Reduce Suffering by Mindfully Working WITH-Rather than AGAINST-Pain
I woke up this morning and my first words as I raised myself from the bed went something like “What the hell is this pain down the back of my hip into my leg? I didn’t overdo anything during my daily walk and haven’t done a squat in weeks…” Shortly thereafter, I began to ruminate on a multitude of worries and concerns, starting with my maternal grandma’s mantra “These golden years are the pits!”, followed by whether it was indeed an injury, if I had pulled something during yoga Wednesday morning, if I needed to seek medical attention, if I would be able to pull myself together for a walk….and on and on and on….Then I noticed that my MIND was amplifying the pain straight into mental suffering, as the ACTUAL PHYSICAL PAIN had long since dissipated! Wow. How’s that for an evil brain!?!
This unfolds into another wonderful statement by self-compassion guru Dr. Kristin Neff: “Pain is unavoidable; suffering is optional”. Yes, life is filled with inevitable pain: pain associated with physical bodily discomfort, pain associated with emotional distress, and of course, the pain that occurs in our bodies as a reaction to emotional distress. You know what I’m talking about, right? The feeling of your stomach sinking after a huge disappointment, the tightness in the chest related to intense grief or loss, a racing heart when walking into unfamiliar territory. That’s a lot of pain to contend with, so much of which is largely out of our control.
Suffering, on the other hand, is in our control. Let’s define suffering as our response to pain, or how we compare what is happening in reality with what we desire or want. In my example of physical pain this morning, I evaluated (and over-evaluated!) the very real experience of hip discomfort and how it contrasted with how I would want to feel upon waking: free of pain and able to set about my day without concern. By resisting the reality of the pain and spending so much time analyzing the situation, I only amplified my own suffering! Now, there is a lot of valid, normal, and intense pain—physical, emotional, psychological, etc--in the human condition, but how can we possibly increase our capacity to temper our suffering? You’re right! By practicing (again and again): mindfulness and self-compassion.
The next time you are caught up in a painful experience (examples that come to mind include: stubbing your toe, physical discomfort with a chronic health condition, road rage at that fool who cut you off in traffic, frustration with the person who isn’t pulling their weight at work, exasperation with your partner who forgot to unload the dishwasher…again!, self-loathing when your jeans won’t button, etc).
Do this: take a moment to acknowledge exactly what you’re experiencing and note everything within your awareness as if you’re observing your own situation from the outside, perhaps as an anthropologist might do while conducting field work. This may include “subject took a breath,” “subject noticed the sound of children outdoors,” “subject experienced a twinge of discomfort in the hip area,” “subject had a thought that the pain would never end,” “subject had a feeling of anxiety that she would not be able to go for a walk because of the pain,” “subject heard some birds chirping out the window” and so on. Through this exercise, it is possible to disengage or unhook oneself from some of the responses and reactions of suffering, while still being present in the moment and fully aware of the pain experience AND EVERYTHING ELSE HAPPENING AROUND YOU. This means not missing out on important moments when we become all too caught up in our own stuff.
If you’re feeling particularly ambitious with this experiment, reframe the observations you’ve made as if narrating in the first person: “I am aware that I took a breath,” “I am feeling discomfort in my hip area,” “I am noticing there are children playing outdoors” and so on. Again, this exercise helps to provide a bit of space between you and your experience, allowing you to notice without judgment all the very real, human experiences of pain that we share. This period of mindfulness further allows time to figure out what can help the situation, rather than simply reacting in a way that can further exacerbate suffering (as in lashing out at the nearest warm body or risking getting shot in a road rage incident).
If you’d like to learn about other ways to unhook or de-identify from unhelpful thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations, or if you’d like to talk about the importance of self-compassion in reducing distress, contact Fresh Air Counseling today!