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Friday, May 11, 2012

Perspectives on Pain...

I spent the early part of this week in intense back pain.  Evidently I twisted my back while out pruning, weeding and raking last weekend.  The pain didn’t emerge until Sunday late afternoon, when suddenly the muscle along the spine on my right side went into spasm - and radiated around my ribs.  It was relentless.  I could not find a comfortable position.  I was able to reach around for a little self-massage to get a little relief at first. But I believe in all the twisting and turning of yard work a rib “popped” out of place, which was the main pain culprit..  I discovered that no matter how I tried to maintain perspective, pain changes you and your perspective.  It puts you in a seemingly unenlivened grey place that takes control of your life.  And I once again realized how fragile the body and life are, how quickly my settled, comfortable views about life and “self “ change, and how shadowed my “knowing” becomes when pain comes to call. In pain everything is moment to moment. 

The body does what the body does.  I have had chronic health and body issues since birth, so I understand the very real limitations of being in a physical body that doesn’t “work” the way I’d like it to :)  Fortunately I haven’t been in chronic pain.  But this recent experience with pain made me realize, amongst other things, that pain in the body is not a mental construct. There was no use in playing with the words when going through it, trying to convince myself of the difference between pain and suffering, and that suffering is only of the mind. My experience and awareness was that this body was in serious pain - “struggling” - even though I know that what we really are is beyond that pain.  I found myself automatically and unconsciously resisting it, and therefore in more pain, trying to find ways to alleviate it.  I’m no masochist :) I applied ice, heat, went to the doctor, took Advil and Ativan and tried to remember to breathe into the pain and relax, while at the same time wanting to escape the pain – a natural response.    

I can’t imagine that anyone who is in pain, or seriously ill, does not feel some sort of “suffering” in their body, as conscious and enlightened as they may be.   The body labors to live.   How easy it is when in pain to fall down that slippery slope of fear - suffering in the mind.  In the midst of pain “practices” like following the breath, being with the pain, going into the pain, embracing the pain, or telling myself the famous non-dual cliche that there is no one here that suffers, seemed like band-aids in light of the pain experienced.  In that moment there was nothing beyond that moment of pain.  I now feel greater compassion for those who have chronic physical pain – and how debilitating that is on every level.   I had all I could do to remember to ride the pain with a sense of awareness, and not fall down the mental and emotional sink hole of despair; although I had my moments – sliding back and forth between conscious and unconscious suffering.

I noticed that pain unmasks all the wonderfully comfortable mental ideas and beliefs that suffering is optional. Who ever said that!?  Maybe what is optional is the mental and emotional suffering.  But any explanation feels like a mental construct, a consoling lens through which to see pain from a conceptual point of view.  Sometimes “we” can get lost in lofty “spiritual” constructs.  Our personal and collective constructs of why suffering occurs can actually separate us from the pain that we and others experience by trying to put a rational explanation on “suffering.”  That is not to say that we need to fall down the rabbit hole of drama with our pain, but I see now that we need to call it what it is and acknowledge ours and each other’s suffering.  I am aware that The Buddha said suffering happens because we do not see the true nature of our suffering; the true nature of ourselves.  I understand this in terms of how our ignorance of our True Nature can cause unnecessary suffering.  But physical pain and suffering still happens.  It’s part of the mechanism of the body-mind, of being human, the fragility of the body and human existence – as I see and experience it anyway.  And in the pain anxiety automatically arises in the body, as if in response.  It is so subtle.  It is a body response, and I suspect a neural response to the pain.  And trying to see the experience differently had no affect on it. 

In the pain there was a dream-like sense of separation from awareness of the Truth of Existence – that there is no separation.  Pain became like a shield that separated, seemingly impenetrable.  And in that state of pain it was realized that we are all really living on the threshold of awareness, building constructs like ropes trying to save ourselves from our fragility – from our vulnerability – from pain – from death – from perceived separation that doesn’t exist… 

Humans suffer.  Understanding that who I really am is more than my body-mind does not necessarily help.  Being aware of my True Nature does not seem to help.  Knowing that I am not a separate “self” from Pure Awareness, and that it is That Awareness which is really experiencing this does not help. Understanding that there is a difference between pain and suffering does not help.  “Knowing” the Truth doesn’t relieve us from life happening as it does.  The only thing that relieves suffering in the experience of pain is the compassionate embrace of unconditional love from someone who knows what pain is like; not theories and constructs of why we suffer, or that there is nothing here that suffers, but someone who can help hold the suffering with you, in true compassionate intimacy.

So, in my spare time this week - :) - I have been pondering these perspectives on pain, noticing the effect of pain, waiting for the pain to stop.  And gratefully it did – Thursday.  The veil of pain lifted, opening a new perspective on pain and suffering…

I’m curious…  What is your perspective on pain?


  1. Pain is not something I want to be able to write about! Hope you are better.

  2. so sorry you are going through this physical pain. as a doctor's daughter, plus my mom was a nurse, i have probably always had the perspective (through all the new agey talk) that bodily pain is real, emotional pain is real and felt in the body and that the ensuing suffering needs to be acknowledged, looked at and perhaps not dramatized as you say, but things need to be done to ease the pain.

