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.
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.
Anything to stop the itch
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.
I often felt like a burn victim. It was that bad. I would lie in bed, staying completely still. If I could do this for long enough, the pain would subside slightly and I could calm myself down. If I moved an inch, the wounds and sores would open up again, causing me great pain and even more itching.
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 over-the-counter pain medication), or you can re-examine the way you react to pain.
Change your relationship to pain
At first I refused to face my pain, and I would look for activities absorbing enough to let me forget about it temporarily like video games and porn, and later with good old marijuana.
In essence, physical pain isn’t that different from emotional pain. We seek relief in many forms. We use porn, gambling, alcohol, weed, video games, sugar, and television to help us escape, to help us forget our pain, whether emotional or physical.
At the core of it, we’re talking about avoidance versus acceptance. In the end, 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.
What is pain?
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.
Life is all about perception. There is no ultimate reality, only our various perceptions of reality. In other words, in some sense we create reality. So pain, as terrifying as it is, is only as horrific as we allow it to be. If we can change our relationship to it, we can change its essence.
It’s all in the mind you see. I know that’s a cliché, but as you know, clichés exist for a reason. When I started really delving into the nature of my relationship to pain, I discovered some very liberating truths.
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.
Pain and mindfulness
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.
In the here and now, there is no pain, technically speaking. “Pain” is a concept, and as such it resides on the mental plane exclusively. When we remove all our negative mental connotations that we’ve accumulated over the years, via family and friends, television and the culture we grew up in, what’s left?
What’s left is the essence of pain. The nucleus of the concept of pain. It can’t be spoken of, not really, because speech relies heavily on conceptualization. It’s ineffable.
The most powerful tool for dealing with pain
Mindfulness is a very powerful tool, or rather a mindset. It simply refers to experiencing reality directly in the present moment, instead of relating to experience mentally, as we usually do. We think of future events, or past events, or we think endlessly about the meaning of things that happened five minutes ago, or the likelihood of things happening five minutes from now. But we don’t ever think about what’s happening right now. The now can only be experienced directly.
Mindfulness 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 to say that the pain actually goes away, rather that our capacity to deal with it improves. More specifically, our relationship to pain can change. It can change to the point that we only feel pain, without suffering.
“Detachment means letting go and nonattachment means simply letting be.”
We often feel like pain and suffering are one and the same, but there’s a massive distinction: pain is a sensation, suffering is a thought.
As such, pain may be inevitable, but suffering can be overcome by various forms of mental training.
Sitting with the pain instead of avoiding it
This is a different path that many don’t understand.
When I discovered the potential of mindfulness for changing my relationship with pain, 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 name we give to that choice is suffering.
We all instinctively know the difference between pain and suffering. If someone punches you in the face and breaks your nose, you’ll inevitably feel a lot of pain. But it’s the fear, confusion, and anger at the person who punched you that causes you to suffer.
“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 person 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.
Even those of us born with a healthy body and healthy mind will know pain at some point in our lives. If you haven’t already experienced some kind of storm in your own life, there’s certainly someone close to you who has.
This is just an inextricable part of being human. We’re playing this human game, and pain is an aspect of that game, whether we like it or not.
It’s funny, I took a course in Vipassana (insight) meditation a while back. The teacher told us that every now and then, a student would come to her after much meditation and strong determination sitting and tell her that he had actually started enjoying the aches and pains of sitting for an hour.
We can make a game of it. We just have to be open to the possibility that pain isn’t what we always thought it was. You can start catching your mind, Ah I see, an old thought pattern of aversion is coming up. Is it anchored in reality? Or is it a mental creation?
Just think of the potential benefits of doing this! The fear of pain and suffering can limit us in so many ways, but when we start to question the fabric of this fear, we find that doors start to open to us. We start to open our minds and hearts to unheard of possibilities and potential changes in our reality.
With an open heart and an expanded mind, we become unstoppable. Fear can no longer crush our spirits, and pain can no longer hold us down. We will cease to suffer.
When we stop avoiding the things that scare us the most, like pain, we 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 causes suffering because we allow it to do so.