Dr. Jon Kabat-Zim, a researcher at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusets once said:
“Symptoms of illness or distress, plus your feelings about them, can be viewed as messengers coming to tell you something important about your body or about your mind. In the old days, if a king didn’t like the message he was given, he would sometimes have the messenger killed. This is tantamount to suppressing your symptoms or your feelings because they are unwanted. Killing the messenger and denying the message or raging against it are not intelligent ways of approaching healing. The one thing we don’t want to do is to ignore or rupture the essential connections that can complete relevant feedback loops and restore self-regulation and balance. Our real challenge when we have symptoms is to see if we can listen to their messages and really hear them and take them to heart, that is, to make the connection fully.”
Pain always has a message. If your foot is sprained and you try to run up the stairs, the message is, “Be gentle. Go slowly.” The pain of childbirth keeps the impending mother focused on the task at hand while the aches of illness ask (and sometimes force) us to rest.
It’s easy to view your foot as a separate entity from yourself. Sure, it’s attached to you, but the pain of a foot does not radiate into your psyche, and therefore it is easier to manage the pain because you know the self is not damaged. Emotional pain, though, is damage to the self. It has a message too, but people are more reluctant to hear it because they can’t view the pain as outside of them. Instead, it is of them, indistinguishable from identity.
This confusion, of pain-as-self, sends people into a spiral of thinking something is “wrong” with them. The fix is never to face the pain and understand its message. The fix is always to push it down, medicate it, and assume that it was caused by a glitch in the system.
What if, the next time emotional pain showed up, you welcomed it? Could you sit with it, observe it, and find the thin line that exists between your whole self and the pain? Because you are whole. You are a whole being who experiences the sensations of pain. You are not pain itself.
As Jon Kabat-Zim says, “When you see and feel the sensations you are experiencing as sensations, pure and simple, you may see that these thoughts about the sensations are useless to you at that moment and can actually make things worse than they need to be.”
This is the key idea behind the Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” We all experience pain. But suffering only exists within the depths of our own mind. Understanding the difference and recognizing when you are stuck in suffering vs. accepting the inevitability of pain is the first step in learning to decouple from the notion of pain-as-self.
Even after all you’ve been through, you are still you in there. What you feel, you can heal. It’s time to listen to the message.