Saturday, August 18, 2018

Welcoming Pain into our Lives, a sermon delivered on 8/12/2018

Meditation in preparation

The following meditation was written by self help author and speaker Arjuna Ardagh.

I invite you into a time of meditation.  Each of you has your own way of entering this way of being.  You might take a deep slow breath, let you eyes rest or close, and turn your attention inward.

Scan your body with awareness.

Seek out a place of tension or discomfort,
And rest there with your attention.  (pause)
Feel this place exactly as it is. (pause)

Feel it, be with it, just as it is.

Feel it not so that it will go away,

But with an invitation that it may stay forever. (pause)

Kiss the tension with the softness of awareness.

Bring the breath all the way into this place,

As though you are pouring water into a dry sponge. (pause)

Wait, linger, until the flower opens,

Until your awareness is completely there. (pause)

Move on to another place of tension,

And then another.

Discover the lotus growing in the mud.

           Please raise your hand if you have gone to the doctor because you were in pain.  Lately they ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 1 to 10.  I have a couple wonderings about that.  I wonder how subjective pain is.  When I was a psychotherapist, I had a 55 year old patient who told me that she had never felt any pain in her life until a week before seeing me when she fell down in a department store and broke her wrist.  A doctor had set her wrist and she had to keep it immobile.  But here’s the thing, the pain she has been expereincing since the moment of the fall continued to be a constant 10 and she has been unable to to work, or really to function in any way.  She had trouble even getting out of bed to come see me due to the pain.  Physiologically and psychologocially, I believe each of us human being expereinces pain a little differently.  Pain tolerance varies from one person to another.  And depending on your experince with pain, you may rank some pain higher than another person would.  Another wondering I have is why don’t counselors ask us to rank our emotioanal pain on this same pain scale when we come in for emotional distress.  How would you rate the pain from a heartbreak, a divorce, a death of someone you love, some hard time in your life on a scale from 1 to 10. 

            What I want to share with you today is what I learned about welcoming emotional pain from learning to welcome physical pain.  About 25 years ago, I learned something about myself.  I have rib that pops out of place then right back in.  While this does no real damage, it aggravates the muscle and nerves up and down my back, and leaves me in significant pain, like drop to my knees pain, and momentarily debilitated.  At that moment, the only thing I am able to do is make myself breath.  Then the pain eases back a little, very little, and continues for either a few days or a few weeks.  When this first started I remember thinking, “I can’t stand this pain.  It is too much. I can’t live with this much pain.”

We all have hard times when life takes “you down and laughs when you cry.”  At those times “All that you want is to wake up fine [to have someone] tell you that you’re alright [and] that you ain't gonna die.”  When we are in pain, physically or emotionally or spiritually hurt, we can be driven to do almost anything to make the pain stop.  And as anyone who has been in pain knows, pain uses up all our physical and emotional resources, clouds our thinking, and can dominate our lives. 

The first couple times my rib popped, I have to tell you I was not my old cheery self.  I was snapping at Martha and the kids.  I was having trouble keeping track of what my patients were confiding in me.  The only way I felt better was when I was away from people, somewhere quiet and not moving.  After suffering through this a couple of times, I realized the strategy of being way from people, quiet and not moving wasn’t a long term solution.  If I was going to stay married and continue being a psychotherapist, I needed to go see a doctor. 

Sometimes when unpleasantness, hurt, or trauma happens to us or loved ones, our immediate response is to jump into “fix-it” mode. After all, we live in a solution-oriented society. We’re constantly bombarded by ads telling us that help is just a phone call away. There are ads for medicines, devices, exercises, and ways to improve your love life, memory, energy, and more. Glucosomine.  Prevagen.  Zoralto.  Prozac. Whatever that 2 bathtubs pill is for, which if it can really can work across 2 bathtubs, watch out!  Patches, shots, drops, energy drinks—and I’m not dismissing the usefulness and need for these medicines and approaches. Rather, I’ve come to realize—and I’m speaking only for myself—that when my automatic response is a frantic scramble to distance myself from the pain, then I’ve already let the pain win.  Here’s the truth of it, physical, emotional, or spiritual pain isn’t the entire problem; it’s our tendency to negatively react to and resist the pain that creates prolonged and intense suffering.   And I’m not saying we should react to pain by saying, “Oh, joy! Wood Hoo! It hurts! Yea!”  But if you believe every experience has the potential to teach you something about yourself—as I do—then you must spend some amount of time with the pain in order to learn from it.

Back then, I felt like I had no control over this recurring pain in my body, and that feeling of being out of control, of the unpredictability of that rib popping out intensified the pain even more.  I had some thoughts that were not so productive take over my mind while unproductive emotions demanded my attention.  I will not share the thoughts with you, because I don’t use profanity in public, but you can imagine from your own experience of pain, what kinds of thoughts and emotions I had.  And those reactions made me even more frantic to get rid of my pain. 

Our fourth Principle states that we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  What is the meaning we make out of pain?  This is an important question.  For some, pain can result in feeling that life is unfair.  Pain might result in questioning one’s purpose in life.  For some, pain can result in feeling that they are being punished by their god or that pain is the result of karma, that they have done something wrong or bad, or hurt someone and now the universe is returning the harm to them.  For some, pain can result in questioning one’s belief system—the beliefs that keep you grounded and connected to life.  Pain can even affect our search for truth, meaning, and purpose in life.  How do we search for truth, meaning or purpose in life when all we can only think about is our hurt, our pain?  But what if we intentionally reframe our view of pain.  What if we consider pain an opportunity to learn about ourselves and grow?  What if we approach pain as friend?  Or a teacher? What would change? 

