It occurred to me this morning, as I was walking back from the gym with my hamstrings, lats and shoulder muscles aching and my daily headache raging on — which I’d managed to ignore throughout the workout — that one of the most fundamental changes in my life has been in my relationship to pain.
One aspect of this change is physical: things hurt less, or rather, they hurt as much as they used to, but the pain doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it did before. I have long thought of myself as unfit for physical suffering, probably because I rarely enjoyed activities that hurt. I now see that my assumption about this was, basically, bogus, a simple belief that I’d allowed to become my reality. I quickly learned, when I was learning to box, that there is something inherently fun about getting punched, even in the stomach, if you’re in the right frame of mind. I spend a lot less time moaning about my fever when I’m sick. And when I accidentally hurt myself, I seem to recover fairly quickly.
But the more important aspect of the change is in my attitude to my own suffering. It’s become easier to feel pain than to avoid it.
If there’s one thing I know to be true about me when I’m in emotional pain, it’s that I strive harder, push harder, get more shit done, because I want to use that pain productively — I don’t like to waste pain. Having a breakup? Write ten breakup songs, one of them will be good. The tiniest incident in the street makes you worry about the law, or your rights, or how something puzzling actually works? Spend a few days learning about that so that you never have to worry about it again. Pain: not wasted.
But, as helpful as that can be (you do get a lot of stuff done that way), it’s still an evasion. It’s a way of trying to control the universe, of imposing meaning on meaningless pain. It’s much harder to notice your pain, emotional or physical, and just stop moving, and feel it all the way through. To be sad completely. To be truly, fully angry without moving a finger — just feeling the anger. Instead of acting on that emotion — which is an evasion — just feeling it, for hours or days if necessary.
I have learned to do this, to trust that pain won’t hurt me. Not perfectly, and not consistently, but it’s now possible and likely that I’ll just shut up and feel the ache. The astonishing part of this is realizing how reluctant others are to sit with their own pain. The minute you learn to focus on whether you’re dodging a horrible emotion, you start to see this in others. I’ve known a few people who seemed unbelievably insightful about this: they could sense that you were running away from a pain you weren’t even aware of. And we’re all going to be tempted to run away, to improve ourselves, to get stronger, to become cleverer. But the hardest and most rewarding thing seems to be not changing, and be able to withstand pain without concluding there’s anything wrong.