A friend of mine is having a lot of back pain and she hasn’t been out of her house in days. She is hyperalert around her pain and is afraid to do anything. The pain has so affected her life that she told me if it doesn’t get better soon, she feels like “checking out.” I invited her to consider the possibility of opening to the healing of being with her pain rather than always resisting it.
I explained that so often we amplify our physical pain through our resistance to it, not realizing that we create more pain by trying to run away from it. Pain is like coming across a bear in the woods. When you run away from it, the bear runs after you. But when you turn and face it, chances are the bear will go away. It is the same with your pain. When you learn how to turn toward it, it allows the possibility of calming it down.
I then shared with my friend a radical approach to healing pain that Stephen Levine, author and spiritual teacher, taught me. When pain arises and you start resisting it, take a moment and bring your attention to your pain. To focus your attention, it is helpful to describe it to yourself: Is it sharp? Is it throbbing? Does it have definite boundaries or does it move around? Is it at the surface or does it go deeper? Is it more on the right side, left side, or right in the middle?
To bring your attention and your pain together is one of the most powerfully healing practices you can do. Stephen told a story of his experience working with a woman who used many techniques to manage the pain from her cancer. Then a tumor wrapped around her spine and none of her techniques worked. When he invited her to be with her pain, she was amazed that she had never done this for she was always trying to get rid of it. As she was present, she said that she couldn’t even call it pain anymore; it was simply different sensations arising and passing away.
I invited my friend to not only be attentive to her pain, but also to talk to it. Pain is just like you and me. It relaxes when it is acknowledged. She might say something like this, “Hello Pain. It’s okay that you are here. I want to get to know you. Today I see that you are cold and sharp. When you are ready, I would like to know what you are trying to say to me.” In these moments of using curiosity to be with your pain, you are softening it by relating to it rather than trying to run away from it. I told my friend that I am not suggesting that she stop taking pain pills or stop going to physical therapy, or whatever calls to her, but simply to add the healing power of curiosity.
Be gentle with yourself as you are learning how to turn toward your pain rather than trying to get rid of it. After all, you have been trained your entire life to resist any physical, mental and emotional pain. In life, pain is a given. It hurts to stub your toe. It hurts when you have a toothache. And everybody you love will either die before you, or you before them. Pain is part of the journey. Suffering is your resistance to the pain. So, when you can, say hello to your pain, befriend it, and discover that your own focused attention is a powerful healer.