“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”
– Buddhist Proverb
Your pain, your illness, your present discomfort, is nothing to be ashamed of. It is not a sign of your failure, nor a punishment, nor a test, nor even ‘bad luck’. It is neither meaningless nor the meaning of your life. But it does contain great intelligence, and healing power. If you know where, and how, to look.
Let’s begin at the beginning. You are experiencing pain in your body. It is intense and uncomfortable. Perhaps you have been to every doctor, every healer, every therapist, every self-help expert. Perhaps you have tried Western medicine, alternative therapies, energy healing, meditation, chanting, changing your diet, drugs, mind-bending spiritual experiences, transmissions from gurus, prayer, retreats, hypnosis. Perhaps you have tried positive thinking, numbing your pain, ignoring your pain, saying ‘no’ to it; you’ve tried being ‘pure awareness’ or a ‘detached witness’ … But the pain is still here. What can you do?
Will you keep searching for a solution, a therapy that works? Pin your hopes on a future that may or may not come? Or will you give up now, and just accept that there’s nothing you can do?
The answer may lie right in the middle, as most real answers do.
You see, perhaps your pain has something to show you that pleasure, or the absence of pain, or even ‘getting what you wanted’, never could. Maybe that’s why pain is here, to reveal your true path. Not to destroy you, but focus you. To reveal a courage, compassion and equanimity in yourself that you never imagined possible. To humble you, to bring you to a place of gratitude, and slowness, and truth. So reframe the question, from “How can I be free from pain right now?”, to “Is there some intelligence in this pain? Is there a deeper invitation here? Is there a lesson buried deep within my pain? Is there something that is longing to be met? Something hitherto buried that now wants to make itself known?”
What is worse, the pain itself, or your demand to be free from the pain right now? The moment-by-moment physical sensations in the body, or your war against them? The pain, or your frustration and despair that it’s “still here” and “hasn’t gone away yet”? The pain, or the feeling that you’re trapped within your body, that you’ve been let down by the organism? The pain itself, or your shattered hopes and dreams?
You may wish to explore what is actually causing the bulk of your stress, depression, fear. Is it the pain itself, or your attitude towards it? You may find that there is a world of difference between bodily pain, and your suffering and sorrow surrounding the pain. You may find that you actually feel much worse when you think about your pain, ruminate on it, brood and obsess over it. When you think about yesterday’s pain or lack of pain, when you imagine future pain, when you fantasize about the pain never going away, imagining that it will eventually kill you; when you think about all the things you did ‘wrong’ – that’s suffering, and that’s the unnecessary part. All of those are thoughts, images, ideas, pictures, suggestions, perspectives, memories, fantasies – not the living reality of the present moment.
When you disconnect from the present moment, and go into your story about your pain, you may find that feelings of frustration, fear, anger and even overwhelm begin to build up. You start focussing on so many things that you have no direct control over right now. You dream of a past when you were free from pain, and long to return there (you can’t). Everything was so good, back then. You think again and again about how your pain is preventing you from doing what you want to do, stopping you from living the life that you had planned. You imagine a future filled with pain and disconnection. And you start to feel powerless, and terribly disappointed, and even full of rage against life, the universe and everything. This wasn’t the life you had hoped for or imagined, the life you had been promised. You focus on all the things that you cannot do anymore, all the things you are not, all the things you have lost, all the things that will never return. You blame your pain for ruining your life. You feel so far away from healing, from love, from your true life; so disconnected from your body, so isolated, lonely.
You have tried everything, everything, except the obvious: accepting your pain, being present with it, today.
Now, let’s be clear about this: acceptance does not mean giving up on the possibility that the pain will lessen or even disappear tomorrow, or next week, or next year. It just means that your peace is no longer dependent on whether or not this happens.
You are reclaiming your happiness, today, no matter what the future brings.
Accepting your pain does not mean resigning yourself to fate, being a victim of life. Quite the opposite! It means coming out of all your heavy, fear-based stories of past and future, and aligning with where you are today. It means being an ally of this day, not its victim. It means saying YES to where you are right now, even if ‘where you are’ isn’t where you hoped you’d be. It means being in profound contact with this moment, with this body and its healing potential, with the ground upon which you stand, with an entire universe as it dances. It means admitting that you are not in control of this ancient cosmos, that there is a deeper intelligence at work here, infinitely wiser than the human ego. It means admitting that you cannot know what the next scene in the movie of your life will look like. It means coming out of the story of time and space. It means trusting, and acting from a place of trust. It means tapping into the creativity of the moment; being open to unexpected connections, solutions, answers, and yes, joys.
