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Shifting Your Relationship With Pain

--by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Mar 19, 2007)


Have you ever noticed that your awareness of pain is not in pain even when you are? I'm sure you have. It is a very common experience, especially in childhood, one we usually don't examine or talk about because it is so fleeting and the pain so much more compelling in the moment it comes upon us.

Awareness is imminent and infinitely available, but it is camouflaged, like a shy animal. It usually requires some degree of effort and stillness if not stealth even to catch a glimpse of it, no less get a sustained look, even though it may be entirely out in the open. You have to be alert, curious, motivated to see it. With awareness, you have to be willing to let the knowing of it come to you, to invite it in, silently and skillfully in the midst of whatever you're thinking or experiencing. After all, you are already seeing; you are already hearing. There is awareness in all of that, coming through all the sense doors, including your mind, right here, right now.

If you move into pure awareness in the midst of pain, even for the tiniest moment, your relationship with your pain is going to shift right in that very moment. It is impossible for it not to change because the gesture of holding it, even if not sustained for long, even for a second or two, already reveals its larger dimensionality. And that shift in your relationship with the experience gives you more degrees of freedom in your attitude and your actions in a given situation, whatever it is ... even if you don't know what to do. The not knowing is its own kind of knowing, when the not knowing is embraced in awareness. Sounds strange, I know, but with ongoing practice, it may start making very real sense to you, viscerally, at a gut level, way deeper than thought.

None of us need to inflict pain upon ourselves just so that we can test out this unique property of awareness to be bigger than and of a different nature than our pain. All we need to do is be alert to the arrival of pain when it shows up, whatever its form. Our alertness gives rise to awareness at the moment of contact with the initiating event, whether it be a sensation or a thought, a look or a glance, what someone says, or what happens in any moment.

It is in that moment, and in its aftermath, that we might bring awareness to the state in which we find ourselves, the state of the body and of the mind and heart. And then we take one more leap, bringing awareness to the awareness itself, noticing whether your awareness itself is in pain, or angry, or frightened, or sad.

It won't be. It can't be. But you have to check for yourself.

--Jon Kabat-Zinn


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9 Previous Reflections:

 
On May 26, 2007 braulio 111 wrote:
no pain, no crown.
pain is gain.
Christ used pain as an intense sign of love.look at Him on the cross.it is all because of love.

On Apr 3, 2007 ADEYEMI ADEWALE wrote:
Firstly, thanks Jon for the right up, it's truely overwhelming.

My own fair understanding of pain is this, both pain & pleasure are subject to emotions and emotion is inevitable even though they are equally subject to choices (my convictions here).Whatever emotion you feel it depends on your interpretation of it.

We are in the phisical and the most densest plane and these are the factors that dominates here so no matter how much we try we'll experience both - it is just inevitable. But how long we want it to last in us depends on individual.

For me the simplest way to controlling (not stopping it) pain is through accepting it choosing to let it go. Remove your focus on how deep it hurts and agreeing with yourself that it's a lesson you have to learn here to more higher.

On Mar 31, 2007 Ragunath wrote:

I was noticing various people's comment on pain: 1) suffering is optional, 2) it's tough, 3) reasons for pain and 4) breaking thru pain. Each one is that person's way of looking at pain. My understanding of the quote is that any way of looking at the pain has its limit. Even if I have ten different ways of looking at and dealing with pain, they will have their limits. Whereas, detaching oneself from the need to look at pain through a particular perspective and just being aware of it might free us from having to react to it at all (at the mental level). I don't think one can ever successfully "deal" with pain or any other emotion (positive or negative). My experience is that one cannot face it, control it or break it - all of these are reactions. Any kind of dealing with pain is a reaction and might work for a while but cannot be a reliable solution. Total acceptance of pain and complete non-reaction at the mind level is probably the way to shift to pure awareness - in this way  See full.

I was noticing various people's comment on pain: 1) suffering is optional, 2) it's tough, 3) reasons for pain and 4) breaking thru pain. Each one is that person's way of looking at pain. My understanding of the quote is that any way of looking at the pain has its limit. Even if I have ten different ways of looking at and dealing with pain, they will have their limits. Whereas, detaching oneself from the need to look at pain through a particular perspective and just being aware of it might free us from having to react to it at all (at the mental level). I don't think one can ever successfully "deal" with pain or any other emotion (positive or negative). My experience is that one cannot face it, control it or break it - all of these are reactions. Any kind of dealing with pain is a reaction and might work for a while but cannot be a reliable solution. Total acceptance of pain and complete non-reaction at the mind level is probably the way to shift to pure awareness - in this way any emotion can be used for ones spiritual growth. And only from a state of pure awareness one could go beyond empathy to compassion and be able to do something that helps. Acting from any lesser level at best would be a short-term remedy (for oneself and others) and might actually hurt in the long run. I have not had many "very painful" moments in my life. But in those few times I did have significant pain (mental and physical), I have tried "dealing" with it in a few different ways. Fortunately I had the sense to stop myself beyond a certain point and am able to survive to write this comment. Would love to hear from anyone who can point to flaws in my understanding. It would really help me.

