My Old Friend Pain
Of late, the state of my health and my corresponding mood seems to be fluctuating with eerie consistency between the extremes. When I am feeling healthy and my internal workings are “open”—for business and pleasure—my mood is accordingly good. I am happy and grateful for everything, starting and ending with my health. Praise the Lord.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere (and apparently unrelated to diet, though pot is a definite no-no), the symptoms return in full force and I am back “in Hell,” swallowed up by bitter despondence and nigh-suicidal despair. Thus disposed to dwell upon my misery, I no longer desire do anything besides eat, read, watch movies, anything, in short, that permits me withdraw from a now untenable reality. This extreme shift of mood—which in the past would have required several days at least—occurs sometimes in a matter of hours. Back and forth I go, a cosmic yo-yo of a soul.
At crux of my misery is not just the relationship I have with “my” body—i.e., that between my mind and body—but with external conditions in general. (It may seem odd to speak of the body as an external condition, but to the mind that is exactly what it is.) When the body is in revolt—if such it is—the mind also rebels. Perceiving the body as the enemy, it says, “Fuck you! I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want to do, whether you like it or not!” Not that this entails any extreme forms of hedonism, you understand, but at the very least a stubborn and defiant decision not to meditate. Why should I meditate if my body is gonna act like this? Screw you, body!
This madness is the result of my constant awareness of a rigorous force or intelligence, separate from the ego but nonetheless forever present. (Face it, the ego is separate from everything; the ego only exists in, as, and by separation.) In my madness, I end up pitting myself against this force—call it God, Spirit, True Will, or just plain common sense—exactly as if it really were outside of myself. Everything becomes a manifestation of this force—a challenge, test, punishment, mockery, or insult. Even something as simple as a barking dog or bananas that refuse to ripen no matter how fucking long I leave the damn things in the Sun, such matters become living, tormenting examples of how the Universe—life—defies me and continues to turn up the heat, here in my personal, private Hell.
Yesterday morning, I realized that the problem—hence the solution—is really very simple. Every time I focus on an external circumstance, condition, or event that frustrates, disappoints, angers or oppresses me, I cast blame upon it for undermining my happiness, will, and well-being, as I would some invading force that exists solely to destroy my hard-earned piece of mind. How dare it!!?
The truth, however, is that what is undermining me is none of these things. What is undermining me is rather the thought, belief, the stubborn, egomaniacal conviction that there is anything outside of me at all that could ever have the power to undermine me. It is my insistence on perceiving things as happening TO me, rather than THROUGH me, that is the source of my torments.
If I am the lead player in the drama of “my life,” the only thing that can undermine my happiness, logically, is me.
There is a difference between pain and suffering. “Pain” causes us to “suffer,” just as pressure brought to bear on a structure may create tension within it. So far as we resist pain, we suffer. When we accept the pain, even though it is still there, if we are no longer judging it (or feeling judged by it), there is no longer any need to prolong it. Suffering is pain prolonged—by resistance—beyond what is strictly necessary.
I’ve come to see all physical pain (including so called “diseases”) as simply blocked energy and the pressure and discomfort that it causes. If so, what blocks energy? What prevents it from flowing down its proper channels? The answer, generally, is our thoughts, combined with the moods they create (and are sustained by) and any “bad habits” we adopt as a response to (or a reaction against) them, are what block the free flow of energy.
When our energy is blocked, we experience pain or dis-ease. What is then required, usually, is to reverse the (emotional-mental-physical) pattern that caused the blockage. We have to break the habit and free up the trapped energy, and so relieve the pressure. The trouble is—as we all know from bitter experience—this situation creates its own vicious circle. Bad habits (negative thinking and moods) block the flow of energy, resulting in pain, which hurls us into suffering. Then when we suffer, we become gloomy and despondent, self-pitying and resentful, and “take refuge” in sloppy behavior and “bad habits.” And so it goes: the suffering is compounded, and indefinitely sustained.
I think at base of this diabolic predicament is the fact that, in our present culture and society, we have not learned—are unaware even of the possibility—how to incorporate pain into our lives and transform it into something else. In our prevailing culture of convenience, pain is the ultimate undesired (and undesirable) commodity. Pain is what we will do anything to avoid, even when it is already too late and the only sane and responsible thing is to accept it and deal with it! Because we try to push the pain away, however—even when it most sorely needs our attention—there is no way for pain to be absorbed into (and so healed by) our larger experience.
