The Practice of Feeling Pain

This week a new friend and collaborator is struggling with sciatica and in a lot of pain. She sent an SOS out requesting the names of any alternative healthcare practitioners or other help for handling it: “i’ll try anything at this point. seriously- if someone told me to run to the top of a hill, howl at the moon, cut off a piece of my hair as a sacrifice i would do it. if any of you know of any spells …i’ll try those too”

Who hasn’t been there in some moment of their life? Desperate for a doorway through a condition which hurts so bad we can’t bear it?  In addition to the name of a good family chiropractor I recommended Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World  which includes a chapter on pain. I am indebted to her chapter for much of the reflection I share below– which I wrote last year in the wake of a kidney infection.

Pain is experienced in the body but we are dependent on language, specifically metaphor, to try to describe the physical experience. Pain can feel like your lower abdomen is on fire, like your sinuses are full of cement, like your hip is cracking open, like someone has a voodoo doll of you and is poking hot coals into your eye sockets. Just to give a few examples.

What does pain teach us as spiritual sojourners?

For starters, pain strips away the illusion that we are in control. And that is often what is the most troubling about it. It feels like a snub from the universe. And can also be a sort of invitation to ask the age old spiritual question: “Why me?” or to turn in on yourself and think of all the things you could have done differently that might have avoided this situation: “If I had only eaten better last week, or gotten more sleep etc.”

But Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that real question with pain is not “why?” but “when?” For to be alive, en-fleshed, moving on this earth is to be vulnerable to physical pain of every sort: illness, infection, and physical accident.

It is possible to cultivate an awareness of our physical vulnerability without giving in to a state of fear about it. Simply being aware of our bodies and the possibility of pain is a valuable spiritual exercise because it reminds us of what is Really Real. Not the exhausting catalogue of pain related to our past, nor our hopes or concerns over the future.

That is pain’s great gift. It keeps us in the present.

When in real physical pain one’s interest in other things is superseded by the NOW of moving through acute bodily distress. In this state there is not much energy left to attend to relational complexities or remember the books yet read, or work yet done.

This awareness that pain can bring is not just an internal practice. I found that pain sharpened my gaze outward as well—making me more aware of the beauty of the trees out my window or the first breath of fresh air when I made it outside after a couple of days. And my interaction with my kids was a great solace. Seeing Rosetta thrive, squeezing her chunky body, holding Perl and listening to her tell me a story. I felt in some ways that I was seeing them more deeply than I normally do in the busy flow of life. And I relished that awareness even as I resented the pain that brought it.

Then there is that moment when the pain stops: the antibiotics kick in, or you get a good nights sleep and wake up and can breathe again. It is like an invitation to reanimate your body. To flow back in and reclaim the part that was shut down, shut out, or that you tried to disown for the pain it was causing. And concurrent with this change in body is a wave of gratitude— a thankfulness for the experience of relative health – something which of course is so much more valuable now due to its recent absence.

Now this is all regular pain. Every day pain. Pain that comes and goes. Nothing life threatening or extra-ordinary.

Yet there are some in our world who live with chronic pain. This is akin to struggling with an unwelcome and high-maintenance relationship. And it is an experience of pain of which honestly I am not qualified to speak. I have had friends who live with this kind of pain and heard their stories. One was in a terrible car crash at forty and lives with pain. She talked about the choice to sit in a chair and watch her grandchildren or to get right down on the floor with the pain and play with them. The pain becomes a suitor—someone vying for your attention. And for people living with pain on this scale the struggle is to learn how to continue to live with it—and not to spend all of your energy fighting the pain but instead to somehow coexist with it peacefully. Kind of a reclaiming of whatever energy is left over after part of your psyche goes out to meet the pain. And making the choice to continue to live with that. This is a spiritual practice on a whole other scale, and is a day to day, moment to moment dance. There are those in all of our daily lives who model this dance with grace—so well perhaps that we don’t even know it is happening.

Pain is, often, a part of living. Pain is an invitation to remember our body and not just to be mad at it for not doing what we want it to do– perform on command.  And if it can remind us of what a gift it is to be alive and awake, pain has the potential to burn off some non essentials. And sometimes we can use that extra space and do something meaningful with it.

Peace and health to you all,

Courtney