Most of us seek to avoid experiences that cause pain. We gravitate toward experiences that bring us pleasure. This is totally normal. The human brain is hardwired for safety and security. Pain-avoidance is a biological impulse.
But is it possible to live in a human body and navigate life by avoiding pain?! Absolutely not. This is why pain management is a necessary life skill. Not only through pharmaceuticals, but healthy responses to life.
Pain arrives in many forms. There is the physical pain you experience when you stub your toe or strain your back. There is emotional pain when your loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or your marriage falls apart. Mental pain is very real when we experience anguish generated by the thoughts we’re thinking. Spiritual pain is a reality when we experience a sense of disconnection from the Divine. Many of my grieving clients speak about their “rage” against a God who couldn’t keep their loved one safe and part of the survivor statistic.
The experience of pain has two elements. Let’s say you have the flu and are confined to your bed for a couple of days. There are the actual physical sensations you experience: sniffles, sore throat, a heavy head, body pain, and tiredness. This is called primary suffering. The second element is the suffering we create for ourselves. We have all kinds of thoughts about our experience: I hate that I’m sick; I just want to be at work; The flu sucks; I wish I didn’t feel so terrible. This is called secondary suffering.
How does this work when we’re grieving the death of a dear one? The physical sensations of grief show up as insomnia, lack of appetite, a foggy brain, fatigue, a weight crushing your chest, and endless tears. The thoughts we think about the loss–We were cheated of retired life together; I just want my old life back; I hate being part of the widows club; Why me?; Life isn’t fair–create the endless cycle of secondary suffering.
Says Vidyamala Burch in her book Living Well With Pain & Illness: The Mindful Way to Free Yourself From Suffering “If pain is an unavoidable fact of your life due to your circumstances and health, and you try to overcome or banish it, you’re setting yourself up to fail.”
Pain is an essential aspect of life. It’s an experience that can’t be avoided on this earthly plane. Suffering is very real. But what’s important is your experience of pain. Your relationship with pain determines how you experience it.
It is possible to interrupt your thoughts of tension, worry, anxiety, reactivity and suffering and replace it with kindness, gentleness, and compassion. The Buddha suggests that rather than being driven solely by the desire to eliminate or avoid suffering, the wise person learns to change his or her relationship with it.
Grief and sorrow are appropriate responses to pain but even these healthy responses can become problematic if they dominate your life experience.
Here are two questions I invite you to reflect upon:
- What thoughts are you thinking that cause you to resist your pain?
- How can you be more gentle with your pain?
Post your responses below. In my next post, I’ll talk about the two most common ways in which we resist pain and how they harm us.