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On Mar 21, 2007 hema wrote:
the 'this I believe' essay on npr this week which says

I believe pain tells us something critical about ourselves and life: that developing strength and empathy and bravery is more essential than our personal comfort.

The essay is titled - The Person I'm Supposed to Be

(see link)




On Mar 20, 2007 Tristan wrote:

Thank you, Sukh, for sharing those thoughts so honestly. There are many yous and mes out there who would not judge and reject you if you share your full self. Those I have met are infinitely more wonderful than "acceptance by society". Most people shy away however because either they don't want to be dragged down by someone who feels sorry for him/herself or/and it reminds them of their own pain and weakness or/and because empathy hurts. (I have just about no fear of pain, and I manage to live with the awareness of how much suffering there is in the world, but somehow recently when a girl, full of anger at the world, sat down opposite me at lunch and shared how she had been raped and battered, I felt somewhat shaken for a week, even tho I'd heard much worse on a plane two years ago.) Most people spend their lives hiding behind their fantasy of reality and don't want it shattered. Something analogous to try: long distance running, cycling, tough hiking -- I found breaking thru the  See full.

Thank you, Sukh, for sharing those thoughts so honestly. There are many yous and mes out there who would not judge and reject you if you share your full self. Those I have met are infinitely more wonderful than "acceptance by society". Most people shy away however because either they don't want to be dragged down by someone who feels sorry for him/herself or/and it reminds them of their own pain and weakness or/and because empathy hurts. (I have just about no fear of pain, and I manage to live with the awareness of how much suffering there is in the world, but somehow recently when a girl, full of anger at the world, sat down opposite me at lunch and shared how she had been raped and battered, I felt somewhat shaken for a week, even tho I'd heard much worse on a plane two years ago.) Most people spend their lives hiding behind their fantasy of reality and don't want it shattered. Something analogous to try: long distance running, cycling, tough hiking -- I found breaking thru the pain barrier and getting that second wind of strength in these contexts a wonderful building experience. (Just try not to kill oneself in the process!) Love Tristan (ge02r@yahoo.com)

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On Mar 16, 2007 Xiaoshan wrote:
In this faraway land, whenever something wrong occurs, a message is sent to the king of the land. What would the king do?

There is a reason for every pain.

On Mar 15, 2007 Conrad wrote:
I remember when I was seven years old, I wanted others to feel sorry for me for having pain. And at unaware moments as an adult I still catch myself wanting attention in that way. Thank you Viral for providing us with awareness producing material.

On Mar 15, 2007 Sukh wrote:

Its tough. Its almost as we need to do the thing that is most non-intuitive. When pain arrives, the first thing we want to do is run away, not accept, not become more aware. Its feels almost like a biological reaction to avoid paid, when what we need to do most is the opposite of our nature. Kind of like when your car is in a dangerous skid, intuitively you want to turn in the direction you want to go, but the only way out of the skid is to actually turn into it, to face the skiding direction head on and gain control. And the world we live in doesn't necessarily support this process either. If we are aware of our pain, then anything can happen, its possible that it can overtake us. ... and if we lose our awarness in the process, then maybe even worse things can happen. So we lock it up and hide it from ourselves and others. Noone sees the pain that we carry inside. Our joy, on the other hand, we keep visible, it sets our status in society and keeps us safe around others  See full.

Its tough. Its almost as we need to do the thing that is most non-intuitive. When pain arrives, the first thing we want to do is run away, not accept, not become more aware. Its feels almost like a biological reaction to avoid paid, when what we need to do most is the opposite of our nature. Kind of like when your car is in a dangerous skid, intuitively you want to turn in the direction you want to go, but the only way out of the skid is to actually turn into it, to face the skiding direction head on and gain control. And the world we live in doesn't necessarily support this process either. If we are aware of our pain, then anything can happen, its possible that it can overtake us. ... and if we lose our awarness in the process, then maybe even worse things can happen. So we lock it up and hide it from ourselves and others. Noone sees the pain that we carry inside. Our joy, on the other hand, we keep visible, it sets our status in society and keeps us safe around others. But as much joy there is to experience, as is there pain. As we travel the world, we are only sharing half of us. We are only living half-truth. Maybe society won't accept us as we realy are. Sad, broken, angry, afraid, insecure. That's me. In the end, becoming aware of your own pain feels like torture. First maybe we need to stop being afraid of pain (and not judge ourselves for not being happy all the time), then it may become okay to accept it as it is. Nonetheless, its just tough.

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On Mar 15, 2007 nisha wrote:
Great thought. Thank you.

Reminded me of the quote "Pain is Inevitable but Suffering is Optional".

Awareness to me is living in and living out every moment. Sometimes these moments are just fractions of a clock second and sometimes they are longer but if I know I lived it, in and out, I've been aware.