‘The cure for the pain is the pain.’ Rumi
We are geared toward avoiding anything unpleasant and move toward pleasant. The nervous system of a baby immediately distinguishes between pain and pleasure and enables the move away from pain and towards pleasure. Avoidance is biologically hardwired in us for our survival.
Add to this distraction which we learn early on. It is a tried and true method for stopping crying in a baby. We can use a loud noise, a shiny object, a funny face or unhealthy food.
Zoom ahead to adulthood. You sense discomfort, it may be vulnerability, shame, desperation or guilt. What are you likely to do? By now the mind has had specialised training in avoiding and distraction and here are some of the techniques it may choose to use:
- Externalise: make it about something out there that is annoying, frustrating or stupid.
- Intellectualise and generalise: staying in the head and deal with it from there feels safe.
- Eat: usually something that feels like a treat. We replace the original feeling with the feeling generated by eating– so it is a break from the pain.
- Drugs, alcohol, work, TV watching, playing games.
You might even have sought professional help to overcome or get rid of unpleasant sensations. You might have considered going for a run or a walk, ringing a friend, getting a hobby, going to Zumba, focusing on the end goal of success and doing one thing that will lead closer to the goal, writing lists and enjoy ticking things off, etc.
Naturally some of these things will at least diminish the pain or discomfort in the moment.
And it is quite possible that we could be doing all these things out of free choice, but it is worth considering if at times we are doing them to avoid pain.
Having been in the helping profession for many years I noticed that I had a very well assorted tool box when it came to distraction. I could manage myself out of any pain. The issue is that the pain stays when it is not acknowledged.
‘What we resist persists.’
When we experience trauma, avoidance can be a good short-term strategy. We can disassociate from our emotions and numb their intensity. Avoidance methods may work fine in the short term. They can become a problem though when our daily functioning is reliant on our avoidance strategies or they become habitual.
This whole avoidance tactic is a little like having been told that there is a thorn bush in the bed, never really investigating it, but just finding ways where we can sleep without being scratched.
In learning to be with unpleasant and painful sensations mindfulness is sooooo useful. It is a practice of learning to experience life in a different way, different to how our survival mechanism has focused us. It is stepping out of our biological survival priming and to do this we need courage and strength to go against what we feel like doing. As you know, mindfulness practice is characterised by presence and an attitude of kindness, allowing, non-judging and curiosity.
We need those attitudes to soothe the stress response that the body engages once it experiences pain.
The irony is that if we are talking about a thought or a sensation. It is just one aspect of the self, calling for attention and all it needs is our full attention. It really is not worth fleeing home for!
We have various ways of ‘being with’. The key thing is to hold the experience in the attitude just mentioned (kindness, allowing, non-judging and curiosity) and for a body sensation or feeling we can give it the RAIN (Recognise, Allow, Investigate and Non-Identify) treatment.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we greet our thoughts, feeling and sensation by saying; ‘Hello little fear’. We can then ask to talk to ‘fear’. This labels it and externalizes it. We are then no longer identified with the thought, this way we can be ‘with’ without being ‘in’.
We can also remind ourselves of the poem;
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, Some momentary awareness comes As an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, Who violently sweep your house Empty of it’s furniture. Still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out For some new delight. The dark thought, the shame the malice, Meet them all at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, Because each has been sent As a guide from beyond.
Being with the pain can be a doorway to freedom, it can minimise the pain or even neutralise it and free us from it. Whether your pain is your weight, depression, feeling abandoned, fear of loneliness or death, liberation from it, is to invite it in and explore it. This will expose its emptiness, expose the delusion as it is only a temporary visitor, contextual and ever changing.
For MVI practitioners
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” RUMI
When I recognise the thought that says; ‘I just want to die’ just as a human experience and not as a state of my life, I can investigate it with curiosity, allowing, non judging, presence and oodles of kindness. Incidentally ‘I just want to die’, is the voice of desperation, which in its mature form is the voice of impermanence. As the little human mind resists impermanence it sounds like; ‘I want to die’. When it engages and ‘plays’ with it in the attitude of curiosity, kindness, allowing, non judging and presence what emerges is alignment with life, a deep calm and ‘not knowing’.