You Are Not Your Pain
As human beings we tend to identify with whatever is significant in our life. We identify with our profession: “I am a carpenter . . . a lawyer . . . an entrepreneur . . . an artist” or with our marital or family status: “I am a wife . . . a father . . . an older sister . . . an only child.” Such affinity is natural and usually not a problem. It helps us move through the world, supplies a perspective that helps us make decisions, and gives us a sense of belonging.
We also do this with recurring emotional states; for example, “I’m a happy person,” “I’m a worrier,” or “I’m an anxious person,” and with physical states, like chronic pain. If you suffer from chronic pain, there is a good chance that at some point you will start thinking to yourself, “I am my pain” or “I am a pain patient.” The mind moves from “In this moment I am experiencing pain” to “I am the pain.”
One of the most helpful mental shifts that can happen for a pain patient when they start practicing mindfulness is realizing that you are not your pain. Your pain is part of your experience, but it is not defining or reducing you. When a pain sufferer gets that message, they realize they are so much more than their pain! They learn to take a step back and observe the pain instead of identifying with it—and to experience pain one moment at a time instead of becoming the pain.
Let’s say you experience neck pain. Of course, it’s your neck that has the pain. You know your pain’s history and its impact on your life. But at the same time, it’s just neck pain. Millions of people suffer from neck pain. Millions of people have the same or a very similar history and impact on their life. While most people hate their neck pain, it is not a mistake. There is nothing wrong with you that you suffer from this pain. Some human bodies develop neck pain, others don’t. That isn’t to imply that your pain doesn’t matter. It matters a lot! I am inviting you to notice the impact of taking your pain only personally—as “my pain”—and I am inviting you to notice what happens when you broaden your perspective to “the pain in this moment.”
The Pain Story
Carrying the pain story is like wearing a heavy backpack all the time even when it’s not necessary.
How do we put the proverbial backpack down?
First, we must become aware of it.
Do you notice that you are upset about the past or worried about the future in this moment? If so, great! You have already done the most important step. You might wonder how being aware of what’s happening can help—other than making you feel even worse, now that you have become aware of the story your mind is telling—but without this awareness you can’t change anything.
You can only change what you are aware of.
That’s step one. Step two is to actually put the backpack down. That is, we must practice putting down the stories we tell ourselves. We do so by internally saying, “Thank you, not now.”
Then, we redirect our attention to something in the present moment that is more neutral, like the breath, for example, or the sensations of our feet on the ground. We are not trying to push the story away or stop it from arising in the first place.
We’re then left with the actual sensation of the pain in this moment. What’s that like right now, without being seen through the lens of the story? Often we realize that the pain itself isn’t so bad in this moment, or at least it’s way more tolerable than we thought.
Self-Compassion for Pain
The truth is that pain deserves compassion no matter whose pain it is, yours or mine!
Self-compassion teaches us to treat ourselves the way we would treat a good friend. Ask yourself: If a close friend suffers from pain, what would you say to make them more comfortable? “I’m so sorry you feel that way” or “The pain is really bad today, isn’t it? Is there anything I can do for you?”
And what would you do? Maybe offer a hug or squeeze their hand if there isn’t much to say? Do you let them know that you will be there no matter what?
Now imagine switching roles with your friend: How does it feel to be on the receiving end of kindness and compassion? It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it makes a big difference in how we are able to live with the pain, doesn’t it?
We know that receiving compassion from another person helps. It is less well-known that extending compassion toward our own pain also has a positive effect on the way we experience it. Do you treat yourself compassionately when the pain is bad? What do you actually say to yourself? What do you do? Do you try to downplay it—“Oh, it’s not that bad”—or even deny that it’s there? Do you chide yourself: “Toughen up, for goodness’ sake!” or “Don’t be such a whiner!”? Maybe your inner self-talk is much worse than this. I often hear from people that they internally beat themselves up and it often gets ugly.
The practice of compassion for ourselves embraces the part that is in pain with kind attention. Compassion wishes for the pain to ease and go away but it doesn’t depend on that outcome. That means compassion is still here even if the pain doesn’t change.
When we remember that experiencing pain is a part of being human and that many other people know the pain we are feeling, too, we begin to feel connected with our fellow travelers on this path we call human life. It helps us feel in solidarity with others who, past and present, are in the same situation and feel the same way. We are not alone!
Mindfulness teacher and neuropsychologist Rick Hanson is fond of saying: “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.”
