Whoever we are, wherever we are, we inevitably experience pain. Yesterday’s pain may still be occupying us, and tomorrow’s pain too, together amplifying today’s pain. We don’t get what we want, and there’s pain; we get what we don’t want, and there’s pain; and even when we get what we want, there’s pain, if only because of how things change and how little in control of this we are.
Just as inevitably, we tend to store as much as possible of our pain in our shadow, finding strategies to numb, bypass, or otherwise get away from our pain. The more we try to flee the felt presence of pain—whether through denial, dissociation, or distraction—the more deeply it takes root in us, and not just in our shadow. So what are we to do?
The bare-bones answer begins with turning toward our pain, which means directly facing and feeling the raw reality of it. Then eventually we move closer to our pain, step by mindful step, gradually entering it, bringing our wholehearted awareness into its domain. And we start to recognize that in order to emerge from our pain, we have to enter it.
Often when we say that we’re in pain, we’re not really in our pain but rather only closer to it than we’d like. We’re then in a sense still outside it, still cut off from its depths, still removed from its deeper interior.
But, we may ask, isn’t the point to get rid of pain or to at least get away from it? After all, isn’t pain already unpleasant enough? Why make it worse by moving closer to it, let alone entering it? These and similar questions are quite understandable, given our commonplace aversion to pain, be it physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. The very notion of turning toward our pain and getting close enough to it to start knowing it well may initially seem counterintuitive, foolhardy, misguided, or masochistic.
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There’s no need to shame ourselves for turning away from our pain. It’s enough to simply recognize such evasion for what it is. With this recognition we can bring in a compassionate exploration of the roots of such behavior, remembering and feeling our early life efforts to get away from our pain, efforts that might have helped us survive very difficult circumstances but that no longer serve us.
In turning toward our pain there’s great freedom—a freedom that grounds us in our core of being. As we slowly but steadily undo our various ways of fleeing our pain, the energy we’ve invested in getting away from our pain—as opposed to simply being with our pain—is freed up, becoming available for us to use for truly life-giving purposes. Turning toward our pain doesn’t increase our pain for very long, and actually decreases it relatively soon, mainly because we’re no longer paining ourselves by putting so much energy into trying to get away from it. Also, turning toward our pain, thereby making more room for it, focuses and expands us, depressurizing and easing us, however slightly.
Being with our pain doesn’t mean passively submitting to it or letting it run us but rather staying present with it, neither getting lost in it nor dissociating from it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by pain, spinning down into it as if being drawn down an energetic funnel toward a darkly contracted vortex. It’s also easy to launch ourselves so far from it that we all but lose sight of it, settling into exaggerated detachment.
Remaining present with our pain may be far from easy, but with practice it’s quite doable. And the more consistently present we can be with our pain, the less it pains us. It may still hurt, but we don’t mind as much, for we’re more able to hold it, to both contain it and express it under certain conditions (as when emotional release is clearly called for).
Despite pain’s ubiquitous presence, day in and day out, our usual responses to it keep us from knowing it very well. It’s not that there aren’t times when it’s entirely appropriate to get away from or take a break from pain, such as when it’s debilitating or sharply out of control. But it’s still entirely worthwhile learning how to simply be with our pain, staying present as possible in the midst of it.
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There are many kinds of pain—physical, emotional, mental, psychological, existential—each of which has many qualities (such as density, texture, shape, and movement) that are all in flux. But the essence of each kind of pain is a compellingly felt sense of unpleasantness or discomfort, ranging from irritability to agony. That essence is what we encounter, hold, and become intimate with as we work with our pain, knowing it in both its detailing and its core reality.
To turn toward our pain is to begin unhooking ourselves from our distractions from it. It’s natural to seek distraction from our pain. Such evasion can take many forms—ranging from intellectual to pharmaceutical to erotic—any of which can easily dominate us, thereby disconnecting us from living a deeper life, if only by keeping us in the grip of conditioning. The process of unhooking from these distractions is itself inevitably painful for a while, mostly because it hurts to wean ourselves from what we’re habituated to doing. But soon it begins to feel OK, even when we’re still hurting. The closer we get to our pain, the greater are the odds that we’ll be able to skillfully relate to it rather than from it. When we thus relate to our pain, cultivating intimacy with it, we start liberating ourselves from our pain and from the painful consequences of avoiding our pain.
From Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark: Breaking Free from the Hidden Forces That Drive You, by Robert Augustus Masters, PhD. © 2018. To be published by Sounds True in October 2018.
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