The last two years of my life have been intensely painful, physically and mentally. In fact, they’ve been so painful that I was forced to deeply examine my relationship with pain and attempt to change it drastically.
As I described in my article on my Midnight of the Soul, in the summer of 2016 I was thrown suddenly into a terrifying chronic illness which changed my life.
I was no longer able to sleep at night due to constant, bone-deep itching like I’ve never known before, and then the accompanying pain after I’d literally torn my skin off with my nails, bleeding all over, and in the end I would fall into a fitful sleep early in the morning out of pure exhaustion.
Itch is a strange phenomenon. It’s arguably more intense than regular pain, since we tend to try to counteract itching with pain.
To be fair, normally people don’t get itches that are strong enough to warrant real pain, but I promise that if it gets intense enough you’ll do anything to stop it.
Although the itch may have been more intense, the pain I felt day in and day out all over my torn up body was a sort of chronic, high level burning sensation.
And when something commands your attention every waking moment as chronic pain does, you have two options if you want to try living a regular life : you can medicate it away as I did frequently, although I used weed instead of poisonous OTC pain medication, or you can re-examine the way you react to pain.
At first I refused to face my pain, and I would find activities absorbing enough to let me forget about it temporarily like video games and porn, and later with good old marijuana.
At the core of it, we’re talking about avoidance versus acceptance. When I finally did admit to myself that if I wanted to avoid going absolutely insane, I would have to face what was happening to me and try to accept it.
I began by trying to understand what pain actually is. What the hell is it, really? The most obvious answer is that it’s a bodily mechanism that alerts us to damage being done on a physical level. Not much help there.
It’s also a concept that makes us very uncomfortable and that we avoid talking about. We’re getting closer to a model of pain that we can work with.
My greatest epiphany regarding the problem of pain, is that pain is a bodily sensation. This is a powerful concept, because as a sensation, pain has no real power to harm us. Just as we can choose how we react to sadness, anger, craving and itching, we can choose how we want to react to pain.
This is one of the precepts of mindfulness practice. Many sufferers of chronic pain, myself included, have discovered the incredible benefits of mindfully observing painful sensations.
It takes us from a place of identification with pain, to a place of detached, or I should say non-attached observation. To be clear, I don’t mean that the pain actually goes away, rather that our capacity to deal with it improves.
“Detachment means letting go and nonattachment means simply letting be.”
I started doing a lot of strong-determination meditation sittings, which consist of sitting perfectly still for long stretches of time, without reacting to pain or discomfort. They are incredibly difficult, and incredibly rewarding. I would normally sit for 30-40 minutes at a time.
Only once have I managed to sit for an entire hour without moving, and it was a truly transcendental experience.
The pain had become incredibly intense, and my mind was screaming with frustration, but I wouldn’t give in.
And the more I directed my attention to the painful areas to directly experience the sensations of pain, the more I realized that that’s just what it was : Sensations of pain.
Our reactions to pain may seem absolutely determined, but in fact they are our own choice. The book Who Dies? by Stephen Levine really got me to think about pain in a completely different way. It’s one of the most poignant and profound books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
“If there is a single definition of healing it is to enter with mercy and awareness those pains, mental and physical, from which we have withdrawn in judgment and dismay.”
Overcoming our fear of pain in this way is truly liberating, and has numerous benefits. I believe that one form of enlightenment may be found in the being that has transcended the fear of pain altogether. A few of my own observations from working with and accepting the place of pain in my life:
Reduced Fear in General
When you’ve sat through an hour of stabbing pain in various parts of your body, or your daily life is brandished with a painful chronic illness, the numerous fears that we feel towards all kinds of things may start to diminish.
In my own life, I’ve discovered that I’m way less worried about humiliating myself, so I’ve started putting myself out there in many ways. For instance by starting this website. The old judgmental part of my mind that shouts “But what if what I write isn’t good enough and nobody wants to read it and everybody will laugh at me and I’ll be exiled and forced to live in the wilderness…” and so on, can be effectively countered with “I’ve had worse”.
I’ve also seen that fear of failure has greatly diminished. All fear is rooted in pain, be it emotional or physical. Fear of failure is actually a fear of the pain that accompanies failure, like humiliation (see above) or blows to our self-esteem.
A Drive to Live a Meaningful Life
Thank god my chronic pain didn’t last forever. In the last month or so it has rapidly gotten better, so much better that I’m finally able to exercise again, to sleep through the night, and to go out and about without being constantly distracted.
The most powerful result of my work with pain has been this powerful desire to live my life exactly as I want to.
Partly because I now know by direct experience that health is fickle, any number of things could happen to me and life is too short to waste it on worrying about consequences. But also partly because I know that I can handle whatever the universe throws at me. I know that nothing that happens to me can actually break me, especially if I keep cultivating my insights on pain and reality.
An Unobserved life is not worth living
There are some harsh truths inherent in the fabric of human existence. Pain is abundant. It’s everywhere.
People die in agony every single day. Many people lead lives that are so physically painful that it’s unimaginable to those of us blessed with good health. Pain is as much a staple of being human as is being born, loving, and dying.
When we decide to stop avoiding the things that scare us the most, like pain, we may find that it leads to a feeling of wholeness, a feeling of acceptance of the nature of things. When we fully accept pain, a paradox will become apparent to us:
Pain only begets suffering because we allow it to do so.