What we learn from pain shouldn’t be how to escape it.


We don’t need to “go to our happy place.” It seems that our society, sitting with our pain, physical or emotional, is unheard of. Take a pill. Be entertained. Cheer up. Watch something funny. Do whatever it takes to make it go away. Pain is bad.  And we just want to get rid of it.

Pain is a message from our bodies or from our hearts that something is wrong. If we never stop and listen to it, how can we really make anything better? How can we learn from it?

Eight things I learned from pain (also known as suffering):

1. When we acknowledge that it’s there instead of trying to “think positive” or be happy and will it away, we feel better faster.

Ironic, no? I love how Pema Chodron sums it up:

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a crap and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”

Hello shitty day. Hello pain. Yes, you’re here. I don’t like you, but this is what it is right now and instead of cutting myself off from the present moment by pretending otherwise, I’m going to sit down and have a cup of tea with you and look you in the eye.

2. When we try to avoid feeling something, it doesn’t leave.

That anger that is stuck in your throat isn’t going anywhere unless you deal with it. That sadness that you keep trying to eat away, drink away, shop away or even throw happy Youtube videos at would be better dealt with by giving it mindful attention, a good cry and acknowledgement that it’s there. You can’t go somewhere else and then begin to deal with your pain. You have to start where your pain is.

3. Physical and emotional pain can be useful.

One usually brings the other with it. Sometimes it’s tough to tell which one came first. The great thing about the mind-body connection is, if you sit and deal with one, you are dealing with both. If I deal with my emotional pain, I will notice physical aches and pains peak, and then subside. If I deal with my physical pain—acknowledge and treat my body with kindness—my mood will improve too.

4. Acknowledging pain and wallowing in self-pity are two different things.

You know it, and I know it. We know the difference between being honest about the difficulty of the present moment, and cuddling up with self pity.  Self pity is closed-off, self-centered and is about replaying your hurts and picking at your wounds. Acknowledging pain is about opening up, without resistance, and staying open.

 5. Hugs and music are incredibly transformative.

Maybe it’s something else for you. But for me, when I feel horrible, desperately sad, mad and momentarily nihilistic, a nice long hug really helps. This isn’t about escaping from pain. This is about the things that help us as we sit with pain. The warmth of a hug, time with a friend, a quiet place makes it easier to stay present.

6. Pain is the ultimate teacher of patience and impermanence.

It’s temporary. This too shall pass is not trite, it’s true. We don’t like to remember that when good stuff is going on. When we sit with our pain, it’s the best time to connect with that knowledge of impermanence. It hurts right now. It hurts like hell. It didn’t hurt yesterday. It might not hurt tomorrow. I can be okay with the fact that right now is painful, in part because I know it won’t last.

7. Anger turned inward becomes depression.

Want to be depressed? Suppress your pain, suppress your anger, instead of dealing with it head on. What is it about physical and emotional pain that makes us angry sometimes? Do we feel like it’s unjust? Like we don’t deserve it? Pleasure is available to all of us. Life is full of simple and complex pleasures. We accept that readily. We need to also accept and acknowledge the dark and difficult parts of life. (And P.S. the pleasure is so much sweeter when we do. If we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel everything, we cannot fully experience anything.)

8. Being strong isn’t about being impervious to pain.

I’ll say it again another way: We aren’t strong because pain doesn’t affect us. We are strong because we let the pain affect us. We feel it fully. We open up and acknowledge it. Fearlessness isn’t being a brick wall in the face of pain. Fearlessness and strength isn’t a calm facade that doesn’t allow pain to touch us. It’s the opposite. Our strength is in our raw, broken-open reality.

Don’t push it away. Don’t look away from it. Listen to it.

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