When you fight your pain, when you run from it, you become its victim, because you are allowing it to have power over you, allowing your contentment to be diminished by it. You are giving pain power through your resistance to it, through your focus on trying to get rid of it, trying to escape it, even trying to ‘heal’ it. There is violence there. And as you have seen, your attempt to get rid of your pain has failed so far; your resistance has not led to true healing. It has only split you further and further from your body, from presence, from peace, from loved ones, from gratitude, from the intelligence of the moment – the source of true healing. And it has exhausted you, depleted your energy stores. Think of all the energy that has gone into the war – energy that could be used to nourish yourself. When you fall into a place of acceptance, you are now seeing pain as an ally, a guide, a teacher, not a threat to your life, your path. The YES is your reclamation of power, not your passivity. You are releasing something unnecessary, not becoming a victim or tolerating something unwanted.
You come out of your thought-story “the pain should have gone by now” (you cannot know that) or “the pain will never go away” (you cannot know that). That is all past-and-future thinking, nightmares and dreams. You stop comparing where you are with where you want to be, stop focussing on the ever-widening gap between them. You stop creating the image of ‘freedom from pain’, and you stop comparing this moment with that image. You let go of the story “I should have lived differently – I created this pain – I am to blame”. That is rewinding the movie of your life, and you have no power in that direction either. You remove the burden of time by becoming present to this moment. Presence is your true source of power – and ultimately, healing.
You stop focussing on all the things you cannot do right now, all the things you are not. That focus on lack and absence and ‘what’s not here’ will only make you feel more depressed and powerless and disconnected. You return your focus to what you can do, to what you are, to what is present, to what has not been lost, to what is still possible, to the gifts of today, to all the things that pain cannot touch. All the things that make life worth living. All the things that, perhaps, in the end, pain is here to remind you of. Perhaps the whole thing is a call to radical simplicity.
You become curious about where you are right now – this present scene in the movie of your life. You become fascinated with this moment, with what is alive where you are. This breath. These sensations. The feeling of the ground under your feet. The sound of a bird singing. A car beeping its horn. And pain is here too – you see that, without judgement, and you do not judge any judgements that come up either. You notice in you the desire for the pain to go away – you don’t make that into the enemy either. You notice a deep urge to be free from pain, to escape to some other time or place. You notice a frustration, a disappointment that the pain is still here, that it hasn’t evaporated yet. You don’t fight these thoughts or feelings, but remain curious, connected with the moment. You begin to allow these feelings within yourself. You even allow feelings of non-allowing; accept movements of non-acceptance. You come out of your mind and tune into your body. You feel the breath, the movement of it, the rhythm, its immediacy, its presence. You feel it rise and fall like a wave in a vast ocean. You feel the belly expand and contract. You know you are here, in this moment. Grounded, alive. A courageous explorer. Willing to investigate, and not rush to conclusions.
You come out of the story of your pain, the narrative of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s pain, the memory of past pain and the anticipation of future pain. That is all so overwhelming, that story. Stop thinking about your pain now, and actually commit to meeting your pain in the present moment. Come back to the raw sensations in the body. For a moment, drop the word ‘pain’ (a very heavy, solid word from the past) and directly explore and feel the raw sensations that constitute your present experience of pain. Do they feel tight, contracted, tender? Heavy, warm, cold, sharp, dull? Now, drop even these words, and come back to the actual sensations, without labelling them, with a spirit of curiosity and openness.
Remember, you’re not trying to get rid of the sensations, stop them, make them go away, or even heal them. You are staying very close, bringing your gentle attention and the warmth of your presence to that part of your body that is begging for your attention. Keep exploring. Can you find a ‘centre’ to your pain? Does your pain have a boundary? Does it throb, pulsate, vibrate? Experiment with trying to move your attention to the core of your pain. If the sensations begin to move, follow them in the body. If they get more intense, that’s okay – stay curious. If they start to dissipate, expand, soften, wonderful – stay close. Don’t expect any particular result, but allow any expectations to come up and be seen. Any expectation, held onto for too long, may lead to disappointment in the face of reality. Notice that too. Whatever shows up, welcome it – and even welcome your inability to welcome reality.
