How can we deal with chronic pain?

We all know the experience of pain, whether it be physical or emotional. It is a state in which we cannot sit still, a state that our minds refuse to accept. This is true almost by design. When our hand touches that hot stove, it is the mind’s complete nonacceptance of the resulting pain that causes the hand’s instant withdrawal. In such cases of acute pain the remedy is immediate and obvious, and the benefit of the pain is clear. However, at times we must also deal with chronic pain, where the remedy is neither as simple nor as apparent as merely withdrawing our hand from a stove.

How can we deal with chronic pain? One step that is helpful to try and look at exactly what that pain is. What is it that we are feeling right at that instant? If we are not currently experiencing pain, we can practise this exercise now simply by pinching our arm and observing the sensation. What we find may be surprising. We find that it is not the sensation itself that is actually causing our pain. Instead, the part that is so unbearable is our mind’s complete refusal to accept that sensation. We want scream because it hurts so badly, and our minds try to flee from the feeling, and yet really, if we actually force ourselves to feel the sensation for what it is, we will find that it is almost neutral.

The lesson here is that pain is essentially a mental construct. Another way to look at it is to say that it is not the pain that hurts, but rather our reaction to the pain. This is an important observation in our management of physical pain, and is equally important for managing emotional pain. Take feelings such as grief, depression, or even common unhappiness: what are these feelings really like? When we observe them closely we find, as with physical pain, that the actual part that hurts is hard to define. We find that the feeling of pain breaks down under close observation, because that pain is ultimately a mental construct and is not really solid. We may consider ourselves depressed, but there is not really a force hanging around with us right now that is making us feel this way. We may examine our depression and come up with a bunch of thoughts that justify why our life is so bad, but we do not have to think these thoughts, and nor do we have to conclude from them that life is bad. Depression, being a form of pain, is simply another example of suffering as a result of refusing to accept a situation. Once again, it is not the sequence of events that has hurt us, but rather our reaction to them. The same is true of grief, of boredom, and of fear.

Thus, next time we feel any kind of pain, we should examine it more closely. We must see it for what it is. We must observe as closely as we can the actual sensation or event that is supposedly causing this hurt, and try to understand that it is our reaction that is actually the problem. This way of dealing with pain goes against our preconditioning and it takes practice to become proficient. However, when we succeed, it will completely transform our relationship to pain. Pain will not longer be seen as an enemy, but rather as a helpful signal that we are grateful to have. It is not something to fear and run from, but something to look at and experience exactly as it is.

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  1. John said,

    February 20, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    Nice post, thanks!

  2. ranjith raj said,

    April 20, 2008 @ 8:46 am

    wonderful thoughts….

    witnessing physical pain as a detached observer really helps….

    or else we can passivate the pain by allowing it unto death… may sound strange… but practise regularly and see for urself…

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