Opening to Pain: A Guide



Over the course of writing about navigating pain, I’ve discussed ideas such as opening to the pain, allowing the pain, or being with the pain.


But what do these terms actually mean? What does opening to the experience of pain actually look like? And perhaps most importantly, how do we do this?


But before we get to all that, the first question is: Why would we want to open to pain in the first place?



Why open to pain?


The idea of opening to pain can sound a bit backward. It can seem, at first glance, to be something quite passive. A ‘giving in' to the pain or giving up on finding a solution to the problem at hand.


But just as with anything in life, if a solution is to be found, the first step is learning about the problem. When it comes to pain, a large part of this lies in learning how the pain behaves.


Some questions that speak to pain behavior include:

  • In what situations does it come on?

  • What makes it better?

  • What makes it worse?

  • What happens when I do more?

  • What happens when I do less?

  • What does it feel like when it's there?

In order to discover how the pain behaves, it must be experienced to some degree. This requires us to lessen our resistance to it and simply feel it for what it is in order to learn about it.



Feeling it


This is truly what’s meant by opening, allowing, and being with: Feeling. Paying attention to what we’re feeling in our body.


Think of your awareness as a spotlight. When you shine the light on something—be it a sensation, an emotion, or a thought—you can see it for what it actually is.


Most of the time, the spotlight of our awareness is moving all over the place quite rapidly, giving us only glimpses of what’s really happening. This is especially true when the sensation, emotion, or thought is unpleasant. The spotlight is often quick to avoid these experiences in an effort to protect us.


But without bringing these unpleasant experiences into the light, we can’t learn from them. And if we don't learn from them, it’s very difficult to change them.


When we shine the light of our awareness directly on that which we are quick to avoid, we can get a tremendous amount of information. Or, as a recent patient of mine succinctly put it: healing requires feeling.



What feeling can teach us


Shining the light of our awareness on that which we are resisting can teach us a tremendous amount. Through the process of paying attention to what we’re quick to avoid, there are 2 common insights:


1. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be


Every time I take a shower I turn the water on and get in without waiting for it to heat up. Every time I do this I have tremendous resistance to it. Excuses and reasons not to shower that day flood my mind, as well as sneaky thoughts that tell me I need to do something verrry important as the water heats up. And each time, as I step in and actually feel the water, I have the same realization: It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.


When we bring our attention to that which we’re avoiding, this is often our first realization.


Part of the process of resistance is the creation of stories around that which we resist. It’s a way that our organism attempts to protect us, by creating a narrative that the thing that we’re resisting is worth resisting.


But what we inevitably find when we shine the light on that big scary thing (in this case by feeling it in our body) is that it’s not as scary as we thought it would be.


I'm not saying that it’s not sometimes still scary. And painful. And unpleasant. I'm saying that it’s not as scary or painful or unpleasant as we had expected it to be.


What we’re often left with is the notion (which builds over time) that perhaps it doesn’t need to be resisted as vehemently. There can even be a subtle high from the realization that it wasn’t as bad as we’d thought. A mild rush. A feeling of inner strength when we face what is and realize that we can handle it after all.


2. It’s not solid


The second insight comes when we can focus our attention on that which we’re avoiding long enough and with enough clarity.


When we do this, we see that it’s not this solid, unchanging, unmoving thing. Quite the opposite, in fact.


When we pay close attention to pain (or any perceptual experience), a very strange thing happens: We see that it’s in a constant state of change: moving, morphing, strobing.


This can come as quite a relief, as the throes of an unpleasant experience are so often made worse by the feeling of solidity and permanence. Paying careful attention shows us the opposite to be true, that it’s in a constant state of flux and impermanence.


For example, what I anticipate to be this big solid experience of coldness when I first step into the shower turns out to be a symphony of experiences in a constant state of change, which eventually passes (I do indeed get warm again, despite what my mind may tell me when I’m feeling very cold).


And many mornings, before the water gets warm, there’s a moment in which I realize that if the water didn’t get warm, I could still get through.



Fortunately, these insights are not unusual and can be experienced firsthand by anyone. All of us can learn to lessen our resistance and learn from our unpleasant experiences.




learning to open to pain


So how do we do this? How do we reduce our resistance and bring attention to pain so that we can see it for what it really is and learn from it?


Put simply: We practice.


Directly


We can practice this directly, by turning our attention inward and focusing on exactly that which we instinctively avoid. Click here for a guided practice to do just that.


Indirectly


We can also practice indirectly, as I do when I step into a cold shower.


One such practice, adapted from an amazing book, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, is called The Ice Cube:

  1. Get one or two ice cubes from the freezer and hold them in your closed hand as long as possible*

  2. First notice what thoughts come to mind (e.g. this will harm me, I can't bear this, this is stupid). That’s resistance

  3. Next, pay close attention to what you are feeling in your body, moment to moment

  4. What do you notice?

  5. What does coldness actually feel like?

  6. Can you feel the sensations move, change, or pulse?

  7. After the ice cubes melt or you drop them in the sink, ask yourself:

  8. Was this as bad as I thought it was going to be?

  9. Was it as bad as my mind told me it would be in the very beginning?

*If holding them in your closed hand is simply too much, you can hold them in your open hand instead


This experiment often mirrors how we respond to pain in other areas of our body, and can lead us to the same insights mentioned above.


Keep it Simple


All we’re really talking about here is feeling what we’re feeling.


This is not limited to the two exercises above, and in fact, can be applied to any and every moment of our lives. Any time we notice resistance can be a moment to practice turning toward that which we're resisting.


It can be easy to overcomplicate this stuff, especially when our minds start spinning in the throes of an unpleasant experience. Two simple questions I like to ask myself (when I can remember) are:


1. What am I resisting right now?

or

2. What am I feeling right now?



Putting it all together


The more we practice opening to the unpleasant experiences of life, the more we can learn from them.


And the more we learn from pain, the more we can start to pick up on how it behaves. We start to become privy to the patterns that surround the experience of pain and begin to take action to change things based on what we've learned.


It would definitely be wrong to say this is an easy process. But it also wouldn’t be accurate to say this is a difficult process. Because opening is a two-sided coin: the process of opening to the unpleasant aspects of life also opens us more to the pleasant aspects of life. With less resistance in general, life becomes richer, more vivid, and more fun.


Reducing our resistance doesn’t magically make all our problems go away. But it does make us more flexible and adaptable so that we can learn, change, and grow from our experiences. Isn't that what life is all about?



Good luck out there,

Andrew


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