When Pain Might be Your Best Friend
Learning through suffering
This has been one of the hardest Blogs I have written since the focus is on some of the difficulty I have been managing over the last year. But as always, I wish you all the blessings of the season as we move into Samhain!
I am not one of those people who believes that we need to suffer in order to develop and grow, however I do believe that pain and suffering can offer us opportunities for growth if we allow it.
Suffering is inevitable in life; it is what the Buddha discovered. We can’t avoid suffering; only choose how we respond to it. Pain can sometimes be the best teacher – physical pain in the hand for example, teaches us not to touch hot things which hopefully prevents us from serious harm another time. Emotional pain when we upset a loved one teaches us the importance of that relationship and hopefully encourages us to nurture those bonds which provide us with emotional and sometimes physical security and support. Both experiences are part of our survival mechanism; we need to learn to minimise physical and emotional harm wherever possible to stay safe and well and part of the group we need to belong to.
But sometimes events outside of our control cause us suffering which we cannot avoid. How can we learn from that? Maybe you can think of times when you have learnt from your struggles.
What have I learnt this year?
I have learned a lot about myself, most of it unpleasant. I guess you could say I have faced my inner demons and I have a suspicious feeling there are more to come.
Some of these ‘demons’ or ‘inner monsters’ arrived like the unwelcome guest in Rumi’s poem brought by someone else. I did not invite them or want them. They were imposed on me and left me ungrounded and floundering.
Some were created by me, by my own actions as I reacted to the unwelcome visitors in my life, the events and people which harmed me, rather than responding wisely to these. It is easy to fall back on old habits of behaviour and thinking when it feels as though everything is being turned upside down and out of your control.
This last eighteen months has been the hardest I have experienced health wise for several years. I have not only been ill with complications from the Ehlers Danlos, but I have again experienced gaslighting from some of the medical professionals I turned to for help.
But I have been extremely lucky. This is one thing I have learned about pain.
Someone finally took my symptoms seriously and I was sent for a series of examinations during which, coincidentally, a cancerous tumour was discovered and removed and the area around it treated. It turns out that the cancer was a particularly aggressive kind and, as the oncologist explained to my partner and me, usually by the time someone has symptoms it has spread so far it is extremely difficult to treat. They never usually find it so early.
The pain and discomfort I went into hospital with quite literally saved my life.
That pain and discomfort is still there, it has not been resolved yet and will involve more months of invasive procedures. I also need scans and procedures every four months for the next few years to check the cancer hasn’t spread. But if it does crop up, it will be found early. All being well I will be discharged in five years.
When pain shows up, how do you want to handle it?
These worked well for me: (See my previous blogs for the evidence base for these practices)
Self-Compassion - first trying not to beat myself up for the times I didn’t respond well, and then trying to make sure that I really did look after myself. Lately my practice has turned towards curating a new relationship with my body. This is still a work in progress but I am gradually befriending my body again, even the painful difficult bits, and wanting to care for my body better.
Gratitude – finding things we can appreciate or even feel grateful for really helps put things into perspective and helps us to move out of the habit of obsessing over the difficulty. Appreciating the space to learn about my strengths and weaknesses, my true friends, my lovely family, how much I love the natural beauty I see around me every day continues to be a daily focus, as does appreciating the skills I have learnt through my years of meditation practice which have allowed me to find this perspective.
And, of course, gratitude to my body for alerting me that something was seriously wrong, and that I was lucky enough to find the cancer early.
Letting go – just like the autumn leaves and bonfires we see all around us at this time of year, there are times when letting go and disposing of what no serves us is the most healing of all practices.
Sometimes it feels like we are being stripped bare and this is challenging. There is no weakness in recognising this; ‘This is hard to manage, this is heavy to hold’ became the focus of many of my meditations over the months and continues to be when I have days where I feel overwhelmed, exhausted, in pain or ill. In my worst moments all I could see was a life ahead of me that I didn’t want to experience.
But, just like the trees which lose their leaves every autumn and stand bare throughout the harshest weather, if we let go of trying to control what is outside of our control, the energy will return to us in another, more useful form, as do the leaves which return their nutrients to the soil and re-emerge as new life in the Spring. I had a lot to let go of, but this has created space for a lot more to be gifted to me.
We can also hold it lightly – in ACT we are reminded that the harder we try to control things the messier it gets, like an ice cube being gripped tightly in the hand. Hold it lightly, it is less messy and easier to do.
A jacket with empty pockets is easier to mend (a short meditation):
I found this to be a very helpful meditation, I hope you do too.
Find somewhere comfortable and quiet to sit where you will not be disturbed and bring your attention to your breath in whatever way feels most helpful for you right now.
When you are ready simply imagine yourself wearing a jacket, it can be any style or colour you wish, but it has lots of pockets.
Now imagine that the pockets contain all the worries and niggles you are currently carrying around with you. These can take any form or shape; they may be written on bits of paper, they may be objects, whatever you like. Some will be bigger and more problematic than others. Just let them be however they are for you right now without judging how you feel about these worries.
We often tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling something we are feeling, this only adds to the difficulty and can create avoidance as we try to fake being less affected than we really are.
So just see what is in your pockets and take it all out.
It is up to you what you do with it. Some of this you may need to pick up again later and deal with it, but you can put it down for a while and give yourself a break.
Feel how much lighter your jacket is now. Feel how much lighter your body is as a result.
Some of it you can get rid of completely, you might want to burn it or dispose of it in some other way.
It is helpful to let go with some gratitude since these thoughts and emotions will have served us in the past in some way, they are just not needed any more.
You may be left with tattered pockets. Some of our concerns are hard to drag out of ourselves. This is ok, sometimes letting go is a messy business and we are left torn and tattered.
But a jacket with empty pockets is easier to mend.