Processing Pain: What I Have Learned

The child was playing. The child fell down, got hurt and started bawling. The mother (or whichever other elder was in the vicinity) rushed to the aid of the child, picked her up and started consoling her. The child continued bawling.

One strategy that mothers (or elders in general) resort to in this situation is to distract the child from the pain. There is one thing they do which I find mighty fascinating. The elder stomps the ground, or slaps it saying in a mock scolding tone, “तुमने वाणी को चोट पहुँचाई? (You hurt Vani?) Bad ground.” Or the elder says in jest, pointing to the ground, “See how many ants have died!”

The child looks with fascination at the ground. Her mother slapping and scolding the ground? Or ants (which the child can’t see) have died? How curious! The child gets adequately distracted, feels adequately pacified by a boosted ego (someone else is having to pay for her pain), stops bawling, strategy successful, elder feels like a good caring elder.

And so it goes for the rest of life. When we feel pain, be it physical or emotional, the first strategy and in most cases the only strategy is to find who is to blame. If it is someone else and that someone else is adequately slapped and scolded, we feel pacified. If it is not someone else, we blame our self and slap and scold ourself. Extremely intense, mean, vicious and private slapping and scolding at that! At the very least, if we find others who have suffered too, we feel “OK, it’s not too bad then” and are thereby somewhat pacified. This is more-or-less the only strategy we adopt for processing pain. Either someone has to be found to blame and has to be made to pay for it, or someone else has to suffer with us. Be it the individual human being or any other collective – nation, community, religion whatever. This is our system of “justice”.

What if the true answer is that there is no one to blame? Not even you. Not even God.

I share below what I have learned of processing pain

  • Physical Pain: When I first learned a new way of processing pain
  • Emotional Pain: Transferring the learning from physical to emotional pain
  • Keeping A Childlike Curiosity and Fascination Towards The “Phenomena”
  • There is no blame. No one is at fault.

Physical Pain: When I first learned a new way of processing pain

I had gone to USA to study computer science. A dream come true, finally. However, as I got into the tune of living a student’s life, my health deteriorated. Along with attending classes, the days and the semester comprised of several visits to the hospital for various tests and perplexing conversations with the doctors – not to mention the perplexing increasing weakness and a new array of sensations in my body. I was scared. Eventually it was declared that I have Multiple Sclerosis.

After some months I enrolled into a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the hospital. These programs at hospitals across USA teach meditation, extended shavaasan, and a smattering of yoga to participants to enable them to receive whatever life is throwing at them with greater awareness in a manner that can be rather empowering. At the mindfulness program, for the first time I learned a way of processing pain that was totally new to me.

In the extended shavaasan, over a period of 45 minutes say, one lies down with eyes closed and brings one’s awareness, in turn, to each and every part of the body, from the toes to the skull and experiences whatever one is experiencing there. “Whatever you are experiencing at that point where your awareness is, it is just a sensation. Experience it as just that. A sensation. Is it a tingling? Is it a throbbing? Experience the sensation completely”, the program guide said.

When the mind is totally absorbed in experiencing the sensation completely, there is no further assignment of additional thoughts and stories to the experience – This is so painful! What is happening to me? My symptoms are getting worse… future projections of seeing oneself in a wheelchair… and all other exotic future projections that we are all very capable of.

At that moment, that which you are experiencing at that point in the body, is just a sensation. Even if it is a pain it becomes more painful and harrowing than it actually is due to the grand ensemble of stories that we attach to it.

As I did that extended shavaasan every day and received whatever I was experiencing just as a sensation, fear towards those sensations faded away. Often, complete awareness of the sensation also made the sensation go away. One day after one of the extended shavaasans, as I was applying cream and getting ready to go to the university I found myself actually apply the cream with a gentle love and appreciation for my body. This was a rather new experience for me for I have always just lived in my mind since childhood. The body has just incidentally been there. For the first time I was acknowledging my body and all that it enabled me to do in life.

This learning has stood by me in good stead. Whenever I feel physical pain, most times I simply experience it. It does not bring on fear the way it did in those days. If there is anything practical to be done about the pain, I do it as best as I can. Often I found that receiving the pain with complete awareness brings tremendous transformative power with it – the pain and discomfort melts away in a most fascinating manner and sometimes even leaves me with greater clues and information about myself.

