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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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Simple (not easy) Practice: Rewriting Challenge

Simple (not easy) Practice: Rewriting Challenge

Today’s Simple (not easy) Practice is taken from the “Challenge Audit” in Part III: Challenge of the Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self-Study Guide for Wellness. Challenge is at the heart of knowing who you are which is one reason why it is smack dab in the middle of the book. Challenge is at the heart, the crux, of self-study for self-realization!

In the “Challenge Audit,” I encourage you to slow down, to stop and reflect in writing about your challenges.  (Writing is a powerful therapeutic tool!) Most people are too busy or too afraid to stop and take stock. But, if people are in enough pain or their lives are unsatisfactory enough or completely falling apart in various ways, they may finally be more willing to slow down enough or stop long enough to take stock of the landscape (i.e. look at what the hell is going on) of their life and the things that are causing such pain and dissatisfaction. Those things may be external, internal, or both, and it takes honesty and study to discern the truth.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until you hit rock bottom to start paying attention to your challenges–– you can practice surveying the landscape of your life regularly, as a habit built into your moments of your days, through practices like this one, journaling, meditation , yoga or however else you can be quiet, introspective, and breathe easy. Introspection and reflection are always available as tools for wellness, but for many they, too, are challenges. Sometimes when we are searching frantically for answers or to calm down, we miss the solution, literally, right under our nose.

There are several writing prompts listed in the “Challenge Audit,” but here’s a few for today’s Simple (not easy) Practice:

“Specify and categorize your challenges using the List of Common Human Challenges categories. Merely listing or writing about them (however poorly) may be a step forward in facing them, understanding them more clearly by using specific language to define them, and creating a plan to cope with them.”

“Can you define your challenges as problems to suffer with or as opportunities to define yourself and grow–– to become more alive? In other words, what’s your mindset when it comes to your challenges?”

“Can you rewrite one or some of your challenges as opportunities for learning?”

(This is playing with the very notion of challenge, how you perceive and define it, how you relate to it, feel about it, and behave toward it.)

Try writing about how a/some/all of your challenges contribute to your personal wholeness (i.e. the ‘whole of you’ as a human person).

Notice the way you look at things….

Notice the language you use when writing about challenge…

There’s no wrong way to answer these prompts or to write about them or to think about them. They are meant to get you to pay attention to yourself, reflect on the notion of challenge and your personal challenges, and to notice and learn, a little bit at a time. The more you learn about your challenges and the role they play in how you construct your world (inner– how you see and relate to yourself, and outer–they way you see and relate to “what happens” out there), the more wisdom you’ll acquire for your wellness.

Rather than relating to this as a task to accomplish or as finding the answer to your challenges or to making pain disappear, try to relate to it as a process. Focus less on outcomes and more on experiencing the process of learning.

PODCAST #18 ON CHALLENGE

PODCAST #17 ON OPPORTUNITY MINDSET

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018: Podcast on CHALLENGE

This podcast is a reading of a couple of excerpts from Part III of the Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self-Study Guide for Wellness (2019, Amazon) called “Challenge.” To know oneself deeply, to express oneself authentically, to be fully present for yourself, even in your pain, is a difficult path, but it is the way to a meaning-filled life of wisdom and wellness.

Grappling with our unique forms of suffering and problems, whatever that entails or however it manifests uniquely within each person, directly opposes our modern cultural values that are about promoting happiness, getting people to literally buy into the story that they need comfort and pleasure (permanently) and encouraging a dependence on everything outside of themselves rather than within. Guess what? You are enough and you can “fill” your life by getting to know who you REALLY are through facing your fears and challenges. It requires honesty as well as building courage and personal discipline, and that’s exactly why most people take pills, develop unhealthy dependencies on others, retreat to or stay forever in their comfort zones, and live lives of “quiet desperation” in the words of HD Thoreau.

Our sources of pain are diverse, but we are all flawed and we all suffer– in our own ways, great and small– because we are human. It’s scary and challenging to face our insecurities and vulnerabilities, but doing so is exactly the path to freedom. You can learn tools and practices to get better at suffering and to suffer less and live with more joy in this very struggle.