If you wish, you can experiment playfully with the breath. As you breathe in, feel or imagine some of the breath flowing into the uncomfortable area, infusing it with life and oxygen. You are dignifying that tender place in you. You are remembering that it has a right to be here, too; a right to be included in the breath and body, not excluded from it. It is very loving to breathe into the pain, to evaporate the illusory division. Instead of contracting around the pain, constricting yourself around it, you are breathing into it, flooding it with love and breath and life. You are honouring the presence of pain now, rather than waiting for its absence in time. You are remembering a deep okayness at the heart of experience. You are not trying to make pain go away, but exploring the nature of its appearance.
You may begin to notice that, like everything in life, pain is not solid, but an amorphous mass of dancing sensations, changing moment-by-moment. Sometimes you will actually look and find that the pain is not there. Sometimes, with kind attention and gentleness, an intense pain will soften, dissipate, relax, become less sharp, more diffuse. Sometimes the pain may get quite intense. Sometimes you will be so absorbed in something else – a piece of music, a conversation, a walk in nature, a meditation, a beautiful daydream – that you will forget your pain is even there. (Is pain there when you’re not aware of it?). You may learn to cherish these moments. Your actual experience of pain is constantly changing, evolving, shifting, never the same twice. The story “I am in pain” or “The pain is constant” often doesn’t even begin to describe the living, moment-by-moment reality of pain. Remember, from the perspective of the present moment, there is no such thing as ‘always’, ‘never’, nor even ‘constant’. There is no yesterday, no tomorrow. There is only Now. Now is all you are dealing with.
You can see your pain as an enemy, essentially ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or a ‘mistake’, or you can see it as an ally in your courageous exploration of life. Many have woken up from the dream of suffering not in spite of pain, but because of pain. Pain taught them to slow down, to pay attention to parts of themselves they may have never paid attention to otherwise. It taught them to come out of stories of past and future, and lean into the moment. It taught them to breathe, to explore, to be grateful for the small things. To become soft yet powerful. To focus on what’s really important in life. To cherish the day, to see the preciousness in every encounter, every moment of joy, every moment of sorrow, to befriend it all – even their disappointments, even their fears, even their moments of despair. To let go of dreams of ‘what could have been’, and wake up to the reality of ‘what is’. For many, pain taught them humility; it cracked open their ego, shattered into a thousand pieces all their outdated dreams of spirituality, and brought them to a place of surrender and love. It forced them onto their true path, kicking and screaming. Ironically, it taught them the true meaning of healing.
If you would just stop comparing yourself, friend, you may find gifts and teachings hidden in your unique experience of pain. And your intention may shift – from getting rid of pain, to listening to it, being open to its presence, wondering what it is asking for. You may move from violence and despair, to gentleness, acceptance, and slowness, patience. You may begin a friendly conversation with your pain.
Pain can destroy you, or it can focus you. It can drive you deeper into sleep and depression, or it can wake you up. It can turn you into a victim, or it can help you feel more powerful, more aligned, more connected with your true life than ever before.
I am not saying that you should try to like your pain. That is unrealistic. I am not saying that you should become a masochist or a fearless warrior. That is unnecessary. I am not even saying that you should give up looking for a doctor, a healer, a therapist, a friend who can help you, give you another perspective on the source of your pain. I am asking you – in the meantime, for today at least – to listen to your pain, to find the intelligence there. To come out of the heavy, fear-based stories surrounding your pain. To stop thinking about your pain so much, and try a little gentleness, and exploration. Acceptance cannot make your pain worse. It can only lead you more deeply into the vast mystery of healing.
And one day, not so long from now, you may look back, and thank your pain for keeping you grounded, curious, open. You may realize that your pain was not a block to your path – it actually was your path, and your greatest teacher of all.
More on the gentle exploration of pain in Jeff’s book The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life.
Or attend a meeting/retreat with Jeff.