“Pain is not wrong. Reacting to pain as wrong initiates the trance of unworthiness. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat the pain.”
― Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha
THE POWER OF PAIN
In this article, we propose that pain has a purpose and a power. We are focusing on emotional pain, which manifests as sensations in the body. We invite you to see pain from a different perspective. Pain can be a messenger providing information, a potential teacher, a guide to better boundaries and a path to transformation. Now is the time to listen to the information and lessons of our pain instead of ignoring, silencing, or running away from them. Discerning the messages that pain provides is a key to personal power. It requires that we be brave, vulnerable, open, and connect not only with our pain, but with others. Pain then becomes a portal to personal transformation.
We are not our pain, but we are shaped by how we react to it. We have been taught, and many of us maintain the false belief, that pain is a punishment. The Latin word for pain, “poena”, as in the legal term “subpoena”, speaks of penalty or punishment. Pain can render us feeling fundamentally flawed, wrong, bad, ashamed and guilty.
Yet, from our definition, pain, whether physical, emotional or imagined, is a normal response to something disturbing, uncomfortable or confusing. Pain can be a natural consequence of pushing our boundaries, which can also be a part of growth. Ignoring the messages that pain provides initiates a process of potentially greater physical and emotional damage.
Pain can be physical, like when we over-exercise, have surgery or get injured. Or, it can be emotional pain from our past, like boundary violations, rejections by lovers or friends, lack of belonging, or feeling unappreciated. When we cross our own boundaries or trample on what we value by violating others, we experience pain. Pain can motivate change. Pain is an inevitable part of life; how we react to our pain is our choice.
We propose that we can train ourselves to be open and listen to this unwanted guest. Pain is not our enemy and we do not need to avoid, numb, ignore or bury it at all costs. If we mask pain or try to silence it, we will not receive the information it is trying to give us. If we can be open to inviting pain in and learning from it, it can be a powerful teacher and a path to higher consciousness.
Step 1: Inviting pain in
So, how do we treat our pain when it knocks on the door? Do we push it away, try to deny it, or believe it is there to hurt or punish us like some sadistic judge? Or, are we trying to starve our pain to death by paying little attention to it? This is like trying hard not to think of a big, pink elephant; the more we try NOT to pay attention to it, the more it looms large and stomps into our thinking.
Or, do we feed our pain so much that it’s turned into an attention sucking monster, draining the life out of us? Has the pain grown so large that we have lost our identity to it? Does it now define us, tell us who we are, and dictate what we can or cannot do? Has pain become our persecutor and we the unwitting and unwilling victim?
When pain knocks at the door, invite it in, and explore why it's here. Approach our mostly unwanted guest with openness, curiosity and gentle regard. The energy, money and time that we often spend trying to get the guest to leave is often wasted. What we really need to do is invite pain in and benefit from its wisdom. Allow ourselves to be open to the opportunity for transformation.
Step 2: Listen with an open mind from a new perspective
What does pain tell us? Can we just be curious and aware of the pain? Often we are so attached to our pain that we think that is who we are. We are not our pain. It is not our identity or our destiny. We are not the victim of our pain. Everyone needs a level of detachment to learn, live, and lean into the pain. To be fully alive is to experience pain. Thus, we see our pain as separate from who we are and develop a relationship with our pain.
What relationship do we have with our pain? Do we see it as an enemy, irritant or something scary? Instead of battling, fearing, and avoiding pain, we encourage listening, heeding, and honoring it. We can choose to have a relationship with pain that allows it to be a teacher and not an enemy. Our relationship to pain often varies depending on our beliefs and the kind of the pain. We may have a relationship with pain that informs and guides us towards greater health and authenticity or leads us astray into dysfunctional behaviors.
If we can learn to see pain as a messenger, or teacher, it can be like attending a class that we do not like, but from which we may still benefit and learn. Accepting and honoring pain’s lessons with openness, from a new perspective, allows us to grow and change. Our willingness to sit through pain may grant us the privilege of not having to repeat the course.
Allow pain to be our guide. Some of pain’s lessons are simple, while others are more complex. Often the lesson is a direction: STOP, GO, slow down, speed up, get out, turn around, RUN, rest, allow, BE. Let pain tell us to stop what we are doing, whether it is exercise, an intimate relationship, or something else. Pain’s lessons can teach us to take the alternate path when the one we are on is too treacherous. Pain may also teach us to be better prepared on the path we choose to take. It may encourage us to modify our behavior and to make different choices. These are choices that may align more with our values and build integrity within our authentic selves.
Step 3: Lean in and learn from the pain
We lean in by allowing ourselves to experience pain as an emotion and sensation in the body. Pain is an energetic force that when approached with gentleness and curiosity, enables our learning and growth. What does it feel like, look like, smell like, taste like, sound like? Investigating and exploring the terrain of our pain with kindness and compassion allows us to begin to hear the message and embody its wisdom. Leaning in with compassion, allows us to learn from message. If our goal is conscious living, then our purpose is to learn the lessons we have in life. When we refuse to learn life’s lessons, we are often destined to repeat them.
Honor pain in mind and body. Live a life not defined by pain, or zapped by the avoidance of pain. Live in the fullness of life where joy and pain are intertwined. Let pain teach us how to live fully and find ease in the struggle. Leaning in and learning from our pain guides us and strengthens our ability to forgive and accept. Thus, we are transformed through the paradox of a life layered with joy and pain.
Step 4: Grow and transform
Pain’s message is the opportunity for transformation. Embracing our pain as an inevitable and uncomfortable part of being alive is an essential part of our conscious growth. Pain reminds us that we are human and life is impermanent. It strengthens our capacity to be compassionate, kind, loving, and connected to the pain of others. So, denying pain and running away from its message is feeding the false self. Learning from pain and accepting its wisdom allows us to be more whole.
While enlivening and connecting with our lifeforce (authentic self, core being, fundamental essence, Buddha nature), pain allows us to reclaim more of our wholeness. What pain teaches us, can transform us. Connecting with our pain allows emotions, feelings, strengths to grow. After experiencing pain, we may feel hope or sorrow, but we may also be more compassionate, empathetic, and accepting of ours and others’ suffering. We can live in the world more fully with compassion, empathy and acceptance of our own and others’ suffering. Thus, pain truly becomes a portal to personal transformation.