I have to say that it took me some time before I was able to positively respond to, and learn from my pain.  One doctor, in a long line of doctors I had been going to fix the problem, sent me to physical therapy.  I am now a huge fan of physical therapy, because it puts the control of my symptoms back in my hands, at least to some extent.  I am encouraged to pay attention to the pain, where is it, how is it affecting me, what movements make it worse, what exercises make it better, what I need to do to reduce the frequency of the pain.  These many years later, I still regularly do about 30-45 minutes of stretches and strengthening exercises taught to me by physical therapists; this has built resilience in me and I recover more quickly when pain does occur.  But an unexpected effect of physical therapy was that it helped me to realize that physical or emotional or spiritual pain and their many internal reactions need attention, they do not always need fixing, but they do need healing.  In order to heal, and I use heal in a very broad sense of becoming healthy again, which includes reconnecting with life, I need to be intentionally present, to accept what is happening, and to keep my mind, heart, and spirit open in the moment.  To do this I would have to learn and practice ways to compassionately welcome pain. 

I have been meditating since college, but other than using it to relax, I hadn’t considered using meditation to get to know my pain and thus learn more about myself.  In my Buddhist meditation practice, the first thing I learned was to be a “compassionate witness” —with a loving spirit I allow feelings, thoughts, and sensations to flow through me without judging them.  And so years ago I decided to be a “compassionate witness” to my physical, emotional, and spiritual pain, thus I neither cling to nor actively reject pain and the mental, emotional, and spiritual reactions to pain.  I am not perfect at this, but I am now able to allow the destructive and negative and reactive thoughts and feelings to pass through me without letting them control or escalate me.  This also helps me differentiate between pain and suffering.  Pain is a feeling, I can recognize and isolate it.  Suffering is when I let the pain control me and emotionally impair me.

One other tool that I have learned in my Buddhist practice is mindfulness.  Mindfulness is when we connect to the present moment as fully as we are able—everything going on within and around us.  When we practice mindfulness, we can more easily recognize any disconnection we may have from whole selves or our surroundings.  When we are in pain, it is easy to become disconnected from ourselves and the world around us.  We become reconnected in that moment when we recognize that pain and our reactions to pain are the only thing we are focused on and then intentionally reconnect with our body, mind, heart and spirit and the world around us. It’s a pivotal moment when we can choose to respond to rather than react to the pain.

As Rumi wrote “The cure for pain is the pain.”  I have also trained myself to lean into the pain, much in the same way as was presented in the meditation that Jenny led you in today.  The purpose of the meditation was not to try to change the tension or discomfort you were experiencing, but to change how you might interact with it.  Welcoming the pain, showing the part of you that is in pain compassion, even love, and gaining something from the relationship with pain, not to change it, but to meet it, interact with it, learn from it. There is both a distance and an intimacy that results from welcoming the pain through meditation.  When meditating on it, pain no longer defines you.  It is still part of you, but it is not all of you.  When meditating on it, you can welcome it as a part of you that is in need of love and support. 

When someone sees you in pain and offers a kind word, it can feel like being offered a cold glass of water on a hot summer day, soothing, calming, even taking away the heat of the pain, at least for a little while. But here’s the thing, the first person to be aware that you are in pain is the person experiencing it, and that’s you.  So it’s incumbent upon each of us to be the first one to welcome pain when it enters our life.

  Now when I am in pain, I try to welcome it.  That doesn’t mean I refrain from talking to my doctor or therapist, or taking appropriate medication or any other appropriately considered medical options, it means I try not to react and frantically try to fix or blunt the pain.  Instead I trust that the pain is there for a reason, something needs attention in my body, mind, or spirit.  I accept that I can’t control what’s happening, but I can respond to what is happening within me.  I can accept that there are waves of fear and resistance rising up within me.  I am mindful of where the pain is located—physical part of my body or somewhere within my mind or heart or spirit—and I am mindful of my mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions that result from the pain.  And I offer the pain, my pain, love and compassion.  Sometimes I see the pain as a child in tears.  And I see myself putting my arms around the child and telling him that “I am with you” or “You are not alone”.  The same things I would tell anyone who was in pain.  I do not say, “I can fix it or make it go away,” because that is not true.  Being honest with myself is important and builds trust, just as in any relationship.  As I do these things, the reactions and negative thoughts and feelings that are passing through me become less frequent and less desperate, though they may not completely go away.   I also say to myself in a soothing loving way saying something like:  “I am not going away, I will be here when you need me.”  Sometimes I even ask that part that me that is in pain questions.  To some of you how I respond to pain may seem a little unconventional, perhaps even weird, but this is my practice and it helpful to me.  And I believe that finding your own way to welcome pain into your being will be useful to you. 

After I welcome pain, I begin to be more mindful of what is going on in other places, within and around me, reconnecting me with the details of my life.  Pain is no longer the center of my attention.  You see connecting with the hurt part of me, gives me the capacity to reconnect with my whole body, mind, and spirit, as well as the world around me, and the people I love and care about. 

I started my relationship with pain by treating it as something to be gotten rid of, a part of me I didn’t want, couldn’t learn from, and would do anything to avoid.  But misdirecting my energies this way made me suffer, feel less in control, and desperate.  Freedom from suffering came when I realized that I can choose how to respond to pain and more importantly to welcome it into my being.  My friends, may you be free of suffering and may you live your lives in peace.  

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