There are essentially three methods for handling physical and mental pain:
(1) attempt to manage/medicate through any positive healing means possible (acupuncture, holistic medicine, herbs, prescriptions); or through numbing it away through drugs, food, sugar, sex, shopping, or any number of activities that boost your adrenaline and make you feel disembodied but alive (or, conversely, put you to sleep, which could end in suicide),
(2) ignore the pain and attempt to forget it: don’t watch the news, delete photos of you and your ex, exit from social media, move to a different town: the “time heals all wounds” method; and
(3) feel the pain in a “neutral” way without resisting it or trying to fix it: the “sit with the pain” method, the cultivation of the heart/mind that knows that “this too shall pass;” or, if it’s not going to pass any time soon – or ever – the deep acceptance of something that can’t be changed, and the willingness to learn how to (a) live with that knowledge, and (b) live with that pain, and (c) learn exactly how to be with it so that it doesn’t define you or derail you completely (1/2 derailment being OK and understood), and (d) forgiving yourself when the pain takes over and you do or say things that come right out of hating it, cursing it, and wishing it were gone.
I’ve been there, done that, with the first two quite a lot. #3 is the hard one. How do we “do” that #3? Because it’s easy to remember all those good things, but harder to keep them in action, especially when, if you are in constant physical pain, your body keeps reminding you of that.
Overlaid on pain is “suffering”, which is the feeling or body sensation that results when you add resistance to the pain. (In Buddhist terms, suffering originates from wanting things to be different from how they are; in American terms, we go "Pain is certain; suffering is optional").
We know what this is like: a heaviness, a slumping body, lack of hope, wishing you were elsewhere, wishing someone would save you, resentment, despair.
Resistance comes in many forms, but mostly it comes from thinking.
You think, “When will this pain be OVER?” and then your heart sinks a little at the thought. That’s a simple example. You think, “My life is over,” and then you feel that way too.
Overlaid on that, is the fact that most people don’t want to hear about it. Even doctors and spiritual teachers can be impatient with hearing you “complain,” when most of us just want to be heard and are asking for assistance. We're not trying to make a meme out of victimhood. We just need help.
Last summer, I learned that only 4% of the population have – for better or for worse – the first responder’s reaction to other people’s pain: the response that compels them to move towards it, and to help. The firefighters who rushed into the falling towers, for example. The person who calls 911 when driving past a car accident, while others ignore it.
Back to #3. How do we work with pain? And how do you talk to others about it? There are people who live in pain and don’t talk about it. How do you become wise in talking about it?
And how do you become wise in talking to people with chronic pain?
Caregivers, teachers: how can you move from disdain and disbelief, or from trying to fix, or from scolding, or preaching, or from telling the injured person to eat more greens, or to have gratitude for life, when he/she is suffering?
How do you embrace the connections we have with others while protecting yourself from being overwhelmed and yet still showing you honestly care?
All 12 Step programs stress that you cannot heal yourself alone.
Those are questions born out of my own pain, out of caring for others, and from need. Our world right now is full of examples of isolating, building fortresses, fear, hate, delusion ... and yet there are still bright moments of caring for each other.
I am feeling right now that what is good for me – like simply looking at a photo of me and my kids, which brings me warmth – is where I should place my energy. What about you?