Pain and suffering: a contemplative perspective

I was called to my brothers side on August the 28th. I had ovulated two days earlier. I got my period on Tuesay the 11th two days ago. My PMS goes a day or two into my period (a thing I read is often quite normal.) Today is my first PMS free day since this final ordeal with my brother started. I awoke in emotional pain, as usual, but some kind of twisted pain, a bit intangible is gone.

This month I had an additional problem, not new, but much more intense than usual. I have endometriosis which I believe I’ve mentioned before. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it is endometrium that grows outside the uterus. It acts just as endometrium in the uterus does and grows during the month and then sloughs off during menstruation. Because it has nowhere to go as does the endometrium in the womb, it registers as internal bleeding and creates lesions or masses that emanate with pain. For some the pain is excruciating. My pain is usually manageable, though also debilitating for a day or two. I’m thinking of a kind of surgery that burns off the lesions. I’ve had it before and it’s helped for a few years. The alternative for a woman my age is hysterectomy–something drastic I’m not so sure about as it causes havoc in the endocrine system in ways that for all I know may be worse than what I’m already dealing with with the PMS. Besides I’ve read recently that women who have hysterectomies before the age of 50 have a higher rate of dementia in old age. Not something I’m particularly interested in.

The story here though is that on Tuesday night I was subjected to the worst physical pain I’ve experienced in my life. The endometriosis pain went through the roof. It seems it must have been associated with my grief. I don’t know how else to explain it. But the usual pain reliever I use which minimizes the pain to some extent failed to work. I was in excruciating, unremitting pain for three hours. I struggled and cried and moaned and squirmed. I became exhausted. When I finally became exhausted I lay there and thought of my brother. I thought of how the priest had said that my brothers suffering may have eliminated his need to visit “purgatory,” a concept in Catholocism. A place people go to become purified before going to heaven. (No, our family is no longer Catholic and it’s a long story as to why we had a priest doing our service, but he was an exceedingly nice guy.)

In my pained delirium, both emotional at the loss of my brother and physical as I suffered my endometriosis this idea of purgatory washed over me. I thought, “God is washing me of my sins.” I felt a surge of love and then relief washed over me and while the pain still burned in my gut I was finally free of my suffering. My intellect rebelled–WTF? This is nuts. I don’t believe this crap I thought–but I remained in peace the pain massaging my soul.

Some of you might find this line of thinking masochistic, but when I told a friend the next day of my experience she told me it was not delirium it was spiritual emergence. She sent me a link to a very helpful Buddhist piece of writing by Shinzen Young.

I read the piece and marveled that he used much of the same language I had used to describe the experience to my husband. Saying how I thought of it as a purgatory referenced from my brothers memorial service. I was uncomfortable with the Christianization of my experience. The way my mind interpreted my relief–my mind goes Christian in times of acute spirituality and I’ve never been comfortable with that intellectually. I am repelled by common Christianity and especially evangelism and fundamentalism, but it was quite a relief to find a Buddhist teacher making sense of my experience with another philosophy.

From a piece of writing by Shinzen Young:

Is there something else we can do with pain besides just coping through distraction, denial, wishful thinking and numbing anesthetics? Is there a universal strategy that can be applied to all pains regardless of their type, intensity or the causes that produce them? Is there a psychologically healthy way of making pain meaningful, a simple systematic way to harness its energy in the service of life? If so, this would be good news indeed! We could then effectively “use” the unavoidable discomforts of day-to-day life to foster personal growth. It would be comforting and empowering to know that should you encounter major pain which cannot be relieved by any of the standard methods, you have another option available. Meditation represents such an option.