    I have always loved the first noble truth which acknowledges that suffering exists. I think too often we spiritual new agey types dismiss other's and our own sufferings as self-made. yet, the body exists and has limits and when one twists a muscle it hurts on several levels.

    Most difficult I find are friends who are int o the Course in Miracles which says there is no illness and also no death. who knows what the course writer meant by that.

    But often those friends use that as a response when I say I am in pain in one way or another. Seemingly dismissing my pain as self-made or illusionary.

    Anyway, I am glad you checked it all out and are taking advil and that the pain has lessened now.

    one a minor note, I had pain in my upper left arm and elbow and back and neck on L side which came several days after carrying heavy grocery bags or at least I attribute it to that. I said to myself, what, why is this happening. Oh yes, my body has limits and there are muscles in there that get stressed and streched. Hmm, I am human.

    Be well and take care, hugs Suki

    1. Thanks Suki for your perspective here! I am doing fine now - thankfully. Not something I want to experience on a regular basis :) Makes me think of aging and the body's deterioration though...

      I agree that it is difficult when our experience is seen as not real. Of course on the Ultimate level we know there is not pain, but in the relative sense suffering happens. And I think compassion is really the best medicine. :)

      Heart Hugs to you!

  3. As you said---" 'Knowing' the Truth doesn’t relieve us from life happening as it does." How true. . . and what a thorough study of pain you have made and written so truthfully and succinctly about; I'm happy you have emerged on the other side of the pain now and feel relief. Yes. We all suffer. The mourning dove fledgling that fell from its nest and Kipper chomped into before I could rescue it suffered. Our compassion grows. We want to "make sense" of everything, yet so much remains mysterious, and this, too, is what we want: the Mystery.

    Blessings and continuing relief from pain, Chris

    1. Thank you Chris for your lovely response! Yes, trying not to "make sense" of it in the mind :) when I need to just trust "the Mystery." Thanks!

      Blessings to you as well!

  4. your words are a deep study of pain. ah, gardening pain. Last year I was yanking on something I wanted out of the ground and ended up with a muscle spasm in my shoulder which continued over the weekend and was extremely painful. I have had other experiences of physical pain and they tire you out and you can't really think much past them. So a lot of the thoughts and teachings on pain get lost in the experience of pain! And yes we want relieve from it and are glad when it comes.

    It's true what you say and it is one of the Buddha's teachings that suffering can create compassion, that is considered it's gift.

    Also the Buddha talks about the suffering of suffering which is when we hurt our bodies or are sick. It's not an add on, it's not imaginary and it's not optional. We can of course, as you mention, add on by telling ourselves various stories about the pain.

    For me the wholesome use of the mind is to see me through the pain in the best way possible whatever that is; find a practitioner to help, remember to breathe instead of tense, and any other thoughts that serve to keep me from despair or panic.

    Happy healing. My Zen teacher used to say, "ah, these bodies."

    1. Thank you ZDS for your helpful perspective!

      I'm finding it interesting that life is presenting me so many opportunities to look more deeply these days! :) And of course my perspective comes from such a mix of wisdoms that I have accumulated along the way. So I speak in general in terms of my understanding of what the Buddha said...

      Yes - remembering not to get lost in the *story* of the pain - the drama of it and accept that pain/suffering occurs as part of the life experience.

      And I like what you said about "the suffering of suffering" - I assume this also means not to suffer about the suffering? Ie: not to get attached to the suffering?

      I also found that diversion and distraction were helpful, so as not to get totally focused on it...

      Thanks again!

    2. Ladies, nine bows to you for this illuminating dialogue. The irony is that just today I had posted about the Greg B. quote regarding "suffering being optional" but of course that is a simpllification of what ZDS has outlined. Of course suffering exists, but the layer of "story" around it is what is optional. What I thiink Mystic has put so clearly in the main post above is that when we are in excruciating pain, the ability to gain the proper perspective, the energy it takes to do so, is difficult to muster.

      And boy do I know what it's like to have a rib out. My sympathies!

    3. :) Thanks for your input StoneCutter... Yes, I agree, it's the "story" that we create around it that really creates the mental and emotional suffering.

  5. Sorry to hear about your pain, Christine, and wish you to be feeling better soon. Oddly enough we were doing a lot of garden work this weekend, and the first big gardening stint of the season--always the worst on the back. ;o) Physical pain can be some of the hardest to deal with. And I like what you said about how hard it is sometimes to go beyond the I am more than the pain, etc. When in the midst of physical pain, I try to remember that my spirit is stronger than my body and I find that a foundation to "stand on" while dealing with pain--any pain really. To breathe into the strength of my spirit, to just keep breathing! Stressing only seems to add to the pain, loosening the grip allows a kind of freedom to deal with the pain more creatively. It's not easy, and we are only human. ;o) Be taking good care...be well soon! ((HUGS))

  6. I, too, am sorry to hear of your severe pain. I did not understand what you write of here until recently. It begins to debilitate you from the inside out. You articulate so very well the deep journey of trying to filter it through spiritual practice, and the subsequent failure to do so. I have had these same feelings! So thank you. I pray that you will be pain-free, and especially that you will be at peace.

    1. Thank you Ruth for your heartfelt offering here. I am fine now. The pain has passed. I am able to experience the space of open awareness once again - and things don't seem quite so veiled. :) Settling into peace ~ ~ ~ ~


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