Receiving pain completely with awareness sure connects us firsthand to an intrinsic power we have within. We find that we are not victims of what we are experiencing. Irrespective of how debilitating the weakness becomes, one tiny grain of strength remains. A grain that is totally indestructible.

Emotional Pain: Transferring the learning from physical to emotional pain

Most of the pain we experience in life is mental, emotional. A person may have no physical ailments but chances are there is substantial emotional pain she is nevertheless experiencing. Relationships are the most fertile ground for emotional pain. It is a challenging domain for almost every person on the planet. This is also where most of the ping-pong blame game matches are held which go into lengthy rallies extending over years. The challenge of physical ailments is also exacerbated by the mental/emotional appendages we attach to it. Every person’s quest for finding her own valid place in the world itself is rife with painful experiences.

I gained confidence about processing physical pain by bringing my complete attention to it. I felt empowered. I also found that all physical challenges I was facing was a tip of the iceberg. The true underlying ailment that was rusting me was hurt and resentments I had harbored towards people in my life. It also included feeling not-good (on mild days) and shitty (on intense days) about myself. All this information and its resolution did not come in fragrant floral greeting cards. It came in a series harrowing experiences interspersed with some nice relief periods of song, dance and joy. The challenge was (and mostly always is) at the mental-emotional level.

Having successfully processed pain at the physical level, the thing to do was to transfer the learning to the mental-emotional level. It is kind-of like having learned and practiced division with smaller well-behaved numbers, we apply the same approach to larger more unruly numbers. Higher gaming level basically. How nice!

I found processing physical pain easier and carried that learning over to mental-emotional pain but it need not always be that way. My friend in Udupi feels confident about dealing with challenges that life may throw at her but physical pain trumps her. However when physical pain strikes she knows it is time to slow down. She feels totally unapologetic taking the day off from work on the first day of her periods for example.

Be it physical or mental-emotional, the strategy is the same: to bring our complete awareness to the pain. With physical pain there is a tangible well-defined point in space to bring attention to. With mental-emotional pain it is easy to get buffeted around in the mind with nothing tangible to hold onto. However, there are ways to counter that. One effective strategy being – bring your attention to the breath again and again, while you are talking to someone, while you are doing whatever. Even one or two breaths that you become aware of in a day has tremendous transformational power.

On more-or-less ok days, awareness on the breath is very effective to come back to again and again through the day. What do we do when things get really mucky? When we are seething in anger or we are pulled into the depths of perplexing depression?

When emotional pain becomes intense it almost takes on a kind-of-physical form. Then one can almost see the black ink moving and changing shape within the mind and the body, the thought intensity moving and changing shape. Awareness on this movement of pain opens the doorway to its resolution.

Keeping A Childlike Curiosity and Fascination Towards The “Phenomena”

This is another strategy that helps me tremendously. To look at what is happening with childlike curiosity and fascination. The fundamental aspect of a scientific bent of mind is not analysis, but childlike curiosity. Everything is simply a phenomenon worthy of curious observation. There is nothing good or bad about a phenomenon. It is a simply something that is happening.

So this is happening – whatever the ‘this’ may be. I am feeling this way (anger, hatred, jealousy, depression, lust, horribly unwell whatever) – whatever I may be feeling and experiencing, it does not make me a bad person. That does not mean I am a failure. This is simply what is happening at this moment. To think in this manner frees up huge amounts of mental bandwidth. It becomes much more feasible to look at what is happening properly and from a fresh perspective. By not beating our self up for what we are experiencing, we can now truly look at what is happening. It enables us to wonder, “Is there another way?” It even becomes possible to acknowledge that our perspective is not working, it is not making the pain go away. Maybe we are not seeing things quite correctly? “I am at a loss here. This is not working. I need guidance. I want to see this differently.” – when this thought-feeling comes in, the ball of transformation sets rolling in a super-fascinating way. Sometimes the answer to the challenge wafts in with floral fragrance almost immediately. Even if the guidance comes in time, over layers of increasing clarity (and challenges), the guidance comes in a manner that is absolutely tailor-made for our unique personality.

