Pain is as common as rain. For some, it comes once in a while, then it is gone. For others, it rains every day. For some, the rain is just a drizzle, while for others, it pours constantly and only sleep brings some respite. And of course, these days we have the benefit of medication which can help. But in the mind, pain is not easy to deal with, it is visceral and can be quite persistent, so it can’t simply be dismissed as a passing thought.
First, we should recognize that pain and suffering from it are two different things. One is a physical sensation, yes it is unpleasant, but never-the-less, it is just a sensation. The other is a layer of thoughts, projections, and desires that the mind coats on top of the pain. That’s where it goes from pain to suffering.
For those who aspire to be present, in all moments just in the now, pain is a ruthless teacher. Pain arises afresh in this present moment and suffering is the mind stitching together all of these moments into a timeframe. The mind asks, “when will this pain end,” and “will I suffer my whole life,” and so on. This is fear-based, because we are afraid of the pain and we want it to end. Allowing fear to write the script is optional. Entering into time is optional. These are narrative based, and are quite apart from the actual pain itself.
While not easy, it is possible for us to shift from our reactionary narrative to simply an awareness of the experience of pain. It begins with recognizing that the narratives are there for the self to protect itself against any discomfort, and that is why fear plays such a big role in writing that script. On the contrary, the masters have taught us that freedom from suffering is not freedom from unpleasant experiences, but rather, an equanimous abiding no matter what the experience. Acceptance is about this moment, not about the thought that, “oh so I have to accept this forever.” While pain is not particularly enjoyable, at least for most people, the question is what feels better – to fight what is being experienced or to accept it? The pain is there anyway, so to fight it or be at peace with it? Eventually, after practice, surrender to the moment can be achieved, but it does not mean giving up. Acceptance of pain does not mean giving up on treatments of illness or medical protocols. The approach one takes to an underlying illness is not the pain – the mind has a way of mashing everything up into a huge blob of fear but that’s why we have a mind – to use it consciously in order to discern, not allow it to run on a mad autopilot.
For practitioners, pain and discomfort brings an opportunity to explore each arising moment very directly and without abstractions. You either accept the pain and are at peace, or you contract against the pain. Whatever you do, you know exactly where you are with it. There’s no guess work as to, “ok am I in the moment or am I wandering.” Along the path, growth comes more readily when things are a bit unpleasant, than when we are in perfect comfort. Pain is an opportunity to discern the pure awareness of it from the imposition of suffering that the mind layers in.
An important point here is that this practice of looking at the pain as it arises without mental constructions is that it should be done as a curious exploration rather than a strictly disciplined approach. Adyashanti suggests that it would be more fruitful if we enter into it with a question of, “I wonder what would happen right now, if I could accept my discomfort, just right now… I can change if I want to… but what would it be like if I could accept this moment. Can I accept this moment the way it is?” So, in this way, the question itself leads us in, rather than trying to impose an idea when also going through physical pain which lends itself to doubt and re-introduction of fear-based thinking.
The practice of meditation can be a good rehearsal for when the pain comes. Since meditation is learning to be with what is, in a quiet and controlled environment, and if we can begin to master that, we can take that level of surrender into the real world. Many people view meditation as a separate practice, like going to the gym, but the true meditator is meditative in every moment of life, whether it brings pain or pleasure.
As the contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
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