I grew up in a home with a father who had alcoholism. I think at least in part, I became a counselor for people with alcoholism, drug addiction and eating disorders in order to cope with my own family history, to not look within to deal with my pain, but to let my need for healing and pain relief come out sideways by helping others heal and feel relief from their pain. Early in my life I was unwilling to open the Pandora’s box of pain that was resting unopened in my shadow. That’s not to say I didn’t know it was there and that I wasn’t curious about it, but most of all I was afraid that if I opened it, its contents would come flying out, uncontrollable, destructive, and in the end, I would become incapacitated by them. I hadn’t read the story of Pandora’s box all the way to the end early in my life. I didn’t know that like Pandora’s box, hope was also at the bottom of my closed and sealed box of pain.
We all have pain, different types—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Some pain seems small, like a slight burn from a hot pan. Others incomprehensively large – like the childhood trauma of living with an alcoholic father. Some pain we deal with in the moment with a little antibiotic; some pain may take a lifetime of healing. We each deal with pain in different ways and for that matter deal with different pains in different ways. We have strategies to deal with the pain itself, to deal with the emotional and spiritual vulnerability that results from being in pain, and even to deal with suffering—the distress we experience as a result of pain. Many of these strategies are learned early in life. Some of these strategies are effective; some are not so effective; they might even be destructive to us.
Awareness of those strategies helps us to make mindful, effective, choices when dealing with whatever pain rises up in our body, mind, heart, or soul.
i am aware of my pain.
i am aware that i am not my pain.
i am aware of my past.
i am aware that i am not my past…
i am aware of hope.
i am aware that i am an agent of hope.
i am aware.
I want to talk with you about dosing your pain. To cope with pain that is ongoing and/or profound/significant/traumatic—and I am not here to judge what profound/significant/traumatic is for you, that is up to you to decide—we develop strategies, consciously or unconsciously, that work to seemingly extinguish the pain, to quell the pain or at the very least help us manage it. Many of us, I think all of us really, learn in one form or fashion to put pain in an imaginary box and close the lid, always finding new and different ways to keep the lid shut. Some might consider these strategies as ways dosing your pain.
As I worked for many years as a psychotherapist, I increasingly found that many people in distress have a box of pain, full up, ready to burst open, creating such fear that their Pandora’s box of pain would open and destroy them that my clients used strategies like drinking alcohol, taking drugs, binging on food, on sex, on physical pain by cutting themselves to keep the lid on. These destructive habits ruined their relationships, their physical health, and everything in their lives. Certainly, I have heard these strategies described as dosing your pain.
Over my life as I have become a more spiritual person, I have come to a point where I now understand that pain is an inevitable part of life—I haven’t gotten to the place where I see it as a gift, but maybe someday—and that pain is not something to be avoided, suppressed, or ignored. Pain is simply one of many signals that our mind, body, heart, and spirit give us that we need to pay or give attention to something. And that pain avoided, suppressed, or ignored will more forcefully impact our lives, trying as hard as it takes to get our attention so that we will deal with it, learn from it, and/or grow in understanding of who we are in the light and shadow sides of ourselves.
I realize that all of us would just-as-soon avoid pain. Pain after all is painful. But because pain is part of living, the only time we will not feel pain is when we cease to be alive. So I have come to believe it is important to approach pain with curiosity. I know that didn’t seem to work out for Pandora, but didn’t it? Her curiosity also released hope into the world. In some stories of Pandora, hope actually healed Pandora after all the sickness, death, all sorts of evil things nearly killed her. I don’t think we can even imagine a pre-Pandora world, with no sickness, death or evil in it. There was never such a world. So, what do you take from this story? Do we think the story encourages us to do or start something even if it might cause many unforeseen problems? Opening a can of proverbial worms. Perhaps. Or perhaps there is something else to learn from the Pandora story.
From my perspective, we all have a Pandora’s box within us. It is filled with all the things we hold in the shadow side of ourselves. We put things that are we have come to believe are unacceptable, unlovable about ourselves, however we have come to believe those things. And we put some of the pain we experience in there. Particularly pain we are unsure how to face, cope with, and/or manage. Unlike Pandora, we try to keep the lid on. But like Pandora, I believe there is also hope inside that box of ours. So, I believe that to live a full, authentic life, we have to open the box lurking in our shadow from time to time, letting out a little of our pain, healing from it and renewing our hope that we can accept and deal with our pain. What I take from Pandora’s story is that if we don’t open at least occasionally practice an unflinching self-examination, we tend to live in an unrealistic world, a world where we avoid uncomfortable experiences, where we don’t have to think about evil, death, suffering, pain. And yet hope can spring from pain, and the seeds of hope can be found planted in the most evil of environments. When we reach through the pain in order to grasp the strands of hope, we realize that we can live life with all its brutal realities with its problems and pain; if we can just keep hanging on to hope. Hope that we don’t have to suffer indefinitely, that we can experience pain without falling apart. Hope that we can heal from pain, even from pain that has been hidden in our boxes in our shadow for a long time.
Not I am not all in with pain. But I mean I do not think we have to feel pain all the time. We don’t have to let pain dictate our lives. Its okay to put pain in a box for a period of time, so long as we don’t just leave it there unexamined. And I don’t think we need to feel all the pain inside our Pandora’s boxes all at once. That would be, for most of us, overwhelming. We don’t have to throw the box completely open; we can exercise some control and let a little out at a time. Experience it, work to understand it, figure out how this pain influences our lives, and learn more about who we are. Be curious about it. This is what I consider healthy, constructive of dosing our pain.
I have over the years, opened myself up to some of the pain about growing up in a home with a person who had alcoholism. It was uncomfortable. I have learned that I need to examine this pain when I am not distracted by other things. And I have learned that some of my initial reactions to pain that I feel or pain that I see in those I care about is to be the hero, to try to fix the situation, and/or to stand up for those in need, because it is what I tried to do in my own family as the oldest child. Knowing this about myself, I make every effort to respond mindfully when I am in pain, or someone I care about is in pain, and then be curious. Not immediately react with my old strategies, but figure out what the teaching is in this situation. To not immediately try to get rid of the pain in myself or others, but to consider what the path ahead might be, if I take time to listen, to feel, to explore, and if another person is involved to consider their experience of the situation, how they want to proceed, and collectively, collaboratively move forward together.
How can you be open and curious about old or new pain, or pain hidden away in your shadow? Perhaps you might practice a little meditation like we did today when pain happens or when you are curious how what is in your box in your shadow. Grounding yourself, so you don’t react with old strategies, perhaps you might consider being open to new ways to deal with pain or perhaps you might begin to think of pain as a signal, a sign to pay attention to something, rather than a reason to always react to something—in most cases it is not like you are getting burned from a hot pan and need to pull you hand away. Fully experiencing life, especially the painful parts, is not easy. I really do know that. But you have a choice about how you will respond when you experience pain or when that old pain inside rises up. Stop, breathe, and give yourself the time you need to consider what choices might help you better understand yourself.