Life can be a real pain sometimes, especially here in Geezerville where creaky knees and aching backs tend to demand our attention more frequently — and, well, painfully — than we’d prefer. Despite my relatively good health, I’m not immune to occasional bouts of discomfort. My left ankle, broken 30 years ago, recently began sending random, sharp warnings that something may be amiss in there amid the metal screws and grafted bones. Meanwhile, my right shoulder has been exhibiting all the signs of an injured rotator cuff, and just the other day the teeth and gums on the right side of my mouth nearly floored me with several bursts of excruciating pain.
These are the sorts of maladies that typically send folks my age to their nearest urgent-care clinic and then to the pharmacy for some much-needed pain relief. And, due to various factors ranging from poor communication to sheer negligence, it’s contributed mightily to the current opioid epidemic.
Suppressing the pain in this way doesn’t just raise the risk of addiction, though. It also wastes an excellent opportunity to live more fully.
Stay with me. This will require some explanation.
Pain, whether chronic or acute, is a sensation made more disquieting by our cultural assumption that it’s an intrusion upon, rather than a normal part of, our lives, explains Ezra Bayda in the Buddhist journal tricycle. “We carry an entitlement that life should be free from pain,” he writes. “Our physical pain and our urge to nullify it feeds off one another in a most unfortunate loop, and our life comes to revolve around our discomfort.”
Bayda, author of Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Happiness, views pain chiefly as a learning path — a way to examine our attachment to control, comfort, even body image. But first we need to welcome the pain as if it had arrived to impart some sage wisdom. Then it’s time to separate the physical discomfort from the mental and emotional ways we relate to it. “If we relate to pain with an element of curiosity,” he explains, “the experience becomes much more tolerable.”
My own teacher years ago implanted a mantra — “This is how it is now” — in my brain that has helped me navigate innumerable crises, and it’s another way, I figured, of observing without prejudice the throbbing ache behind my cheek. It’s also an antidote to what Bayda calls “catastrophizing” the pain — projecting some ultimately fatal outcome from some current condition.
I’m not sure, however, what all this was trying to teach me. Maybe something about my pain threshold. Or how focusing directly on the discomfort — going inside of it, so to speak — can help me realize that it ebbs and flows, that it’s really nothing more than a sensation, simply our mind’s translation of a random physical signal. By Day 2, I was definitely inside the pain, which proved to be interesting, if not particularly therapeutic.
“As we allow ourselves to stay with the pain, we notice that it doesn’t remain the same,” Bayda notes. “Indeed, the sensations often change rapidly and sometimes even disappear altogether. This realization takes us out of the catastrophic mindset that imagines our pain will always be horrible or unbearable.”
Or this pain might’ve been showing me how a meditation session, mindfully following the breath, can begin to separate my thoughts about the pain from the sensation of the pain. (Fifteen minutes of zazen did seem to clarify things a bit. The pain was over there; my frantic thoughts about when it might end were way over here.) Bayda argues that this is really the gift pain offers its sufferers.
“Focusing on the breath in order to bring about a more open awareness is a very popular practice; but, the truth is, such expansive attention to our myriad sensory and environmental stimuli is a rare occurrence. It results from conscious cultivation, with a continuous, soft effort to grow attention beyond our physical symptoms of pain,” he explains. “In this sense, the pain actually pushes us to achieve that which we’ve aspired to all along: an awake and present mind.”
Well, it certainly woke me up, and by Day 3 I seemed to be developing an intimate rapport with whatever it was that was going on in my mouth (and migrating gradually to a spot behind my right eye). But I wasn’t feeling any more enlightened than usual, so I described my symptoms and struggle to My Lovely Wife while grimacing between bites of Valentine’s Day dinner.
“Sounds like the beginnings of a sinus infection,” she ventured sympathetically. “You should take some echinacea.”
I followed her advice, and the next morning the pain was gone. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.