In other words, anything negative, stressful, or painful will be stuck in our memory, sticking out with greater strength. This is simply how our nervous system is wired. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense: If you learn quickly from a dangerous and threatening experience, you have a better chance of avoiding it or responding more effectively next time.
So what about the positive? It turns out that good experiences don’t have the same vital importance to our survival. Your life is not at stake if you don’t remember the beautiful sunset or how amazing that fresh-out-of-the-oven bread smelled. Pleasant experiences appear and then disappear, like water running through a sieve. They don’t easily leave a trace in our memory.
This results in a problem, however. Our brain keeps tabs on “how life is” through “implicit memory.” This part of memory tracks the good, the bad, and the ugly, so to speak. Think of it as an internal shelf with cookie jars for each category. Depending on how full the individual jars are, implicit memory draws a conclusion about the state of your life, which generates a feeling or belief like the ones in the following examples:
“Life has its ups and downs but is still worth living” or
“Life is a mix of difficult and wonderful” or perhaps
“Life is one relentless struggle, one really hard thing after the next” or
“Hardly any good things ever happen to me.”
Unfortunately, suffering from chronic pain is an ongoing process of adding to the jars labeled “Pain,” “Difficult,” “Hard,” and “Fear” so much that they outweigh any pleasant events and moments that happen in the meantime, leading to a sense that there is no joy—or almost no joy—or happiness in life anymore.
Mindfulness practice can help with this challenge. One of the first mindfulness exercises we teach in a class is to eat a raisin—yes, just one raisin!—together. Nobody eats just one raisin, unless maybe you are two years old. We use all of our senses to explore the “raisin-ness” before we actually eat it. We share with each other what we discover. We look at the raisin, feel it, smell it, even listen to it before we pop it into our mouth and finally bite down. By that time everybody is totally engaged in the process and experiences, the explosion of flavor and texture. People often say, “That was the best raisin of my life!”
What is the takeaway message? If you pay full attention to something ordinary, it becomes extraordinary—and you will remember this. You just turned Teflon into Velcro in your memory! This kind of prolonged appreciation of one small thing is a powerful ongoing practice that, over time, can change how you experience life, regardless of the pain.
Stop Trying to Get Better
Many people come to meditation because they want to learn how to relax. So what do they do when they find themselves meditating and can’t relax? They are frustrated—and then try harder! As it turns out, the result of trying hard to relax—whether through meditation or otherwise—is not relaxation. The goal of mindfulness is not to relax—the goal is to be present with whatever is arising, moment by moment. It’s OK to not be relaxed.
Quite often just that little bit of permission makes it possible to relax. It’s similar with falling asleep: What happens when you try to force yourself to fall asleep? Not falling asleep! We have to set the conditions for falling asleep—and then we need to let go.
Psychologist Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” The struggle to get better—while completely normal and understandable—often gets in the way of our feeling OK right now. It suggests that as long as we are not pain free we cannot be OK. This places a big constraint on everything we experience and ends up holding us back. It also keeps our system held in a constant state of rejection, struggle, and stress.
Research shows that the more relaxed and stress free we are, the faster we can heal. Stress suppresses the immune system; when we are stressed our ability to heal slows down. Here comes our paradox:
- Can we allow ourselves to stop working so desperately on healing in order to promote healing?
- If healing might not be possible, can we still learn to be OK wherever we are?
Time and again people have stress worsens their condition or accelerates flare-ups. And suffering from chronic pain is stressful on many levels: managing symptoms, going to multiple doctors or therapist appointments, extra time and costs, strain on social life . . . the list goes on. Yet the overarching stressor may well be the fear that our condition will not get better and might even get worse. Facing this reality, we tend to jump to the conclusion that we will never be happy again, never feel OK again. On top of that, our mind conjures up worst-case scenarios to counteract the uncertainty. And because our body doesn’t differentiate between real and imagined fear, the stress response in the body is the same.
- What if you could find a way to let that stress go?
- What if you only had to deal with the real problems at hand, and not with the anticipated ones?
Zen teacher Ezra Bayda expresses a similar idea when he says, “We often think that being healed means the illness and the pain will go away. But healing doesn’t necessarily mean that the physical body will mend. . . . Healing is not just about physical symptoms. Many people heal and still remain physically sick or even die. Many who become physically well never really heal. Healing involves clearing the pathway to the open heart. . . . To heal, to become whole, we no longer identify with ourselves as just this body, as just our suffering. We identify with a vaster sense of being.”
That sense of being that we all possess is focused not on a future condition that we long to have but on our present reality.