Recently a friend and I discussed the experience of pain. She was recovering from surgery and was trying to cope with very strong post-surgical pain. We talked about how, when we are in intense pain, our spiritual explanations of reality can seem hollow and ineffectual, and totally useless in the situation at hand. After our discussion I found this piece from Jeff Foster, which she said captured exactly what she was going through.
Sometimes you don't get to be a Buddha.
Sometimes you just have to break. And feel.
You have to lose your precious 'spiritual awakening'.
You just have to be a human being, feeling.
Sometimes old pain resurfaces. Old fear. Sorrow. Trauma.
The searing ache of the abandoned child.
The rage of a forgotten universe.
And suddenly, all of your spiritual insights crumble, all the beautiful spiritual words by the beautiful spiritual teachers, all the concepts and ideas about awakening and enlightenment, and the pure perfection of pure untainted awareness, and the selfless non-self self, and the path to glorious futures, and the wise guru, they suddenly are all meaningless, empty words, second-hand drivel, and dead to you.
What's real, now, and alive, is the burning in the belly, the fire in the heart.
Unavoidable. Intense. So close. So present.
Sometimes you just have to feel. You have no choice.
And sense your feet on the ground.
And breathe into the discomfort.
And trust, and maybe trust that you cannot trust right now.
And take it moment by moment, by moment, by moment.
And know that nothing is working against you.
And awaken from your dream of how this moment 'should' be.
And throw away all your second-hand ideas about the path.
Sometimes your spirituality has to shatter,
so you can finally realise
this deeper spirituality
of feeling, presence, and feet-on-ground living,
and the sound of the birds singing in the distance,
and a total surrender to this one precious moment.
My friend and I talked about how our capacity to endure pain has increased over the years, how experiences that would have broken us apart years ago would not break us apart today. It’s as if each time we are broken apart by pain, when we heal we find we have become a larger container that can hold more of all of life’s experiences, including the experience of pain, before we reach the breaking point again.
My friend shared an analogy with me that illustrated the changing experience of pain within an expanded self. Imagine that you have a small cut on your finger. It is bleeding a little, but not really serious. You put a band aid on it, go about your day, and within a matter of minutes it is forgotten. But now imagine that your awareness – that what you subjectively experience as “I” – begins to shrink. It grows smaller and smaller until your entire self is only that small cut on your finger. Now the pain that was so easily forgotten a moment ago is excruciating. Your whole self has been cut in two and the pain of it is the only thing your awareness can hold at this moment. Each time we allow pain to break us open and expand who we are, our sense of “I” seems to become larger and able to hold more without being broken by it. (Along the same lines, my friend has also said that the answer to the evil in this world is not a theory or a theology or a concept – it is an experience. It’s the experience we have when our “self” becomes large enough to see the whole truth of it, which is beyond any words about it.)
Our discussion about dealing with physical pain reminded me of an experience I had many years ago, when I was hospitalized after a chemotherapy treatment for leukemia. I had an infection and was being given massive doses of two different antibiotics, because I had no immune system that could fight off even a minor infection. One of the antibiotics gave me intense headaches that were unlike anything I had experienced before. In addition to the constant pain, every few seconds I would feel a sharp jab of pain, as if someone had stuck an ice pick into my head. I remember being on the phone with one of my sisters during this time, and she asked if I had the hiccups, because every few seconds she could hear a quick intake of my breath, when the ice pick struck again. The intervals between the jabs and the place in my head where they would strike seemed totally random, resulting in a constant state of fearful anticipation that tensed my whole body.
I was given every kind of pain medicine the hospital had, but nothing relieved the pain. I remember telling a nurse, after she had given me a dose of morphine, that this was the most totally relaxed I had ever felt while also being in excruciating pain. Finally they tried injecting something (to this day I don’t know what it was) that finally relieved my pain — immediately. I was so happy! Until about an hour or so later when the pain came back in full force. I rang for the nurse and told her I needed another injection. She told me that this particular medication could only be safely given once every 24 hours, so it would be another day before I could have any more.
This was a breaking-apart moment for me, and I decided to try the only thing left that I could think of. I decided to try what I had learned about accepting the present moment just as it is, with no resistance. I laid my hospital bed back, took some deep breaths, and tried to allow the pain to be. I tried to notice it without trying to push it away. I paid attention to it on purpose. After a few minutes I began to feel a sensation, like a wave of fluid moving around inside of my head. Each time the wave crested the sensation became especially intense – what I had experienced a few moments ago as an ice pick coming out of nowhere and being jabbed into my head. Only now that these “jabs” didn’t come out of nowhere. They were only the crest of the wave, and now I could feel the whole wave.
After laying there for awhile feeling the waves as they moved around in my head without resisting them or trying to get rid of them, I realized something astonishing. My body was totally relaxed, and I was no longer in “pain”! Yes, there were strong sensations moving around in my head. I didn’t feel them less, I actually felt them more, in that I felt the entire wave, not just the crest. But I was no longer experiencing the sensations as “painful.” I realized then that real source of the pain and suffering I had been experiencing for several days was not the sensation in my head, but the tension created by my body when I strongly resisted the sensation and wanted it gone. When I was able to let my “self” expand beyond my suffering body, into a larger accepting awareness of what was present in my body at that moment, my suffering was gone, and I was left in a state of relaxed noticing.
I try to practice this now, whenever I am in physical or emotional pain.