What Is Pain?
Pain is a normal part of human life. And pain hurts. Although pain feels like a threat, pain is not attacking us. Pain is designed to help us survive. Pain and pleasure are signals. Pain is a signal that something is out of balance in your emotional, mental, spiritual, or physical life and that something needs attention. It is meant to be unpleasant, for a good reason: to bring our attention to a potentially dangerous situation until the issue is treated. The sharp, unpleasant signal is designed that way to make sure we drop everything else and attend to the situation immediately. When pain continues unabated after our best healthy efforts to tend to it in a physical way, we look for ways of stopping it, reducing it, or escaping it in any way we can.
For example, if you’re walking barefoot, thoroughly engaged in a conversation with a friend, and you step on a piece of wood and get a splinter, the strong unpleasant pain signal is meant to get you to immediately stop all other interests and attend to the wound. If you had a sharp piece of wood in your foot and it didn’t cause pain, you might not bother to take it out, resulting in infection or worse. Once you take care of the immediate problem, or source, the nature of pain is to eventually go away. Pain by itself is not an entity or an enemy that has any motivation of hurting you. It is an important survival mechanism of our body—a communication tool.
By way of our senses, we have contact with experience in and outside of our body that tends to feel either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We tend to like pleasant sensations, which leads to craving what we like and trying to get more pleasure, and we tend to dislike unpleasant sensations, which leads to rejecting what we don’t like. When that strong craving or rejection happens, there is a contraction of our greater sense of self into a specific identity of “craver” or “rejecter”: we configure our consciousness into a “me” that is a “thinker” or “manager” that has a strategy to get its goals and desires met, and believes that that strategy is real and right. Craving and rejection are a normal part of our physical survival, like craving food when we’re hungry, but they also become our primary source of suffering when they become our identity.
Rather than reacting to the pain, we must treat the underlying condition that is causing pain in order for it to subside. It is important to first check out the cause of the pain in every way possible so as not to ignore, overlook, or deny a potentially dangerous condition. In some types of chronic pain that we know the cause of, like arthritis or sciatica, the nerve signal system is alerting us of an issue, but there’s no splinter to be removed from our back or foot. If we’ve attended to all the medical and alternative diagnoses and treatments, and the pain still persists, we still have the opportunity to learn some approaches using our own consciousness to relate to pain differently. Effortless mindfulness is a wonderful approach that does not in any way attempt to replace or deny diagnosing the cause of pain and working to cure it through any and all means. I am simply sharing this practice as a suggestion of what can be done in conjunction with any medical treatment.
With effortless mindfulness, we can learn to become present with the unpleasant—an important skill that we often avoid learning until we experience inescapable pain. We may already have experienced, through effortless mindfulness, how chattering thoughts recede into background awareness or can be met by open-hearted awareness. The great news is that we can do this with pain signals as well! They can become like thoughts and go into the background of awake awareness. When the pain signals recede to the background or significantly lessen, we no longer have to suffer silently or try to escape the pain through behaviors of shutting down, numbing, addiction, or acting out. By changing how we relate to pain, we can find a doorway to a freedom that allows us to respond to pain from courage and intimacy. We can learn to be present with the unpleasant, remain sensitive without being defensive, and be responsive but not reactive. When the intelligence of awake awareness knows directly that there is no immediate danger, the pain signal can go into the background.
In this video below, join me as I guide you through this practice of using effortless mindfulness to help you be present and work with your pain for lasting relief.
This is an excerpt from The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: A Revolutionary Guide for Living an Awakened Life by Loch Kelly.
Loch Kelly, MDiv, LCSW, is a leader in the field of meditation and psychotherapy. He is author of the award-winning Shift into Freedom and founder of the Open-Hearted Awareness Institute. Loch is an emerging voice in modernizing meditation, social engagement, and collaborating with neuroscientists. For more, visit lochkelly.org.
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