Robert Augustus Masters

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Taking the Suffering Out of Pain

  • April 28, 2017
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Whoever we are, wherever we are, there inevitably is pain — along with our strategies to numb, bypass, or otherwise get away from it, including through housing as much of it as possible in our shadow.


We may conceive of freedom as a pain-free domain, but real freedom is rooted not in being without pain, but in how we handle it, how we relate to it, how intimate with it we choose to become.


Yesterday’s pain may still be occupying us, and tomorrow’s pain too, together amplifying today’s pain. We don’t get what we want, and there’s pain; we get what we don’t want, and there’s pain; and even when we get what we want, there’s pain, if only because of how things change and how little in control of this we are.


The more we try to get away from the felt presence of pain — whether through denial, dissociation, or distraction — the more deeply it takes root in us, and not just in our shadow. So what are we to do?


The bare-bones answer begins with turning toward our pain — which means directly facing and unresistingly feeling the raw reality of it.


Once this is solidly underway we then approach our pain, step by mindful step, gradually entering it — bringing well-embodied, compassionate awareness into its domain — recognizing more and more deeply that in order to emerge from our pain, we have to enter it.


But, we may ask, isn’t the point to get rid of pain, or to at least remove ourselves from it? After all, isn’t pain already unpleasant enough? Why make it worse by moving closer to it, let alone entering it?


These and similar questions are quite understandable, given our commonplace aversion to pain, be it physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. The very notion of turning toward our pain and getting close enough to it to start knowing it well, may initially seem counterintuitive, foolhardy, misguided, or masochistic.


There’s no need to shame ourselves for turning away from our pain. Simply recognizing such evasion for what it is is enough — along with a compassionate exploration of the roots of such behavior, remembering and feeling our early life efforts to get away from our pain, efforts that might have helped us survive very difficult circumstances but that now no longer serve us.


In turning toward our pain there is enormous freedom, a freedom that grounds us in our core of being, as we slowly but steadily undo our various ways of fleeing our pain. In this, the energy we’ve invested in getting away from our pain — as opposed to simply being with our pain — becomes freed-up energy, energy available to us, energy that we can use for truly life-giving purposes.


Being with our pain does not mean passively submitting to it nor letting it run us, but staying present with it, neither getting lost in it nor dissociating from it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by pain, spinning down into it as if being drawn down an energetic funnel toward a darkly contracted vortex — and it’s also easy to launch ourselves so far from it that we all but lose sight of it, settling into exaggerated detachment.


Remaining present with our pain may be far from easy, but with practice is quite doable. And the more consistently present we can be with our pain, the less it pains us — it may still hurt, but we don’t mind as much, for we’re more able to hold it, to both contain it and to express it under certain conditions (as when emotional release is clearly called for).


We all have pain, but despite its ubiquitous presence, day in and day out, we may not know it very well, reacting to it as little more than something distressingly unpleasant, something to fight, flee, flatten, or dream away as soon as possible.


It’s not that there aren’t times when it’s entirely appropriate to get away from or take a break from pain — as when it is debilitating or sharply out-of-control — but it’s still entirely worthwhile learning how to simply be with our pain, staying present as possible in the midst of it.


There are many kinds of pain — physical, emotional, mental, psychological, existential, social, spiritual — each of which has many qualities (density, texture, movement, shape, and so on) all in flux, but the essence of each kind of pain is a compelling sense of unpleasantness or discomfort, ranging from irritability to agony.


That essence, however contracted, is what we encounter and hold — and become intimate with — as we work with our pain, knowing it in both its detailing and core reality.


It’s natural to seek distraction from our pain. This takes many forms — intellectual, emotional, pharmaceutical, erotic, etcetera — which can easily dominate and run our lives, disconnecting us from living a deeper life, if only through keeping us in the grip of our conditioning.


To turn toward our pain is to begin unhooking ourselves from our distractions from it. This process is itself inevitably painful for a while — mostly because it hurts to wean ourselves from what we’re habituated to doing — but soon begins to feel good, even when we are still hurting.


Turning toward our pain does not increase our pain for very long, and actually decreases it relatively soon, mainly because we are no longer paining ourselves by putting so much energy into trying to get away from it.


Also, turning toward our pain — thereby making more room for it — focuses and expands us, however slightly, depressurizing and easing us.


The closer we get to our pain, the greater the odds that we’ll be able to skillfully relate to it rather than from it. And when we thus relate to our pain, cultivating intimacy with it, we start liberating ourselves from the pain — and painful consequences — of avoiding our pain.


When we turn away from our pain, seeking an escape from it — thereby avoiding knowing it and relating to it — we entrap ourselves in our apparent solutions to our pain, getting overly attached or addicted to whatever most pleasurably or reliably removes us from it.


But this, however, just generates more pain — and drains our energy reserves —without at all resolving the original pain. The good news here is that the inherent dissatisfaction of such pain-avoiding strategies — especially when they manifest as addictiveness — sooner or later points us, however roughly, in more life-giving directions.


An essential part of working with pain is to not turn it into suffering — where pain is consciously felt hurt, suffering is the myopic dramatization of that hurt, casting us in the role of the hurt one and binding us there, stranding us from the raw reality of our pain and the opportunity to become intimate with it.


Intimacy with our pain? As strange or unappealing as this may sound, it is actually a very practical undertaking.


The more deeply and thoroughly we know our pain from the inside, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to wisely use it. Unpleasant or intense as pain may be, it possesses the capacity to awaken us from our everyday trances and ruts, through jolting us out of our numbness, complacency, apathy, and mechanicalness.


Pain, with a few exceptions, is not the problem. What really matters is what we do with our pain. Do we recoil from it? Do we demonize it? Do we frame it as a mere drag, bad karma, crappy luck, an obstacle to having the life we really want? Or do we use it more wisely?


The point is not to romanticize the awakening power of pain, any more than it is to bewail the presence of pain. Real freedom does not mean the absence of pain, but rather adopting a non-problematic orientation toward pain — and not just intellectually.


This means, in part, facing and meeting whatever dragons are guarding the treasure which we seek. And what are dragons, but the densified presence of what appears to most threateningly oppose us, endarkened and hardened not outside but within us?


To reach the treasure we must face and fully encounter the dragons guarding it. This is not just a fairy tale, nor mere metaphor, but a living reality. At first we may view our dragons — whatever shape they take — as obstacles, hindrances, problems, inconveniences, lower-brain roadblocks, but later on we will come to view them not as obstructions on the path but rather as an essential part of the path. The path to what? To what we most deeply long for.


Perhaps the primary role of our dragons is to provide us with the kind of encounter that makes sure we’re capable of appreciating and making wise use of what they’re guarding. And to be capable of this, we have to cease distracting ourselves from our pain until there’s nothing between it and us except sentient space.


Pain can consume us. And our efforts to get away from pain can also consume us.


As much as we may wish pain wasn’t there, it abides, offering us the same basic opportunity: to cease avoiding it so that we might use it for life-giving purposes, allowing it to further open our eyes and root us in truer ground. This doesn’t mean that pain is just some sort of wonderful gift, but that its openly felt presence has the capacity to funnel our attention into single-pointed focus, gathering us into a lucid wholeness — however compressed — rather than fragmenting us.


Go to the heart of your pain, and you won’t find more pain, but a freedom that doesn’t require the absence of pain.