Working with pain
A few weeks ago I had a few episodes of some emotional pain. It was seemingly rooted in an external situation, however I used that opportunity to take a closer look and see what is actually going on and how these very unpleasant feelings have such a strong impact on my wellbeing. There were the obvious psychological layers, which in the yoga tradition are called 'Samskaras', but there was a need to dig beyond them into the more subtle levels of experience.
Years ago, on my first 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, I suffered from severe physical pain. The schedule in this retreat is very intense and includes daily 10-12 hours of seated meditation. A few minutes into each session pain would appear in my knees, my back, my buttocks. It felt like it was growing exponentially. I tried to use sophisticated structures of cushions and blankets to pad every limb in my body, but all they did is postpone the inevitable pain by 1-2 minutes.
I found myself struggling with this pain, pushing it away with heavy resistance, mostly in my mind. Every meditation session lasted one hour but felt like eternity, every second felt like an analogue clock moving in slow motion as I was longing for the session to end. This made things almost unbearable.
At some point, following an instruction from the teacher, I decided to observe that pain closely, take a look under the hood and see what is it about it that makes it so overwhelming and consuming. Doing so required taking a step back and observing the sensations with inquisitive curiosity. It was like magic, as I was observing it closer the pain started to slowly subside and eventually it just faded away. After the pain dissolved I had a feeling of elevation and lightness that was tremendously pleasant. This obviously did not last, nothing does.
Later on that pain kept on coming and going, at times it was more intense and at other times it was more subtle. I kept on paying close attention to it, tried to be somewhat detached and not resist it. This attitude is referred to as "sitting with pain" in the Buddhist tradition, meaning you just sit with equanimity, non-reactivity, observe with curiosity, not expecting any results, whatever comes. It can become a super power as long as you don't detach yourself to the point of being numb or block natural emotions, but rather build stamina and courage to face difficulties with an open heart that knows deep within that all is impermanent. Easier said than done..
Back to the present. I reminded myself that emotional and physical pain are kind of similar in many ways. In my morning meditations I let that emotional pain be, I offered it space in my body and mind without pushing it away or glorifying it. I also resisted the urge to analyze it on a psychological level, it seemed unnecessary. I just let it be spontaneous and come and go as it pleases. That magic from years back did not happen, there were moments of sadness, heart break, deep insecurity. I noticed the sensations that these emotions create in my body; pressure in my belly and chest, temperature rising, throbbing, restricted breath, shoulders tightening.
Sitting with that quality of awareness, without escaping, without pushing away, is not easy. But after some time, once the pain goes away (it always does eventually, one way or another) comes a realization that this pain, however unpleasant it was, left a residue. It had a role to play in the organic process of evolving as a human being on a spiritual path. In the distant past, when I distracted or numbed myself while facing unpleasantness it usually left a block in my system, whereas sitting with pain with equanimity allows pain to become a source of growth and wisdom.
Most of us know that life cannot only be pleasant, but despite the obviousness we always expect things to go smoothly. Life will always include both pleasant and unpleasant in some ratio. Pain will inevitably come our way in different shapes and forms, in different degrees of intensity. Living life well involves developing resilience to pain but also using it to our advantage, so that we become wiser without being scarred, more compassionate towards others without being afraid or worried and more resilient without carrying a heavy shield everywhere we go.
Embracing pain with a clear, open and inquisitive mind, seeing the positive qualities that lay underneath it, will strengthen our heart and keep it soft and tender at the same time. BUT if pain becomes over whelming to the point that we cannot bear it, we probably need to accept that and do what's needed to ease it whether using a distraction or seeking professional help.
Learning how to sit with pain is a lifetime project, infinite patience is required.
You can try a "Working with Pain" meditation session with Sam Harris HERE.
Looking forward to sharing space, breath and yoga with you!
With love and gratitude
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