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Simple (not easy) Practice: Looking at Pain

Today’s Simple (not easy) Practice is about pain.

“The most hopeful result of analysis finds the patient suffering more of his pain than he was able to manage before. More of his pain is held in conscious awareness instead of being discharged into behavior that jumbles up his life, injuring his relationships or his work. A successful therapeutic venture leaves the patient’s outer life improved, perhaps dramatically. Ideally, the patient will find more satisfaction and pleasure than before. But instead of being tormented by meaningless pain, he will suffer pain constructively. Pain is always part of life, and the wounds that have molded the person into exactly this or that shape will continue to channel his responses to pain in his unique ways.”
— Barbara Sullivan

Look at your pain and try to be curious about it. You don’t have to DO anything about the pain. The practice is merely to look carefully and for some time. Perhaps you look at your pain at short bits of time, some number of times, throughout the day. Maybe you can only manage a few seconds; maybe longer. It doesn’t matter because you are building distress tolerance no matter where you start. Just try.

Your pain could be something as simple as a nagging bruise on your shin from banging into a chair in your room; it could be a difficult diagnosis you just received; it could be an unsolved puzzle that’s causing you stress; it could be your annoying sister who bitches and whines to you incessantly about her weight problem but you’ve got your own; it could be the bitterly cold or excessively hot (rainy, snowy whatever you don’t want nor like) weather; it could be the tweak to your lower back from your workout yesterday. Whatever causes you some sort of distress qualifies as pain. You pick. It really doesn’t matter what you choose because all you need to do once you choose is the following:

  1. Describe how this pain makes you feel.
  2. Reflect on how you define and describe this “pain” to yourself. Why and how does it qualify as “pain?” (nobody else’s opinion of what qualifies as pain matters, only your own)
  3. Notice your relationship to this “pain.” How do you relate to this particular pain? Notice, do you want to push it away? Do you resent having this pain in your life? Does it cause anxiety? Does it make you happy? Do you find it useful or necessary? Are you excessively or obsessively thinking about it or hyper-focused on it throughout the day? (Be honest and don’t judge your behavior negatively, as this exercise is only to gather information to learn)
  4. List ways this pain can possibly benefit you.  List as many possibilities as you are able (honestly).
  5. After you complete the above, notice, has your attention to pain changed the way you see your pain and how you feel about it?

Pain is powerful and it can easily be a drama we get swept away with or something we react to mindlessly and habitually, but in this practice, you have looked at your pain, paying more careful attention to it, and perhaps learned a bit more about it.

You have been with your pain more consciously and intentionally than usual, perhaps now also seeing it more objectively while “at a distance” from it. (Visualize holding up a glass of water to the light, seeing it swirl and settle.)

Perhaps you see that you have feelings and thoughts about your pain, and those thoughts and feelings make the pain more or less painful or more or less persistent?

Try to repeat this practice whenever you get a chance (God knows there will always be pain to work with in life!), continually observing yourself and the ways you interact with and relate to the pain that happens in your life (whether it comes from your inner landscape or from the world outside you).

Hold your pain up to the light for observation!

Practicing this often will help you become more and more familiar with pain, and over time, perhaps you will begin to see pain as your greatest teacher, as something to be welcomed rather than pushed away, something to be with as a part of you rather than something to reject, run from, or resist.

You might like the following story about how pain can be a gift and a great teacher: https://tinybuddha.com/blog/my-pain-was-a-gift-and-a-catalyst-for-growth/

*Quote excerpted from Bakis, M. (2019). Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self Study Guide for Wellness. Amazon (paperback and Kindle)

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