As Dr. Phil asks, “How’s that been working for you?” If the answer is “Swell” then we probably will continue what we are doing. But if you find yourself still experiencing pain—thinking it’s just one darn thing after another, you might benefit from a new approach.
Eastern medicine offers other possibilities that have worked for centuries. It is more common there to work with pain to find the root causes. We can learn much from these ancient methods.
Within the pain are clues showing us the way out.
By engaging with our pain through close investigation (which means not trying to get rid of it) we begin to discover the roots.
We probably have noticed that weeds grow back quickly when chopped off at the top. But if their roots are dug out they don’t return. A new weed may sprout, but not the one whose root has been removed.
So it is with pain. If this interests you, read on. If not, you might find a more useful way to spend your time.
The last 30 years I’ve been involved in a mindfulness practice in which I do my best to watch what I am thinking, planning, frightened or upset about. This requires concentration as well as curiosity.
Mindfulness asks us to pay attention to the body—to the sensations flowing through our body. If there is pain we are encouraged to stay with the pain and watch closely as it changes—and as it will—for everything is in movement.
If pain can be relieved easily by changing the position of the body, then we do. Mindfulness does not omit taking necessary medication, but it asks us to continually remain alert to what the mind is thinking and what the body is doing.
This is called inquiry. We question what is going on without judging or evaluating. We don’t try to force answers, but let them come as they will. Trying to figure things out causes us to miss the clues.
Through this process we begin to discover the roots of our suffering. Instead of distracting ourselves, we gently, softly approach the wounds, the hurt places, be they mental, emotional and physical.
Mindfulness practice asks us to soften around the pain. We open our heart, quietly watching in curiosity. The insight and gradual relief this brings is quite amazing!
On the other hand judging and analyzing these hurt places causes more suffering.
This is counterintuitive, but actually turning towards our suffering with forbearance and openness leads to relief—healing of the heart and soul.
Our early conditioning has formed deep habits in our body and brain. Most often we avoid what we don’t want or like. This has been our survival technique.
But here we are—we have survived. Now is the time to thrive!
Old unskillful habits need to be dissolved. It is an interesting fact that habits only work in the dark. Being unconscious they work beneath our conscious mind. As we bring the light of awareness to them, they become more clear. We begin to see their patterns and discover what old beliefs and opinions they are connected to. We see the roots of our core beliefs.
Habits aren’t changed by getting angry at them or shaming ourselves. They are changed by bringing the light of awareness through compassionate eyes, not blaming them or wishing they were gone.
Instead we recognize that they are just part of our conditioning. No one is to blame. It’s just the way things have been and presently are.
But they can be changed through acceptance—not anger or avoidance.
We begin accepting whatever is happening within us each moment. What are the motives for thinking and doing whatever it is we are doing? Are we trying to hurry? Are we distracting ourselves with busyness? Eating? Shopping?
Our present action will either lead to more suffering or away from suffering. It is our choice which path we will take.
Our habits are not bigger than we are, though they like to pretend they are. Sometimes we feel helpless as we slide down that old, familiar path of overwhelm, doubt, worry, etc.
The truth is that our awareness is larger and brighter than any habit.
What happens to the dark when light is brought into a dark room? It is no more. Only the light remains.
I suggest starting with small annoyances, little hurts. Feel them rather than avoiding or using a habitual response, such as, “Oh well, I’ll get over this.” Or “there is nothing I can do about this so forget it.” Or “Whatever.”
Instead try something new. Open your heart to the irritation; come closer. Questions you can begin with are: Where is this hurt, this pain? What shape is it? Is it hot or cool? Is there sadness? Is there fear?
As you question, notice your breathing. Has it speeded up? Breathe and pay attention as it contracts and expands. This causes us to slow down so we can see more clearly.
As we do this we begin to have a more confidence in the power of our awareness—rather than the personality which is so fragile that it continually needs defending.
It is amazing how creative the mind is. We are so much more than we have every imagined!
And please remember what the Buddha taught:
No one is more deserving of love than you are!