Pain is inevitable. If you’re alive, you feel pain. I write a lot about techniques and skills we can engage to alleviate our pain and suffering. There are so many options available to us, and I like to spread the word about protocols I’ve found useful. When we’re in emotional, physical, or spiritual pain, sometimes we need to apply a technique or change positions or take a medication or seek support to help ease some of our burdens.
And sometimes we need to sit with it.
This is often confusing to us because of our cultural messaging about pain. It’s categorized as “bad” and in need of immediate amelioration. It is our adversary. The way we deal with pain is to either totally stigmatize it and think we must be bad humans if we’re experiencing it or to completely normalize it and search for someone or something to help us keep ourselves from feeling it. We think “I’m in pain. I must be bad,” or “I’m in pain and I can’t handle it.” If we are in pain, we’re encouraged to throw everything we’ve got in our tool kits at it and never look back. Take a pill; take ten pills; take a vacation; move; buy something; buy everything; get rid of everything you own and live a monastic, minimal life; get a divorce; get married; do something; do anything; produce any external result.
There is a time for acting, for taking steps, for making major life changes and there is a time for inaction, for sitting with the information we’re receiving from our pain or discomfort. “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
All over the internet, in magazines, in self-help books, at workshops we can find myriad strategies for managing and relieving pain. Everywhere we look we see titles reading, “5 Quick Tips for Relieving Anxiety” and “6 Ways to Getting Over It.” I contribute to this, too! I write about tips and sometimes use catchy titles in hopes of drawing attention to tools I’ve found useful both personally and clinically. It’s great to have so many options, and it’s proficient to apply techniques to feeling better. But the answer isn’t always to do something.
It’s important that we face our pain, see it, and pay attention to it. It is important that we hear what our pain is telling us. Pain is useful. It communicates perceived danger, wounding, and injury. It contains essential information about our immediate and unmet needs.
Pain is always trying to tell us something, and it will never get its need met if we don’t figure out what it’s telling us. If it doesn’t get its need met, it will keep gnawing at us in bigger and louder (and often more uncomfortable) ways. Pain understands that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. So, it opens its mouth and talks to us anyway it knows how. If that doesn’t work, it raises the volume of its voice and continues to raise it until we hear what it’s saying and investigate. If we treat our pain with respect, dignity, and curiosity, we will begin to understand what it needs from us. The more we understand our pain, the less afraid of it we will be and to sit with it will feel more tolerable. Eventually, our relationship to pain will change.
There are two irrefutable truths about pain: 1) We will always experience it and 2) It will always hurt. We will always experience pain because we are living beings and all living beings experience some form of pain. It will always hurt because that is the most effective way of getting our attention.
As we learn to sit with our pain we will begin to notice that our reactions to much of our pain stimuli will change from “Oh my god, I’m going to die,” to “Oh my god, I feel like I’m going to die,” and “This really sucks but let’s see what the hell is happening here,” and “Damn, I’m in so much pain. Let’s see what this pain wants or needs from me,” and so on.
If you’d like to try this on your own, I recommend experimenting with something more surface-level at first. Try sitting with a minor irritation like an itch or the frustration of waiting for a website page to load. With more substantial pain, it is wise to start our inquiry into our pain with the accompaniment and guidance of a skilled practitioner. A lot can come up, and we can become very overwhelmed very quickly. That’s kind of the thing about pain, isn’t it? Sitting with it is, well, painful.
Love and Be Loved,
(Side note: I am right there with you. I also don’t like pain and still find myself avoiding it or ignoring it. No one is exempt from this process.)