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What Our Pain Tells Us – Part 1

by Rob Brookler

It has been wisely observed that though we may strive to be “one with” the universe or some higher knowing or truth, in practice we tend to be one with our comfort. And as we’ve discussed elsewhere in these articles, as “sensitive” beings we are particularly sensitized to our own pain.

So, if as physical and emotional beings we are “designed” to feel and respond to our pain, we need to understand what our pain is actually telling us. And if we wish not to be ruled by our pain, or our desire to escape it, we must come to see our pain in a more constructive light … and practice a few basic skills for moving with it rather than against it.

Growing pains

It may be a stretch to say that all the pain we experience in our lives is merely “growing” pain. This seems like a poor and unsympathetic context for the kind of deep sorrow and distress we feel when we lose a loved one, when we lose our livelihood, or when we experience some other fundamental loss or disappointment.

But we cannot exclude these kinds of “life-altering” experiences from our discussion – especially in these times of great change. Indeed, the greater our distress, the more critical is our understanding of the role of pain. The more “consumed” we are in our pain, the more we need those skills – practiced delicately – to help us release it. And as we’ll discuss further, no matter how great or enduring our pain seems, we must ultimately release it.

Pain is the byproduct – not the end-product – of our experience

However distressing they may be, our larger and smaller losses and disappointments in life often do lead to our most profound growth. They help shape us and our lives. They help – and often force – us to discover our deeper nature, balance, and strength. Our transitions, our challenges, even our “irreplaceable” losses are indispensable to the forward movement of our lives and the lives of others.

But the distinction here is that our growth is the actual aim and end-product of the experience – and our pain is the interim byproduct. In other words, though the experience may be painful, it is not meant to teach us pain.

Now, this is not to say that we must – or even should – meet our losses and disappointments with a smiling face. Change, challenge, loss are not comfortable things for us. But since they do play a key role in our growth, we must at least begin to view that discomfort as the sometimes inevitable, but incidental and transient part of our learning process.

Certainly, viewing our pain as incidental is not easy. When we’re in distress, we tend to feel nothing else. But by assigning our pain the central role in our experience, we can actually prolong it. And while we don’t want to ignore our pain, we can and must certainly avoid feeding it.

Pain is what we leave behind

So, while our losses and our learning can certainly be painful, they are not meant to be painful. Nor are they meant to leave us in pain. Quite the contrary. As we move through any particular life-lesson or passage, what we are meant to do is: Let go of the pain and embrace the lesson. This is, in fact, the underlying formula and alchemy of all our learning.

Following this formula, by the way, is not simply a “positive way of looking at things.” It’s immensely practical. Why? Because it’s often the nature of our learning that we cannot see the lesson until we begin to let go of the pain. In other words, for the alchemy to progress and reveal the gifts of our learning, we must at least be willing to leave the pain behind us.

Pain as resistance

Now, when we’re experiencing a lot of pain, releasing it doesn’t really seem like something we have a choice about. We’re simply in pain. But it’s surprising how simply understanding our distress as that part of the process that we’re intended to release actually starts to reduce our discomfort.

This works for a couple of reasons. First, because a significant portion of our pain is our resistance to it. That is, by closing around our pain – by focusing on it, by fighting and clinging to it, by judging it, by fearing it – we are adding to it. We don’t see ourselves doing this because this reaction is so automatic. Pain seems, instinctively, to be something we should resist. But by contracting around our pain, we are intensifying it.

In fact, certain advanced spiritual disciplines hold that our pain consists entirely of resistance. That is, our distress is actually our resistance to the various elements – physical, emotional, spiritual – that impact us and our lives. And to the extent that we can move with rather than against these elements, we will move painlessly. That being said, few of us are here to master this “discipline” and become immune to pain. Still, the principle is worth noting in that we all can reduce our distress by not “clinching” against it or clinging to it.

Moreover, when we change our relationship to pain -- understanding it as something that not only will pass, but is meant to pass -- it becomes something a bit lighter, less threatening, and less likely to trigger our full instincts to resist and contract.

If actually doing this in practice still seems a bit daunting, the good news is that our “willingness” to release is often enough to get the completion process moving along. And once that alchemy progresses, we’ll begin to see the true meaning behind the experience.

Trying to “make sense” of our pain

The great irony, of course, is that we tend to hold fast to our pain because we can’t make sense of the loss or disappointment. Overwhelmed by the painful experience or enraged by it, we can see nothing but our distress. And as if in defiance to the injustice of the experience, we refuse to relinquish our pain. We want – we demand – some reason, some explanation, some remedy or redress. And so we embrace our pain. Our suffering, our anger can even become a precious entitlement for us.

And while this is a very human and understandable reaction to our pain, we are actually working against ourselves. We’re exerting a great deal of energy forming an attachment to something we are meant to experience and release. We are working against the formula of our learning. And we’re keeping ourselves from that very understanding – and that healing completion – we want and need.

We certainly will feel sorrow and upset at our losses, our injuries, our disappointments. This is our completely valid, even necessary reaction to the experience. But the pain, the anger, the sorrow are just that: our reaction. And as reactions, these painful feelings are meant to pass.

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In What our Pain Tells Us – Part 2, we’ll reveal other common “traps” that lead us to add to our pain. And we’ll discuss what our pain does tell us.

For a full list of audio meditations to complement this article, click audio meditations home.

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