By denying pain—with aspirins and antibiotics and TV and alcohol and comfort food and whatever other relief or refuge we contrive to find—we believe we are keeping suffering at bay. But we are only isolating it, keeping it separate and alive as a “thing” unto itself, and so making it impossible to assimilate. From such a lopsided perspective, “pain” and “suffering” exist for the sole purpose of undermining our happiness and well-being! And the pain never goes away, only grows and mutates in its special, isolate state, the dreaded “other” that can never be assimilated. Eventually it grows into something we cannot ignore, something that takes over our lives entirely. On that day, suffering becomes our lot, and the only sound advice would seem to be—that of Job’s wife to her sorely afflicted hubbie—“Curse God and die!”
Before we take such an extreme resort, there is an alternate option, however.
The alternative is to allow the pain, without judgment or resistance, to exist as part of ourselves, to accept it and take full responsibility for it and allow it to become—or rather to be—an integral part of our total life experience. Why not? That’s what it is, after all. If we do this, we may begin to see just how small in relation to everything else the pain really is. Pain is not a “thing,” any more than knowledge or love or happiness are “things.” Pain is one of countless distinct qualities of living, a single point of view in a vast array of perspectives designed to “flavor” our life experience.
I am learning to think of pain as an especially powerful spice: mix it with the rest of the ingredients and it adds a special “bite” (and body) to the meal, bringing out all the other flavors (by contrast), making the eating experience more intense and memorable. (It may even help us to digest the food afterwards) The addition of this super-spice, in moderation, rounds off the dish and makes it complete; it puts the meal as a totality into a nice, sharp perspective. So it is with pain.
If we refuse to use that spice, for fear of what it may do to us (ruin the meal?), and instead keep it on the side, what then? We are always going to wonder what it’s doing there, and we will simply have to use it eventually. We wind up eating the spice on its own just to find out what it’s like, and sure enough—just as we suspected—it inflicts the most horrendous experience upon us. How could anyone imagine such an evil spice was actually good to eat?! But we have completely missed the point of the spice, and probably given ourselves indigestion to boot.
My own predicament appears to be thus.
Certain channels in this-body-which-I-am have been blocked (by fear of and resistance to pain, probably of the emotional variety) for a very long time. I am now attempting to unblock those channels, and what is coming through them is a lot of long-repressed stuff—sadness, fear, rage, whatever the hell it is and wherever the hell it comes from, it’s easy to see why it’s been repressed. This is all the crap that has literally been bottled inside me for decades. So naturally it doesn’t feel good when it comes out; and since the body is already in the habit of “closing up” to protect itself from pain, this is precisely what it does. By doing so, however (by mistaking an internal process for an external ‘thing”), it only traps the old hurt inside; and what is inside us, as we know, is what can really fuck us up.
The result of this internal warfare seems to be that I get to enjoy a period of grace in which I feel “good,” having cleared some of that baggage/blockage/tension; the energy is flowing and I can eat and breath normally, I am happy and grateful to be alive, thank you, sweet Lord, for all Thy blessings. Then, since I’ve cleared the way for that stagnant, foul, putrid, long-denied shit to come up, the pain wells up again and the poor body goes back to its default setting of rigid resistance. At this point, it feels exactly as though I am back to square one, like nothing has changed and I have accomplished absolutely nothing for all my suffering. The pain is exactly the same. I succumb to fear, despair, resentment, anger, all the old habit patterns that were once used to suppress the pain. To Hell with you God! Just let me die, you sadistic fuck!!
But of course, this doesn’t work anymore. It’s too late, because things have changed. I am at least aware of the grisly process, and of what I am doing to change it. Something besides merely keeping the pain at bay is now underway.
In a sense—though not, I hasten to add, a masochistic one—I am inviting my pain to show itself, not to be shy, to come out and talk, tell me how it feels and what it wants. I am striving to accommodate it, give it a place to be, make it feel welcome, accept it, embrace it, assimilate the damn thing and be done with it. Wine it, dine it, and put it to rest once and for all. Bloody hell, so mote it be.
In the meantime, like a good host, I am obliged not merely to endure the company of this gruesome guest, but to make the most of him and try to enjoy our time together. Since I invited Pain to come visit, I must be civil. Now is time for us to spend some quality time together, to learn to understand and respect each other, as worthy opponents must, and to plumb the depths of our experience together. As traveling companions in Hell we venture onward, my old friend pain and I.