“Suffering is not caused by pain but by resisting pain.” ~Unknown
Pain is everywhere. Whether through heartbreak or a broken bone, we all struggle with unavoidable hurt at some point in our lives. Often, even the suggestion of suffering is enough to send us running for cover.
One of our most basic instincts is to avoid being hurt, and for good reason. The world is full of sharp objects and hot frying pans. While our instinctive wiring is helpful when it comes to cooking, it only contributes to our suffering when applied to the pain of relationships and physical discomfort in our lives.
I have an unusual amount of experience with physical pain. Along with the sprained ankles, broken toes, and pinched fingers of everyday life, I have survived three open-heart surgeries, a bone marrow tap, and hundreds of needles.
From the slight pinch of a blood-pressure cuff, to the white-hot burn of needles touching bone, to the agony of layers of skin coming off with bandages, I have experienced a thousand degrees of pain.
I spent years hating every moment of pain I endured. I have fought tooth and nail (and many an unfortunate nurse) to escape the experience. Yet, my resistance and anger did not lessen my pain. If anything, my struggle only increased it.
Each us will someday face the experience of unavoidable emotional, mental, or physical pain. Whether mild or excruciating, how we approach our physical suffering can change how we approach any discomfort in our lives.
Here are the four lessons I have learned from pain:
1. There is only this moment.
In the midst of pain, there is only the eternal present. The past and future become meaningless when we cannot imagine a time when we will not be consumed with pain. Living in the present moment may be the last thing we wish to do, as we scramble desperately for any distraction from our suffering.
Yet, we must allow our pain to exist, as no more or less than it is.
By asking ourselves every moment “Can I bear this right now?” we disengage our minds from creating more suffering through struggling against what is real.
One breath, one second at a time, we can breathe through any pain, physical or emotional. In attuning to the present, we realize that not only are we strong enough to endure, but that our pain is lessened when we cease to struggle against it.
2. Resistance creates more pain.
A tense muscle feels more pain. As we expend more energy to keep our suffering at a distance from ourselves, we increase our distress. Paradoxically, relaxing into the sensation of pain, even by the smallest degree, makes us more resilient.
By approaching physical distress with curiosity and compassion for ourselves, we may notice small differences in our experiences. We may even discover that the anticipation of pain in our minds is worse than the actual experience.
Surrendering to suffering allows us to pass beyond it. Mental and emotional pain cannot dissolve until we acknowledge that they exist. By ceasing to struggle against an internal or external force, we leave room for our courage to move through us.
3. It’s okay to cry.
The image of the strong, silent warrior is a misleading symbol. Often, we think that holding our breath, stifling our tears and our cries of agony will make us stronger. In fact, the opposite is true.
Our body releases biochemicals and hormones in response to both physical and emotional pain. Giving voice to our suffering is healthy and allows us to process these chemicals much more quickly.
Just as vocalizations are used in martial arts to focus the energy of a strike and students of yoga breathe into poses, we can use our voices to channel and release pain. Animals shake, run, and shriek to blow off the intense energy that pain creates. We can do the same by letting our inner creature howl.
4. A life without pain is impossible.
While a cushioned life without pain is appealing, it is impossible. Striving for a life free of physical suffering not only takes us away from reality, but also isolates us from the joys of life. Our moments of agony can help us appreciate our times of ecstasy even more.
Cultivating the idea that pain is only one of many experiences allows us to reframe our suffering. Rather than interpreting is as a punishment, we can choose to see pain as just another bodily sensation. We certainly do not have to enjoy it, but we can strive to accept pain as a part of being human.
In opening myself to the experience of pain, I have discovered not weakness, but unexpected courage within myself. By striving to remain present in moments of discomfort, we can unearth hidden grace in the most painful situations.
Photo by Robert Vitulano