Relaxing Into Our Suffering
Updated: Sep 12
Life involves suffering - no one escapes it. We're born into pain, our own and that of our mothers as they deliver us into this world. A myriad of growing pains accompany us on our journey to maturation, and few have escaped the agony of a broken heart.
Therapists tend to be good at guiding clients in finding relief from pain and suffering, yet therapy has limits and there are times when we must accept that relief may not be accessible.
Such was the case for my older brother. As a child I looked up to David's exceptionally intelligent, creative, and rebellious nature. During his first year in college his behavior drastically changed, then came the devastating diagnosis of schizophrenia. When considerably fewer treatment options were available David survived and at times thrived as best he could, yet he lived a life consisting of far more suffering than anyone should have to bear. His suffering in turn touched the lives of my family members, especially my mother who was devoted to his care. David's tragic death last month left me contemplating how best to process ongoing suffering.
Perhaps you or one of your loved ones is suffering? How do we cope with the sense of hopelessness that can arise when we, or one we love is experiencing ongoing distress? Let's begin by taking a closer look at pain.
The Cycle Of Pain
Physical or emotional pain is an indication that something is wrong, it is important that we pay attention and hear what it has to say. It is our natural response to brace against physical and emotional threats to our survival, however ongoing resistance to the pain and our circumstances cause further pain. Resistance leads us to avoidance of feeling our suffering by numbing the pain or tuning it out, temporary fixes that will not make it go away.
In Freedom from Pain Levine & Phillips explain that the cycle of pain begins with a threat, which engages a region of the brain called the amygdala responsible for activating the fear response, which in turn triggers bracing reactions. We can get caught in a cycle of pain when we begin to brace against the internal threat of pain itself. The sequence looks like this: threat - fear - brace - constrict - pain - collapse - threat of pain, if uninterrupted it cycles and can become chronic.
Physical and emotional pain operate identically in the brain and are inextricably linked, with signals sent to the same regions: the limbic system (emotions) the sensory cortex (sensation), and the cerebral cortex (organizing thoughts and beliefs). Ongoing pain always contains an emotional component, some sensation or physical pain, along with thoughts or beliefs (such as a sense of loneliness, fear of what the future holds) that often block recovery or contribute to the cycle of pain. And whether or not one is consciously aware, pain is often related to past trauma.
To break the pain cycle we must move from identifying with the pain "I am the pain" or "I am the suffering" to "I am experiencing the pain". Next we shift to observing and detaching from the pain; "I am experiencing the sensations that are underneath the pain." When we recoil from our sensations they can become a source of even more suffering. Exploring with curiosity the sensations that underlie our pain will begin to teach us how we keep patterns related to threat activated in the present moment, when we are no longer in danger.
All of life is in flux. We've know since we were very young that the day always gives way to night, the seasons come and go, and our bodies alter with each passing year. This ever-changing quality of life brings about uncertainty, unpredictability, and impermanence, making continuous pleasure or lasting security impossible goals to obtain. Yet, just like with pain, we often resist this truth, fighting to gain control over the ambiguity in an attempt to ease the pervasive anxiety brought on by our essential nature of impermanence.
In Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change Pema Chodron teaches that our discomfort arises from our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our state. "When we resist change it's called suffering, ...we could say that the real cause of suffering is not being able to tolerate uncertainty - and thinking that it's perfectly sane, perfectly normal, to deny the fundamental groundlessness of being human."
Can we learn to accept, relax into, and at times even embrace the unpredictability and uncertainty of being human?
Relaxing Into Pain And Suffering
As you begin this practice, rather than trying to endure prolonged exposure to intense feeling and sensation, stay present for very brief periods throughout the day. This is a good practice to try when your impulse is to distract, avoid, or numb yourself from what you are feeling. If you find yourself overwhelmed at any point go back to following your breath.
Begin by situating yourself comfortably, seated or lying down.
Relax your abdomen, diaphragm, shoulders and rib cage as you breath deeply and gently.
Notice where in your body you feel resistance, constriction, or pain. Take your time to observe what subtle sensations are present. Be assured, sensations like feelings are continuously changing.
Breath into the constriction or pain, noticing where the edges of discomfort are, then consciously softening around them.
It may help to gently place your palm on the area of your body where the tension or pain is located, then imagine directing your breath there.
As you exhale, imagine that you are breathing out tension, as you inhale you are breathing in acceptance and ease. Stay with this for a minute or longer.
The tension or pain may change form, soften or dissipate with the breath.
As this happens invite the tension or pain to tell you what emotional tension is effecting you.
Become fully aware of any feelings related to this emotional state.
Remember feelings and sensations are ever changing, as you turn toward them, lean into them and feel them as courageously as you can.
Now ask what is needed for acceptance? Calmly listen for an answer.
With each exhalation continue to release any discomfort, breathing in acceptance and ease.
Now begin to sense deeply your sameness with all beings, we all are connected by our common experience of pain and suffering.
Let the pain of the world touch you and cause your compassion to blossom. - Pema Chodron
In addition to courage, it requires gentle, compassionate discipline to face our discomfort and suffering. For an exercise in self-compassion please see my June 2016 post, Love the One You're With.
We cannot experience profound well-being without acceptance of, rather than pushing against the tough sometimes sorrowful reality of life. When we face our vulnerability and helplessness directly, letting the feelings arise, build in intensity, than fade away, we begin to experience the rawness of the emotion without identifying with it.
My brother's passing, his bright soul, reminded me that we can hold pain and suffering in one moment, then beauty and wonder in the next. When we stop resisting and avoiding the ever changing quality of life we relax and become available to be in the present, where the real miracle of existence is happening.