Awakening to Pain


“The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.” ~Lord Byron

I don’t think I can write enough about pain. It’s one of the constants of having a living, breathing, thinking, and feeling body.

Pain is inevitable. Yet it feels like we have to fight it. We want to stop it at all costs. And it’s understandable—we’re programmed to avoid discomfort.

While pain may not be a welcomed guest, it does serve a significant purpose in our lives.

Whether the pain is physical, mental, or emotional, severe or mild, expected or unexpected, it’s here for a reason: to wake us up.

Pain is nature’s alarm clock. It awakens us to what needs our attention in this moment.

Pain is not a form of punishment. It can be the result of our choices, or it can be unrelated to our actions. Whatever the cause may be, there is always something in it for us—an awakening.

How does pain awaken us?

By its nature, pain disrupts our normal routines, and forces us to refocus our attention. Which means we:

Realign our energy and focus on the neglected area of life—be it health, relationships, work, or personal behavior. The pain basically shows up, and turns us around to deal with the problematic area where we’re needed most.

Face our reactive patterns head on. When we’re confronted with pain, the programmed responses tend to show up pretty quickly. We resist and fight, we blame others, we feel bad for ourselves, we grieve what was, or experience a mixture of more than one response.

Examine our true motivations. When pain commands our attention, it makes us question our choices and priorities. Do we let go of the painful situation all together, if it’s deemed unimportant? Or do we give the situation our concentrated energy and effort and do the best we can? If we look at pain objectively, and not take it personally, we realize that it can be a great teacher. This brings us to the next question:

How do we consciously respond to pain?

We’ve been programmed differently. But we all have the following tools and choices at our disposal, whenever we need them.

Accept the situation as it is in this moment. This is one of the hardest things to do when faced with unwanted challenges and feelings. But we can just take it in, and accept that it happened. I can’t undo it. I couldn’t have prevented it. I can choose to acknowledge it, and explore what I can do about it.

Surrender to the priorities of life. No matter what the situation is, we will stop and deal with it. It’s best to yield to life’s demands in this moment, than argue with it and complain about all the other things that we have to do that got pushed to the side.

Rely on impermanence. The worst of debilitating pains won’t last forever—nothing ever does. So the situation will eventually get resolved, whether we fight it or not. Reminding ourselves of the limited lifespan of any pain or struggle can be comforting.

Breathe. When we breathe, we energize the body and brain, and put a space between the situation and our unconscious impulses. A few simple breaths can empower conscious choices and weaken compulsive tendencies.

Feel. Whatever sensations and feelings come up in the body, allow yourself to notice and attend to them, til they subside—without resistance, or judgment. This will help immensely in alleviating some of the mental and emotional symptoms of pain.

Step away for a while. If you feel overcome by pain, stop and walk away (if you can). It’s best to breathe, and take a break, before we make rash decisions that we might regret later.

Calmly do what you can do. If you can do anything to deal with the pain, now is the best time to do it. It’s not easy to feel calm when facing pain. Do the best you can—with the intention to remain calm.

Ask for help. If you’ve done your part and help is needed, seek help. It goes without saying that a health issue may require asking for help when it arises, instead of trying to do something ourselves.

Let go of wanting control, and trust. After all is said and done, let go and let life take care of the rest. There is nothing more we can do, other than allow life to unfold, and for us to deal with whatever comes up as it comes up.

All the above choices and actions are interrelated. They’re not sequential steps. We can call them the circle of awakening and coping with pain.

We can’t avoid pain. We will all experience pain at one point or another in our lives. We may not be able to control the pain, or change the course of life. But we can choose our response—we can fight, we can resist, we can complain and argue, or we can awaken. Our choice won’t make the pain go away. The pain will fade away when it has served its purpose.

Awakening to pain is the most helpful choice we can make to realign our actions with reality, to learn and grow, and more importantly, to be at peace with life.

“Remember that pain has this most excellent quality. If prolonged it cannot be severe, and if severe it cannot be prolonged.” ~Seneca