Everyone knows that pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. It’s not always easy to remember, but recently I had a surprising breakthrough just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse – which may be the point. Six years ago my health collapsed and I began collecting auto-immune disorders as a hobby. It’s basically inflammation and it gets everywhere – and I mean, everywhere.
So I’m trying to be all stoic about it and getting on with my life. Most of the time that works fine. I can acknowledge the pain and not make an issue of it. I thought I was doing a pretty good job learning not to suffer over my suffering, and then I had another flare up. I can see the funny side of it when my joints seize up because I’ve been sitting for too long. Staggering about the living room like an old biddy grumbling about my knees is quite amusing.
But when my eyes turned blood red and my face erupted with oozing lesions of eczema and I woke every night clawing at my throat until I bled, it wasn’t funny anymore. Still, I had gold bogies – that’s cool, right?
(The eczema made it all the way up my nose, in case you’re wondering 😦 )
The inflammation got into my brain too – and that’s where the fun really started. I looked like an extra from The Walking Dead and felt worse. There were days when I literally couldn’t get off the sofa. I had a ton of writing to do and the flat needed a clean, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even think.
And then something happened that I didn’t believe was possible. I went all the way through the most profound depression and came out the other side.
Pain v Suffering
Suffering is an emotional experience, whereas pain is just a fact. Suffering arises because of your attitude towards the facts of life. It’s the story you tell yourself about the pain you’re feeling – whether that pain is physical, emotional, or psychological. To stop the suffering all you have to do is stop taking it personally – stop telling the story.
I discovered this by accident, many years ago. It was a freezing winter day and I was trying to cross the busy street outside my house. I stepped off the kerb onto a patch of ice, slipped and fell on my arse. A ball of pain shot up my spine and exploded in my head. I couldn’t think – the pain was so powerful and intense that it pushed every thought, and me, out.
There was just PAIN.
There was no story about the pain. I wasn’t thinking, “Ouch!” or even worrying about how stupid I looked having fallen (that came later!). Two girls helped me up (without laughing) and I thanked them, still without any thought. The pain had taken over. Only gradually did my normal thought patterns start up again. Later on the pain subsided a bit and that’s when I started to complain.
It’s the same with headaches. If it’s just a slight ache you do the drama queen routine of pressing a hand to your head and moaning, “Oh, my head, I’m dying, I’ve got meningitis, I’ve got a brain tumour…” The pain isn’t really that bad, you’re just milking it for sympathy. But when you have a stonking headache – a proper migraine – you can’t move or open your eyes and you feel sick. The migraine takes over. You don’t have the energy to make up a story about the pain. It just hurts.
When I got my tattoo it was similar. I knew it was going to hurt, so I braced for the pain. The needle started to pierce my skin like a jackhammer, so fast it felt like the tattooist was dragging a razorblade through my skin. The pain built and hit me in waves, filling my head. There was no way to get away from it; I volunteered for this, I couldn’t complain. So I accepted the pain and let it be.
The pain doesn’t go away when you do this. It still hurts, but it’s okay that it hurts. As Lawrence of Arabia says, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
This isn’t about being a sadomasochist, like Larry. It’s not about enjoying the pain. That would be a different story.
It’s about not trying to control something you can’t control. Suffering comes from resistance, from trying to get away from the pain. It feels personal because it hurts. You feel victimised, as if the pain is attacking you. But physical pain is just an agitated nerve ending – it’s completely impersonal. Here’s a short extract from Addled where Zoe Popper is dealing with the pain of a nasty toothache:
“A ticklish fizzing buzzed in my jaw. A wasp caught in a thimble. I breathed into it and the pain increased. I fought with myself not to take it personally. Don’t label it, don’t think about it, just let it be. I breathed hard, hyperventilating; the pain scorched, flames enveloping my head. I ran through everything I could think of: the pain is empty, the pain doesn’t inherently exist, it’s all happening in awareness – flinging words and hope at the fire, as if that would put it out. Tears leapt from my eyes to escape the blaze.
As it had begun, it ended, simmering down to a flicker, and I marvelled at the intensity of the pain. It pushed every other thought from my mind; there was no space left, not even for me. At the end, there had been nothing but the inferno; it consumed everything in its wake. The pain was miraculous, unfathomable, glorious.
When the next wave hit I was ready for it. I held at my centre, in awareness, and the pain became fascinating. I watched its progress, rising and falling. I was one with the pain. Awareness didn’t make the pain stop, it still hurt like hell, but it was okay. I could handle it. Awareness dissolved the suffering.”
When you surrender to whatever is happening and stop trying to escape, a space opens up around it. It’s like the pain is held in a kind of spaciousness. This is your true nature, which is awareness – emptiness.
The same principle applies to emotional and psychological pain. If you can experience the pain without telling a story about it, without labelling it or judging it as bad, or even good, you can reach the centre.
At the heart of every emotion and every thought there’s an open space. It’s a bit like the black hole at the centre of our galaxy. At the centre of you is a black hole, a void, an empty space of pure awareness or consciousness. Out of this emptiness, or nothingness, arises the whole of existence.
Out of nothing comes you, in every moment.
Embracing your suffering and pain, without judgement or thought, can reveal this truth.
My joints hurt and that’s OK (sort of)
Sometimes physical pain is connected to an emotional pain, so to heal the physical pain you first have to heal on an emotional level. That’s what I’m trying to do now with the inflammation in my body. The story that underpins my various maladies is one that has haunted me since I can remember – the feeling of being unworthy of life.
Most of the time this story isn’t a problem. My spiritual practice keeps it under control and I’m slowly dissolving the delusion. However, when the pain flares up it triggers the story, which then feeds back into the pain. It’s a vicious cycle that only gets worse over time. But maybe that’s the point.
I’m sitting at the centre of an emotional tornado that reveals, with every twist and turn, exactly how I cause my own suffering. The self-improvement work I’ve done has made me feel worse – all it did was reinforce the underlying story of not being good enough.
My illness is challenging me to let go and accept life as it is, without any guarantee that I’ll heal or feel better. That’s pretty tough, but it’s had some surprising effects. I’ve found joy in unexpected places.
This post is already too long, so I’ll reveal all next time in: What I learnt about joy on the sofa
Images: White Hole