Managing pain

About a week ago, a dear friend was experiencing intense pain and asked me how I handle pain. I shared two of my approaches with her in an email. She suggested that I share them on my blog in case others can benefit, but I demurred.

A few days later, I received an email with this message:

You will have pain

John 16:20

That sounds ominous but it was part of a larger email – not quite so awful as it would be as a standalone message!

Today, a friend sent this to me:

(Cancer) really was a teacher for me about how to deal with pain. I had this kind of vision when I was going through a procedure, and it was an image of a tree falling into an iced-over stream. The tree shattered and the ice cracked. Then I had the same immediate scene replay itself except that it was springtime. And now the tree fell into the water. Even though it made a huge splash, the water flowed around it. So that was an immediate instruction to me on how to meet pain and difficulty. To let it enter me but to be soft enough to flow around it.

-Mark Nepo

I related to his experience and decided, okay, I will share my approach. I hope that it helps you if you need it, though no guarantees, of course.

Going through cancer gives me an opportunity to experience all kinds of pain. Physical pain caused surgery or by tumor or by who-knows-what else. The emotional pain that starts with the worry before the diagnosis and morphs from there.

My tools for dealing with emotional pain are limited primarily to repressing it or moving through it. So let’s just not look there right now.

As for physical pain, I tried, among other things, avoidance and willing it away. I tried bracing myself and steeling myself through it. However, none of those helped with intense pain.

My aversion to painkillers has led me to develop more tools for dealing with pain.

For example, I frequently have intestinal blockages that causes waves of pain. I used to experience the wave of pain, and when the intense part passed, I would brace myself for the next wave. I was tense and worried and just wanted it all to go completely away.

One day, on the theory that what you focus on will grow, I decided to try and focus, not on the waves of pain, but on the calmer spaces between the waves. The spaces in between were not pain-free, but they were far less intense. Soon I realized that I started to see the waves of pain as periods of peace interrupted by pain that would pass. It was still painful but made it much more bearable.

At another point, I attended a workshop at Kripalu called The Psychology of Symptoms, developed and lead by Douglas Brady. There, I learned to have a different relationship with physical pain and to sit with it. I know – doesn’t sound like fun, but it works for me.

These are the techniques I will attempt to summarize here.

For me, this works best if I start in a calm place – either from a space between bouts of pain, or from a brief meditation. If the pain is a familiar one, this works best if I start when I feel it coming on, before it gets into full force. But you can start from wherever you are.

Pain often radiates, so the first step is to find the focal point of the pain, the epicenter. Picture it in your mind’s eye. Picture space around it. Feel that space. Let the pain exist there for a moment.

Look at it. What color(s) is it? What shape? Is it moving / pulsing / breathing? Is it smooth or ragged? Simply recognize any characteristics it shows you. Notice how those characteristics change as you are watching.

When you are ready, notice if it is carrying any emotions. Does it bring any emotions to mind?

Does the pain correspond to anything you are noticing about it? For example, does it get jagged when the pain is more intense? Does it turn red? If this brings you more into feeling the pain than observing it, then skip this one. But sometimes, you can do this by feeling the pain without being crippled by it.

When you are ready, ask it any questions that come to mind, such as What do you need? Why are you here?

As you do this, continue to notice its physical characteristics and how they morph.

When you (and it) are ready, see if you can go a little bit inside the shape. What do you see there? You can go as far into the center as you are comfortable.

Continue to do this for as long as you can.

When you are done, just breathe. Fill the space inside with white or golden light. Keep breathing into the space.

As my family can attest, it isn’t that pain doesn’t hurt me, that I can magically make it go away. But practicing these when I need them helps me to meet the pain and difficulty with less resistance and to continue to flow around it.

I hope that, if you try this, it helps you. But mostly, I hope you don’t need it.


1 thought on “Managing pain

  1. This is very powerful Marie – I hope those going through pain can benefit from these techniques – you are so right that what we focus on is what we notice – for every pain there is a space around it, the same with joy.

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