Don’t Make Pain the Enemy.

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My friend Jeff once told me a strange story about a Japanese monk imprisoned during World War II. The Zen monk was being interrogated by the militaristic government for any possible information on antigovernment activities. To crack the monk, he was restrained on a table as water was slowly dropped on his forehead for many hours.

Years later, during a reconciliation program in Japan, one of the guards who participated in the interrogation encountered the monk. Incredulously, he asked the monk, “You were the only one who didn’t break or fall apart. How did you do it?”

The monk replied, “Each drop was the first drop.”

I’ve thought about this story a lot over the years, working with my own pain and hearing the stories of others. It’s so easy with chronic pain to feel as if each flareup is a return of something terrible and familiar, like Groundhog Day without the comedy or Andie MacDowell.

Yet just as “weather” is a term for an infinite combination of texture and manifestations, so too is pain less monolithic than it appears. Even in the Pacific Northwest, there are gradations of gray and cool especially the more you pay attention. The less we pay attention however, the more abstract our experience of being in pain becomes and the more each occurrence seems to confirm something about us (i.e. this is my fault).

I find it helpful to remember that monk’s attitude and see my experience as fresh. What is this moment really like?

This is different than searching for a silver lining within our pain. We may discover one at a later time or when we least expect it (I’ve found many). However, an intense pressure to be “positive” or optimistic can lead to a denial of our humanity. Imagine adding a second layer onto chronic pain — literal insult to injury — by blaming yourself for the way that you are handling your pain. We discover self-acceptance when we become more interested in the present moment, and less interested in the story in our head. You could think: ‘I’m going to take this one drop at a time.’

* * *

All of which is to say that pain creates the most complex of knots within us. Physically, we tend to harden and tighten around where the pain is. Mentally, we grasp at positions and solutions in search of relief. In our hearts, we often muzzle the sad and vast truth of how much this sucks.

The disconnection from the present is nearly complete.

Yet, there is always a way to unwind the knot. Don’t make pain the enemy. Like the monk, try to see your experience with a fresh perspective. Ask, with genuine curiosity, what is happening inside me, right now?

And allow the many facets of your experience to be as they are. For instance:

  • The sensation of pain (what is this like, right now?)
  • Any tension around it
  • The feelings provoked (which are often full of aversion and helplessness)

The less you make any of the facets “bad,” the more this experience of pain will transform and become fluid. It will not stay as it is. Strange as it sounds, accepting that you are in pain (and that you don’t want to be) is profoundly healing.

Pain Isn’t Everything, Either.

Also important, however, is to not focus only on your pain. If the pain intensifies, spatial awareness and connecting with your other senses helps can be a balm to an inflamed nervous system. (You can download my free audio guide, “How Do I Stop Focusing on My Pain?” on this page, which takes you through a spatial awareness exercise.)

For pain to not be the enemy, you need more than an idea. It takes practice to shift our habits from self-aggression to self-acceptance. It also takes practice to find the balance between ignoring our pain and completely focusing on it. There are many places to start; I’m offering a four week course beginning next Wednesday, March 15 which lays the groundwork for you to tread this path yourself. This will be my last group workshop for several weeks as my family is expecting another stork visit in mid-late April.

Yours in health,


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