Why Pain is Good

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I’m not a masochist, but I want to challenge the idea that pain is something to be avoided.

In this world, we are told that feeling pain is bad and feeling happy is good. And when I’m teaching yoga, I often tell students to avoid pain in their bodies, as this is our body’s way of telling us that something is going wrong. And I do think, as much as possible, that physical pain should be avoided. Emotional pain, on the other hand, is something to dive into head first; avoiding emotional pain leads to all sorts of discontent and dishonesty (mostly with ourselves).

Emotional pain is an essential part of life. It allows us to see the light and shade of life, and cliched as it sounds, pain is where the growth happens. By avoiding it, we miss out on the realisation of our strength and the understanding of our power.

That’s not to say it’s easy – allowing ourselves to feel pain is one of the hardest things we can do. And we are bombarded by a plethora of ways to avoid it; advertisers have made an art of offering solutions to avoid pain, and technological advances have allowed us to have on-demand distractions which again, take us away from being in that difficult place.

Sometimes these distractions are useful, but not in the long term. When the pain is fresh it can be too much to handle, and sometimes the distraction allows us to keep going, to do the daily things we need to do to survive without breaking and shattering completely. But eventually we need to find some space away from the consumption (shopping, scrolling, over-scheduling) and find a way to feel our feelings.

Allowing ourselves to sit with our pain (much like allowing ourselves to sit with our fear), can have a deep and profound impact on how we go through life, how we show up for other people, how we feel about ourselves and how we approach certain situations (like risk). The first time is the hardest, but it gets easier each time. And while I don’t think any of us would voluntarily put ourselves in a position where life is painful, when these situations occur, here’s what I do:

 

Step 1 – distraction. I binge on Netflix, trashy books, social media, and eat food/drink that I might usually avoid, until I get to a place of acceptance with what’s going on.

Step 2 – stillness/quiet time/meditation. I try to allow the feelings to surface and allow space for tears, rage and/or whatever else comes up.

Step 3 – talking or writing. Both help me to get to the root of the issue, and to understand what’s happening. Sometimes having a sounding board (whether a friend or a blank page) can put things into perspective.

Step 4 – getting into my body. Exercise, massage, reiki, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, etc. I move my body and get outside help (via trusted practitioners). My body and heart know what I need, way more than my mind. Keeping in touch with the physical signals they send helps me to avoid spiralling into negative thought patterns.

Step 5 – reflection/more quiet time. Once again, I try to allow the feelings to be there. More tears/anger/etc.

Step 6 – action. I start to make changes based on what I’ve learned, whether that’s quitting a job, changing friendships, changing personal habits. This step is difficult, but important to me because it shifts me from feeling like a victim to giving me a sense of autonomy over my life. The changes may be small to start, but over time they can make a big impact.

 

This isn’t always a fast or easy process (in fact it’s usually quite slow), and sometimes the steps are not linear (one step forward, two steps back and then a sashay to the side). But this process of listening, feeling and action has been useful to help me feel empowered in my life, even when the pain comes from an external source (like loss or tragedy). It’s also helped me to understand that pain doesn’t need to be avoided; looking back, I always realise that it is times of pain that have made the biggest positive impacts on where I am today. Those times have taught me about my strength, my resilience, my ability to get to the other side unscathed (but not unchanged), and have really made me who I am today. I no longer fear pain. Although I can’t say that I enjoy it, I appreciate what it can do and where it can lead.

For more on dealing with pain in life, I recommend reading Pema Chodron’s book “When Things Fall Apart”. She explains these concepts clearly and eloquently and offers simplicity to some of life’s complicated stuff.

We don’t always choose what happens in life, but we can always choose how to react.

What are your strategies for dealing with pain? I’d love to hear more – leave me a message in the comments below.

Photo by Ali Schilling Photography.

Fear

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Fear is a tricky emotion. Unlike joy or anger, it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause and more often than not, we work to suppress our fear because it’s unsettling, uncomfortable and unpleasant.

Fear can be useful – it keeps us safe and helps us avoid injury and death. A little fear when stepping outside of our comfort zone can help us stay alert, present and in tune with our surroundings. But fear can overtake and limit our experiences – it can overshadow and inhibit our desires and keep us small. And we can even become fearful of feeling our fear, so we work to suppress the whole feeling, never really letting it in, and in doing so, it grows and looms behind us, fulling our peripheral vision until it surpasses everything that isn’t in our direct line of sight – a large dark cloud, following us everywhere and in everything.

The funny thing about fear, is that the more we confront it head on, the smaller it becomes. Getting to the root cause of a looming fear allows us to understand what it really is that is limiting us. And sitting with our fear and allowing it to fill us up, can demonstrate how, in reality, the fear isn’t as big as we thought. Seeing it only in the back of our minds allows it to grow and expand until it overwhelms and envelops our minds and our decisions. Inviting the fear in, and offering it an audience allows us to address the root cause (which allows us either to take action to change the situation or come to terms with it if it is unchangeable), and the root cause is usually much smaller than we imagine.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about inviting fear along with her on journeys but relegating the fear to the back seat, and although it’s along for the ride, fear is never allowed to speak or choose the direction of the adventure. Inviting it rather than fighting it ensures that we are driving, rather than being driven by our fear.

A practice for addressing fear:

Sit quietly for a few minutes, letting the body settle.

Focus on a particular and relevant fear, and allow the emotion of fear to inhabit the body – which area of the body does it impact most? Where and how do you feel it? What is the physical reaction?

Sit in that place of discomfort for a few moments, getting comfortable with the unease.

When the unease settles, start visualising beyond the fear. For example, the fear of public speaking is profound for some. So visualise the start of a speech in front of a large crowd of people. Imagine the worst thing possible to happen in that situation. How would that feel? What would be the outcome. Feel it in the body and sit with that feeling until there is a sense of familiarity with that sensation.

Just like the muscles in our body, we can train ourselves to increase our emotional resilience. The practice of yoga and meditation allows us to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, and in the continued practice of feeling uncomfortable, we increase our emotional, physical and mental capacity to be able to deal with discomfort, the pain and the fear.

I once went to a yoga workshop with yoga teacher Kathryn Budig, and something she said stuck with me and made a profound difference on how I viewed life, and also fear: “All choices and events can be broken down two ways – into love or fear. In knowing that, we can choose love. Always choose love.”

Sit with the fear, invite it in and get used to it. Use it as a way to differentiate your choices – and then always choose love.

How do you deal with fear? I’d love to hear about it – let me know in the comments or find me on instagram @laurenewilkie