When It Happens to Us

Living with the mistaken notion that we should be free of pain, we make matters worse for ourselves.

Ezra Bayda

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© Pro CulturaThis is a fact of life; we don't like pain. We suffer because we marry our instinctive aversion to pain to the deep-seated belief that life should be free from pain. In resisting our pain by holding this belief, we strengthen just what we're trying to avoid. When we make pain the enemy, we solidify it. This resistance is where our suffering begins.

Again, on experiencing pain, we almost always immediately resist. On top of the physical discomfort we quickly add a layer of negative judgments: "Why is this happening to me?" "I can't bear this," and so on. Regardless of whether we actually voice these judgments, we thoroughly believe them, which reinforces their devastating power. Rather than see them as a grafted-on filter, we accept them, unquestioned, as the truth. This blind belief in our thoughts further solidifies our physical experience of pain into the dense heaviness of suffering. And though we can intellectually accept the Buddha's First Noble Truth that life entails suffering, when it happens to us, we rarely want anything to do with it.

How do we live the practice life when we're in pain? To apply such phrases as "Be one with the pain" or "There is no self' (and therefore no one to suffer) is neither comforting nor helpful. We must first understand that both our pain and our suffering are truly our path, our teacher. While this understanding doesn't necessarily entail liking our pain or our suffering, it does liberate us from regarding them as enemies we have to conquer. Once we have this understanding, which is a fundamental change in how we relate to life, we can begin to deal with the layers of pain and suffering that make up so much of our existence.

In early 1991 I had an acute and prolonged relapse of an immune system disease in which my muscles attack themselves. On the one hand, I had definite and objective physical symptoms with which to deal. On the other, I had layer upon layer of dark, emotion-based thoughts. These strongly believed thoughts not only exacerbated the physical symptoms but also had their own painful quality. My belief had been that I couldn't practice because my life was so difficult. To accept these difficulties as my practice would mean I'd have to stop resisting and willingly let them in.

I began doing five different meditations a day and continued this for almost two years. Over time I learned to see the difference between the physical pain, the resistance to the pain, and the layers of emotion-based thoughts. I began to see the physical symptoms of discomfort as if they were in the center of a circle, with a concentric layer of resistance around it, and a concentric layer of emotions and thoughts around that. The very intensity of the emotional reaction "I can't take this" is enough to tell us that we are caught in a belief system. Without awareness, these beliefs slip by so easily that we don't even question their truth. With awareness, the thoughts can eventually be seen as thoughts and nothing more. In fact, we can begin to realize that they may not even be true! Thus the suffering is no longer fueled by our blind acceptance of our beliefs as the truth about reality.

© Pro-Cultura

Once I clarified these beliefs, it was easier to bring awareness to the resistance itself. Acknowledging the resistance as a physical, sensory experience is a big step. No longer seeing it as the enemy ("The Resistance"), we can begin the process of gradually softening into the sensations of resistance themselves. We bring awareness to wherever we experience tightness, pushing away, holding. We soften those energies with the light touch of awareness, opening the edges around the pain. No longer believing the thoughts, no longer fighting the resistance, left me with just the physical sensations. But now it was a physical experience without the suffering! I saw clearly how we hold our suffering in place with fear-based thoughts that arise in reaction to pain. These thoughts are further solidified by our resistance to letting the pain just be.

As often as I was able, I would breathe into the heart-space on the in-breath and then send lovingkindness to my body, to my immune system, via the out-breath. With this sense of spaciousness and heart, I found I could enter directly into the sensations. In the moments when I could experience them not as "pain" but as intense physical energy, I was struck by a sense of quiet joy. Sometimes I felt a depth of appreciation that, by ordinary standards, would simply not compute. Opening to pain itself may still not be possible if the pain is intense, but in most cases pain is not as unbearable as we think it is.

Certainly, we can't always transform pain from meaningless suffering into a sense of spaciousness, but at least we can practice seeing into the layers of beliefs and resistance that hold our suffering in place, thereby coming closer to gently opening to what is. ▼

Ezra Bayda has been a student of Zen since 1978. He currently leads a meditation group in Santa Rosa, California, while continuing his studies with Zen teacher Joko Beck. Excerpted from Being Zen, © 2002 by Ezra Bayda. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Image: Tibetan medical painting illustrating sowa rigpa, the ancient Tibetan "science of healing." From the Blue Beryl, a 17th century Tibetan medical text.

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trashaanike777's picture

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drgayle's picture

I believe this can also be applied to emotional pain.

grjan's picture

Indeed, I know emotional pain much better than physical pain. I find that my thoughts are central to exacerbating unpleasant emotion. If I sit with my feelings and allow them to be fully experienced, they lessen. They lessen because I'm not fighting to control my experience of them. These emotions are fear based and when I allow them to come forward, I can see that my thinking about them are often worse than the current emotion. This is because I start futurizing, catastrophizing. When I sit with them, I can know them for what they are in the present.

appleknocker56's picture

i have lived now with severe chronic pain from failed disc surgeries, osteoporosis etc. it began when i was 15 & that's been almost 40 years now. one thing i have learned is to truly stay in the present moment & to do a meditation where you scan your whole body & ask yourself " do my feet hurt, or "do my eyes hurt, and so on. one, begins to realize that yes, i am in serious pain, but i'm grateful for the many places in my mind & my body that are not. i also am learning not to continue using this pain as my victim life story. i'm only a victim if i allow myself to be one. so with each new moment comes many beautiful things that i might miss if i stay in my pain story and wallow in it. peace & love for all.

sds's picture

I live with chronic pain, sometimes so intense that I am immobilized. I have learned to distinguish between the bodily sensation and my thoughts about it. I can at least sometimes recognize my efforts to resist the pain and stop the resistance so that I become one with the pain, so to speak. When this happens I am able to find momentarily relief. But whatever relief I find does not last, and mostly I find that even this does not help. I am strongly attracted to learning how to live with my pain without suffering from it and I recognize that this means learning to stop my thoughts about it. But I do not know how to do this so that relief lasts beyond the period of sitting. I have a busy life with many responsibilities and cannot just sit with my pain for hours on end each day. Is this what it takes - sitting for hours on end each day? Is there no other way?

Beccafahey's picture

Hello, it's not about stopping the thoughts it's about a shift in view. This shift brings about a very natural discernment about the pain in that it is seen as nature without a need for aversion. This is not a nihilistic view, it's a very clean freedom. Pain still arises and you notice a different type of relationship with it after this view shift takes place, thoughts like 'do I have to make this a problem' arise and have powerful support. Sitting is the training ground for the view shift, not an escape plan for the pain. The point of the sit is to train yourself and support understanding and clarity (mindfulness) of the perceptions of your being in this sensory world. There is a real letting go of needing things to be other then they are that is found in this view shift, the big 'okay' and a freedom that is unmistakable. Pain has been a beautiful, powerful teacher for me and I am most grateful.

fishman.ellen's picture

Yet there are times when I have to flinch and move elsewhere.
Shanti

Moving elsewhere is appropriate, once you can no longer hold the pain, then get up and move. Otherwise we work against the very opportunity we chose to work towards- a life where struggle is navigable.

Pushing on the gas pedal and easing off is one of the hardest parts of practice for me. I so want to rid myself of pain that I create more struggle by staying in a moment which feeds the pain rather than stays with it.

shantit's picture

It's not always easy to embrace pain, but it does help to sit with it and not run away from it or try to fix it. I'm working on this very issue, staying with discomfort, physical, emotional and mental. The longer I can stay with it, the smaller or less powerful it seems to get. Yet there are times when I have to flinch and move elsewhere.
Shanti