For me, the book A Course In Miracles brought fundamental transformation. It taught me about emotional pain and the pain in relationships in great depth. It taught me about the incorrect thinking and perceptions of my mind. It then held me by hand, and step by step, via a series of thought exercises, took me to a place where now I feel more empowered to honor myself and honor my relationships. It taught me how there are only two fundamental emotions: love and fear, and the idea is to shift our thinking from fear to love. It taught me how we are so intrinsically connected, literally one organism. A Course in Miracles is an excellent book to learn how to process relationships and emotional pain.

It may be the book for you, it may not. However, when our mind comes to even the slightest place of wondering, “There must be another way”, tailor-made guidance flows in.

There is no blame. No one is at fault.

In every case, and I say this with 100% certainty – there is no one to blame. Yes, every, with emphasis. This applies to each and every thing that is happening in every individual’s life and in the life of every collective – be it community, nation, the human race or all of universe. No one is at fault for what is happening, for what happened. No external x person or process in life is at fault, you are not at fault, God is not at fault. God has not failed you. You have not failed anyone. No one has failed you.

At each given moment, each entity does the best it can do as per what it knows and understands at that moment. This is intrinsic to the way each and every particle of the universe functions. It is an inbuilt property of the universe – immutable, unchangeable and exists at every level of the universe.

Greed is “bad” but no person is being greedy – they are only doing what they can do best at that moment. The person is intrinsically feeling impoverished, there-in lies the source of that insatiable greed.

Saying a lie is “bad” but the person who is saying the lie, will say the lie, while being aware that it is a lie because there are greater forces within him that are convincing him that saying the lie is at that moment the best option, for the sake of self-preservation or whatever other reason.

This applies to you, this applies to each and every one of us. If you had known better, you would have done better. If he had known better, he would have done better.

Even the rapist and the person who throws acid on another person’s face is also essentially not to blame. No person can inflict such pain on a fellow human being without first being in worse pain himself. However, he has no clue how to be aware of his pain, his feelings. He has no clue how to process it. The lack of awareness and acknowledgement of his pain, makes the pain rage as a demon, makes the person a zombie, takes him to the depths of insanity.

There is no blame. No one is at fault. This might be totally opposite of everything you see around with so much strife clearly happening all over the world. However it is all a result of pain not being processed with awareness. When pain is not processed consciously, with awareness, it does not go away anywhere. Seeking acknowledgement the pain festers and erupts in a myriad ways. It erupts in a person shouting, it erupts as depression and a sudden disinterest in the world, it erupts in partitions of nations, it erupts in continued wars.

What we can do, is to learn to process pain better, let that learning improve our life and share that learning in our own unique manner with others. Not only is it something tangible that we can do, it is absolutely vital that we do this. It is vital for our life and it is vital for our world and the universe.

Unless you learn and share your learning, unless you touch love and share the love you touched, our world will not heal. We are pieces in a grand jig-saw puzzle. Even if one piece is missing, the puzzle is not complete. One missing piece means one center of pain, and pain spreads.

You are not alone in being affected by your thoughts. Each and every thought that you think, even in the privacy of your room, a thought that you did not express to anyone, each and every thought impacts you, it impacts all the people in your life, it impacts every person and being on this planet.

Do not run away from pain. Immerse into it, with awareness. Ask in your mind, “This is hurting. What is the way out?” The answer that is tailor-made for you will come to you.

I might write in a future article someday why even God is not to blame. This article has already become too long.


Image: “Pain” Oil Painting by Vani Murarka

6 comments on “Processing Pain: What I Have Learned”:

    1. Actually no, it is not a leaf in distress. The intention was not to draw a leaf, however it turned out to look like that. 🙂
      The intention was to make some full-bodied form not flat like a leaf. The idea was to depict some form, some ‘body’, but not something that we identify with or easily give a name to – not something like a human body or the heart or anything.

  1. Very beautifully expressed…..it is like a conversation…
    It’s amazing to know from first-hand experience what a big difference awareness can bring in one’s life.
    Hats off to you Bank for your positivity and objectivity.

  2. souls akin….loved your articles especially because i too know and understand pain from very,very close quarters…and the thought processes which give the strength and the philosophy to take it all in one’s stride!!
    meena

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