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?