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The Pain and Hurt of Yoga

One fine morning after teaching a Bikram yoga class, a student charged out into the lobby to ask me why I used the word “pain” and “hurt” repeatedly throughout class with regard to the postures.  She clearly didn’t like it.

You know how sometimes some people begin an oncoming verbal attack with a seemingly polite question? You know, they’re “just curious” about something? This was one of those times. I wasn’t surprised by the question as much as I was shocked by her obvious fury, though I shouldn’t have been, as I have dealt with similar people and complaints in my job as a high school teacher.

“…push your head back until your neck hurts a little bit…”

“…you’re back is going to hurt don’t be scared…”

“…creating a tremendous stretching feeling, pain sensation…”

“…your back is supposed to hurt…”

“…elbows are supposed to hurt…”

“…make sure your back hurt…”

“…make sure your shoulders hurt…”

“…neck might hurt a little bit…”

Clearly, she wanted to engage me in an argument. She wanted justice done — for me to eliminate saying the words “pain” and “hurt,” as she believed the terms were misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst; to be telling people they should feel pain during a yoga posture seemed heretical to her. The notion of feeling pain, hurt, or any sort of discomfort seemed counter to her notions about yoga as healing and serene, among her other perhaps stereotypical perceptions about yoga practice— you know, namaste and all that shit.

This interaction presented me with a wonderful opportunity to think about the role of pain and hurt in the process of yoga practice, and more generally, to life and learning. Such thinking has led me to articulate for myself what makes my life as a teacher meaningful.

I don’t recall providing her with a fully articulated response at the time, but upon reflection, this is what I would have liked to have said. The first answer about pain comes from B.K.S. Iyengar who writes in Light on Life:

“…pain is an unavoidable part of asana practice…The pain is there as a teacher, because life is filled with pain. In the struggle alone, there is knowledge. Only when there is pain will you see the light. Pain is your guru. As we experience pleasures happily, we must also learn not to lose our happiness when pain comes. As we see good in pleasure, we should learn to see good in pain. Learn to find comfort even in discomfort. We must not try to run from the pain but to move through and beyond it. This is the cultivation of tenacity and perseverance, which is a spiritual attitude toward yoga. This is also the spiritual attitude toward life. Just as the ethical codes of yoga purify our actions in the world, the asanas and pranayama purify our inner world. We use these practices to help us learn to bear and overcome the inevitable pains and afflictions of life.”  (Iyengar, 871-877)

Iyengar’s words suggest that we remain humble and curious, respectful toward pain, as it is our teacher, our guru. This takes discipline and practice to learn, to get better at, to master, so the repeated reminders about “hurt” and “pain” within the Bikram yoga dialogue seem not only merely warranted or justified but appropriate and absolutely necessary.

Perhaps some yoga teachers will disagree with me (or Iyengar) on this point about pain, and that’s to be expected, but as a high school teacher, I have additional experience with resistance to such assertions.

I have many students and parents (and ,occasionally, other educators) who, like the questioning woman in my yoga class, object quite vociferously to the appropriate and necessary pain involved in the learning process that typically results from failure not only to learn but to achieve desired grades (and, by the way, yes, there’s a very important distinction between the two- a post for another day.)

The pain my students might experience and the variety of suffering they learn to cope with and manage in my classroom is healthy and paramount to their success and authentic growth as human beings, just as it is among the yogis within the asanas in the hot room. However, in today’s cultural climate of “everybody is a winner!” and “snowflake” parenting, such proclamations about pain are considered subversive.

People don’t like pain. They run from it, avoid it, and believe everyone else does the same which justifies such behavior and group think. Nevertheless, as a yogi who has developed an unconventional relationship with pain, I often seem to walk on thin ice, as my attitudes and approach to teaching and learning run counter to local cultural norms and expectations. I do not encourage risk-aversion, and that makes people uncomfortable– which is the point and the thing to practice.  

