In October, I wrote about my recent accident, the broken ribs, and only touched on the pain that came with it. Pain deserves its own column, as many of us are living with chronic pain, and all of us certainly have occasional pain.
We avoid pain as much as possible. As soon as we feel it, we want to end it. We stiffen up, resist and allow our feelings of aversion to only intensify. We take drugs or other suppressants. The new CBD products, especially the ones with indica THC, are especially helpful. They don’t take away pain but relax us enough so that we stay calm and still – sometimes just what we need. And, they allow us to feel alert the next morning, instead of all drugged up.
There are additional ways to deal with pain, more natural ways, and they can be good teachers to us for life itself.
The three dimensions of pain are the physical – how it feels in our bodies; the emotional – how we feel about the sensation; and the cognitive – the meaning we attribute to our pain.
Maybe we’ve hurt our back. The physical component is the difficulty getting into a car, lifting things, inability to work or even move. The emotional part is having to give up things we like to do, our anger at the situation. The cognitive part is the most interesting – the questions we have about the situation, what caused it, our negative stories about what may happen and our fears. This all compounds the stress of the pain. These thoughts not only exacerbate the pain but also have their own painful quality.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program is quite well-known, says that if we can change our relationship to pain by changing the emotional and cognitive parts, the physical part may change as well.
He explains that mindfulness can make a difference in these states. Body scanning, tuning into each part of our bodies, while breathing into them, and then moving on, gets us out of our heads and all those negative stories. Breathing in, we feel the breath moving into our pain; on the out-breath, we try to let go and experience a sort of relaxation around the pain. When it returns, we’ve got the next in-breath to work with. It’s a practice, and gets easier as we go.
In this way, we bear witness to the pain. We have an awareness of it. We see it as it is. It’s not pleasant, but all the stories and emotions and stress around it often end. We’re not spinning out.
We can also bring compassion into the areas of pain in our bodies. Allow it to be OK. No fight. No struggle. Accept it, and be kind to ourselves.
Living with the mistaken notion that we should be free of pain only makes matters worse. Pain makes up much of our existence in one way or another. Resistance to it is where our suffering begins – “Why me?” “I can’t stand this another minute!” – only reinforces pain’s devastating power. With enough awareness and acceptance, we can begin to realize these are just thoughts and nothing more, and begin to soften into the sensations of resistance themselves.
Pain is an intrinsic part of being born into a physical body. Are we comfortable with the truth of our bodies? Do we feel the need to control the changes in our bodies as we age? Do we need to change things in any way? Can our minds be sufficiently spacious and receptive to allow all that appears to arise without our resistance in any way? Can we be OK with heat, pressure, tingling, cold and throbbing in our bodies? Is it all OK? Can it be workable? Can we be in the totality of our lives?
Good questions for our last years in this life. Difficult things happen to us. The question is, what is our reaction to them? Pain is like life; if we can get comfortable with it, we’ve come a long way in enjoying and accepting what these final years may bring us.
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus to the other end of life and written a book, “The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.