Knowing Pain

Hello pain.  It’s me, Monisha.

I know.  When we think of pain, we think of a difficult thought, situation, feeling, reaction, physical sensation, something that generates a strong sense of avoidance and discomfort.  Our natural reaction is to resist pain.  Ironically, the resistance of pain, in fact leads to suffering.  And suffering can be harder to deal with than pain itself.

I have never liked certain sayings about pain.  That is has a greater purpose somehow, or that it makes us stronger if it doesn’t kill us.  Pain is uncomfortable on its face, and we would rather not feel it if we didn’t have to.  But, it is true that pain is usually carrying a message.  Something in life has happened that requires our attention.  Something in our bodies is awry and needs to be addressed.  Our heart is waving a red flag in our direction, demanding to be noticed.

As difficult as pain is, there is usually no way around it.  The only way forward, is through.

Being a psychiatrist, I obviously sit with people who are in pain, hour after hour.  And like all other human beings, I too have directly experienced pain in my own life.   None of us is immune.  Pain is a fundamental experience that is a part of being alive.  It comes with the territory.

In my own experience with pain, and in helping my patients, I think we do one of several things when we feel pain.  The first is that we might avoid it.  We deny it.  We push it away.  Maybe we engage in a bit of martyrdom.  We insist we are fine, and we carry on.  In these situations, I think pain sometimes shouts a little louder to get our attention…or perhaps lies dormant for a little while, only to pop up again when we least expect it.

Sometimes, we self medicate our pain.  Whether we are experiencing physical or emotional discomfort, we take a few pills, or drink some alcohol, or engage in retail therapy or gambling in order to feel better.  We don’t want to feel what we actually feel.  We want to feel numb or high or nothing at all.

Sometimes this is a conscious choice, and sometimes an unconscious choice.  Sometimes it is a compulsion or an addiction.  But the problem of course, is that the source of the pain remains, strong as ever when the drug of choice has worn off.  And problem number two, is that the drug of choice often creates its own set of problems and painful consequences, only worsening the situation.

So where does that leave us?

What would it be like to learn how to simply be with our pain?  To be curious about it?  What does our pain look like?  Where in our body do we feel it?  Does it have a particular color, shape, sound, texture, name?  What makes it better or worse?  How does it ebb and flow?

Can we introduce ourselves to our pain and learn about it, so that we can deepen our understanding of ourselves, or bodies, our emotions, and the ways in which we operate?

From that place of deep knowing, we can determine what the path forward through pain looks like.  What is it we truly need?  What words do we need to say?  What support do we need to elicit?

Alcohol won’t relieve our pain when what we really need is to have that difficult conversation with our spouse.  Painkillers won’t help when what we really need is to stop exercising so much and simply rest.  Maybe all our ache needs is reach out to connect with a dear friend for coffee and company, or a mental health day from work.  Maybe we need to release our suffering through tears or screams.

Whatever it may be that we need, whatever our pain is asking of us, the first step is leaning into the discomfort in order to know the solution.  This takes tremendous courage, a willingness to be uncomfortable for a little while, or maybe even a long while. But being mindful in our lives, for better or worse, does not mean feeling happy all the time.  It means strengthening the awareness and emotional “muscles” that allow us to sit with the full spectrum of our human experience, as difficult as that may be sometimes.

So today, and in the week ahead, I invite you to join me in introducing yourself to your pain, if pain is arising for you.  What do you discover?

With gratitude, Monisha