the body doesn’t have time to rest and recuperate and so the cycle continues. That’s why it is so important to get a decent night’s sleep and finding a way to do this, otherwise you begin to go stir crazy and the pain becomes overwhelming. It is also incredibly useful to meditate and visualise being pain free – what that would feel like, how I would feel – as this focuses the energy into a positive form. I personally love this meditation by Tara Brach, it’s beautiful.
Lastly, remembering to stay in the moment and to repeat the following mantra (which was passed on to me by a friend and has offered me much relief):
“This is just how it is, for today.”
Here is a beautiful passage about how problems hold the key to their own healing.
“We can make friends with our problems. When difficult emotions come, we can ask them what they want. By becoming friendlier to our problems, we can find out what we need to do. We may need to relax and stop grasping, to take better care of ourselves and our true needs, or to change our behaviour in some particular way. Problems hold the key to their own healing if we bring our awareness to them, rather than pushing them away or clinging blindly to them. By allowing enough space for a big problem, we are getting ourselves ready to heal.”
– Tulku Thondup Rinpoche