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Listen to the Pain

Pain is one of the most insistent teachers we have. When I taught 8-week, stress management programs we would devote one, whole class just to pain -- its messages, significance, and gifts. Yes, pain can be a gift.

I bet you're thinking I've been out in the sun too long, right? What do we usually do at the first sign of pain? Whatever it takes to make it go away. The problem with this is that what we resist, persists, especially pain.

I'm talking about pain that we sometimes learn to live with, although we don't, really. Stubbing a toe, jamming a finger or any other short-lived, relatively minor injury is not the issue here. We can put ice on that or treat it and be on our way. But, what do we do and even more importantly, what can we do about pain that doesn't seem to ever leave?

I suggest embracing it, listening to it, and getting cozy with it. Crazy?!? Hear me out.

First of all, when we stop and really get in touch with any discomfort, we allow ourselves to notice that the sensation isn't actually constant. There are moments when it's not there. Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "I Am the Rest Between Two Notes" has the line:

I am the rest between two notes,

which are somehow always in discord.

Because we get caught up in the past and future as in, how much it hurt "before" and "oh, I hope it doesn't hurt that much again", we miss the present moment that might not be so uncomfortable. Also, we can't manage the past or the future, however we can cope with the present. This is doable. This makes us feel like we have some options and this is a great lesson whether we are dealing with an ache or something else in life.

Another way we do ourselves a disservice is by trying to ignore the pain. This causes us to become tense and stressed. When that happens our healing shuts down and the body focuses on simply surviving. It's as if we are pushing back and the pain just gets stronger and more hostile. If I am leading a meditation and I ask people to soften and embrace their pain -- I admit, this is a radical act -- there is often an easing of the sensation. Think of yourself as being held in love and how delicious it would feel to surrender to that.

Our physical pain is often what I call an early warning system. If we have a headache, for example, we might be a little dehydrated and we need a drink of water or it might be time to take a break from computer work. Too often, we try to "push through" and it doesn't get better. Instead of figuring out what our body is trying to tell us we wait until the pounding gets worse or it starts to spread into our neck and shoulders. Then, we begin to catastrophize until we are convinced that we have a brain tumor or something. Nipping the twinge in the bud is a form of loving, self-care we too often forget.

Lastly, research has shown that emotional pain, especially when not addressed, can lead to physical distress. The more we throw medicines and medical treatments at our inner grief, anger, worry, or despair, the more likely we are to end up with actual physical ailments. This is true, mind-body stuff. Women, especially, have more "autoimmune" illnesses than men. The body attacks itself .. we attack ourselves. Fibromyalgia is an example of this and the term literally means muscle or tissue pain. It is not an illness as much as simply a description of what is happening. Although I have never had a doctor "diagnose" it, I have experienced all the symptoms at least two or three times in my life. Rather than numbing it or trying to bury it under drugs, I know that there's something going on that I'm trying to ignore. Once I throw myself right into the deep end of self care and facing the unpleasantness and self-doubt, my symptoms disappear. It might take several weeks or a few months, but it eventually resolves. If I let the medical model insert itself, I would be told there is "no cure" and I'd become dependent on pills that may or may not work. I know this is extreme, outside-the-box, even revolutionary thinking, and I've experienced its positive effects.

Next time you recognize pain creeping in, don't shy away. Welcome it. Ask it what it's trying to tell you (you'll be surprised at the answers you get!). Talk to and share with someone you trust. I know I've used this poem before, but as Rumi said:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

form some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.


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About the Author




Barbara L Cummings, MS, RN

is a sassy Queen-ager whose mission is to co-create a happier, healthier life with and for others.

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