Adherence to the notion that real learning involves pain and sometimes hurt and a little to a lot of suffering is grounded in what it means to be human. I know this to be true through study of human nature and as witness to the amazing success of my colleagues over many years teaching and being a student of great teachers myself. This boldness and bravery is what enables me to be a perennial learner and therefore to walk the walk,  as teacher, without becoming completely discouraged. Such an attitude and disposition is exactly what is required to be effective within the institution of education today– that is, to get people to actually learn about themselves and their own humanity rather than merely achieve high grades or other unrelated objectives that have become fashionable. 

I am with Iyengar, all the way, on pain being the guru, whether it comes to learning math, writing, chemistry, dealing with romantic breakups, social phobias or anxiety, or whatever other dragons people or potential heroes may need to slay in their individual lives. No true growth and change happen without the presence of pain. The sooner you change your mind about it and make friends with it, the better. 

Living out the belief about teaching and learning as painful is difficult, as I am sure many teachers can understand. It would be easier to eliminate the words from the yoga dialogue to appease that woman and anyone else like her, or tell my students’ parents what they want to hear about their child, or inflate a grade to avoid problems with a supervisor. I have to defend my practical philosophy with steadfastness, on a regular basis, and that takes rationality, discipline, energy, and confidence; I am consistently making critical judgments and trusting my gut about when to spare the rod, apply tough love, or witness additional struggling of students. I am always trying to figure out whether to listen or speak, jump in and help, or allow the person to flounder and suffer more to reach their ultimate destination. Sometimes teaching is like sitting next to a terminally ill person and watching them die— because, in fact, sometimes people have to burn up and destroy themselves altogether before they can put themselves back together or be reborn. It’s painful to do, and painful to watch. 

It’s physically and emotionally challenging to be a part of so many people’s pain-filled journeys each day, over the course of many years, in the classroom and in the yoga studio. There’s a lot of energy that a teacher both gives and receives from collections of students each day, each class. There’s a lot of resistance. But, just like our students, we continue to engage with our own pain, learn how to resist it less, and try to be the model of learning our students need. 

Setting limits that cause a student to “hurt a little bit,” like saying no as a parent, or rejecting one good cause to enact a great and far more beneficial cause is something for which teachers need understanding. They don’t necessarily need your blessing or agreement, but fewer obstacles and objections would be nice, so they can continue to “be there” for students, to remain present as the steady witness to the learner on their unique, individual journey. Empathy is all. Suffering, as best we can, together is compassion.

Explaining this process to teenagers (and their parents and other staff) who struggle with the notion of the inevitable pain and hurt of learning— stewarding them through their “school yoga” is an enormous challenge, but one I still believe is worth taking on, even though on many days, the resistance to this process seems overwhelming. 

Life is a series of continual states of brief comfort alternating with disruption, disorientation, and discomfort, yes, including pain and hurt. We are constantly mapping out our lives, and re-mapping when obstacles arise, as they inevitably will. In this constant tooling and re-tooling process, theorizing, or what others have called mental masturbation, does nothing to prepare you for the real, practical challenges you will face in your life.

So the yoga practice? the life learning? Yes, it has to hurt a little bit, it has to be real, it has to be acted out, and even cause a “pain sensation,” because “tremendous stretching” hurts, whether you like it or not, think it’s unfair or not. Bikram’s dialogue is precise and accurate, carefully construed. Eliminating the words of “pain” or “supposed to hurt” robs students of important learning and the potential for authentic mental physical and spiritual growth.

As Iyengar says, “…the practices of yoga show us how much pain the body can bear and how much affliction the mind can tolerate. Since pain is inevitable, asana is a laboratory in which we discover how to tolerate the pain that cannot be avoided and how to transform the pain that can.”

Gaining such wisdom might hurt a little bit, but there’s no better process to dedicate yourself to than mining your own suffering for meaning and truth. And there is no better profession than teaching to witness such beautiful transformation.

*Bikram Yoga Beginning Yoga Practice, Teacher’s Dialogue

**Iyengar, B.K.S.. Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom (Kindle Locations 877-879). Rodale. Kindle Edition.