In order to understand the nature of pain and its relationship to the spiritual path, let’s go back for a moment to the topic of pleasure. In “Meditation and Pleasure,” I make some careful conceptual distinctions. The particular words that I chose to use in making those distinctions are not really important. For you, a different choice of vocabulary may convey the same meaning. What is important is the concepts. I defined satisfaction (or fulfillment) as a particular way of experiencing pleasure. Any given pleasure can either be experienced completely or not. When it is experienced completely, it yields something called satisfaction. Completeness has nothing to do with the intensity, variety or duration of the pleasure. Completeness requires just two things: an unbroken contact with the pleasure and an absence of interference with the pleasure. Absence of interference means that the pleasure is not mixed with grasping, either at the conscious or the subconscious level. Grasping is a kind of tension or viscosity that impedes the natural flow of the pleasure. It’s a kind of tightening around the arising and the passing of the pleasure. To experience pleasure without grasping is to experience it with equanimity, meaning not aloof withdrawal but radical self-permission to feel the pleasure. Pleasure which is not mixed with grasping could be called pure pleasure. Pure pleasure purifies consciousness and permanently raises our base level of appreciation for life. The situation with pain is perfectly parallel to that of pleasure. Any given pain can either be experienced completely or incompletely. When it is experienced completely it is not experienced as suffering, that is to say it does not turn into a problem. Does it hurt? Yes. Does that eclipse the perfection of the moment? No. Complete pain means pure pain, pain which is not mixed with resistance, either at the conscious or subconscious level of neural processing. Resistance is a kind of inner friction that interferes with the natural flow of the pain. Not resisting pain is to have equanimity with the pain, to give yourself radical permission to feel the pain. Pure pain purifies. The “matter” of the pain becomes converted into energy which massages and softens the very substance of your soul.

Let me try to make this process a little more tangible. In the undistracted meditative state, if pain should arise, one can clearly observe the interaction of the pain and ones resistance to it. For example, an uncomfortable sensation may arise in your knee as you’re meditating. At the same time, you observe that, in reaction to the pain you are clenching and tightening other parts of your body, and in your mind a stream of judgments and aversive thoughts erupts. The sensation in your knee is the pain. The tension is your bodily resistance. The judgments are mental resistance. The resistance can be clearly distinguished from the pain itself. As you consciously relax the tensions and drop the judgments, you notice that even though the pain level is the same, it seems to be less of a problem. Later when the resistance returns you notice that the pain has become a problem again. So once again you drop the judgments and clenching, and the sense of suffering immediately diminishes, albeit perhaps only slightly. But you are making your first steps in learning how to experience pain skillfully. Subsequent steps involve letting go of progressively more subtle mind and body resistance until the deep subconscious resistance begins to break up. At that point the pain starts to flow. It feels like you’re being massaged and nurtured. You experience the pain as working on your consciousness at a very deep level: it is as though your consciousness were dough and the pain wave is kneading that dough, working out the lumps and the kinks, transforming it at a molecular level into something soft, pliant and malleable. With continued practice this skill becomes internalized and integrated into your being. When discomforts are encountered in the course of daily life, you automatically go into equanimity.

The trick now is to carry over this lesson to emotional pain too. I believe it is possible. It is the art of mindfulness taught in Vipassana meditation. The Christian mystics I’m sure understand it too as do those of other faiths and spirituality. I believe I was given a little insight into the nature of pain, physical and emotional the other day–a gift from my brother who suffered so much. It is a human birthright to experience pain in such fashion.

I may still have surgery as I don’t expect to cultivate control of such a gift quickly or easily, but I do intend to start meditating and I’m beginning Qi Gong classes on Tuesday. Qi Gong is a movement meditation, similar to Tai Chi. I’ve now heard many people speak of deep experiences developed in practicing it. I’m looking forward to a bit of structure in my life and the prospect of moving again is very appealing–I miss working out terribly and this is gentle movement I should be able to handle even in my chronic fatigue state. (I had made these plans before I had the above experience–the sitting meditation is something I’ve done before and know I must resume.)

7 thoughts on “Pain and suffering: a contemplative perspective

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  1. Thank you everyone.
    Stephanie, your vulnerability in sharing that pain meant a lot to me.

    Most of the time I am so tired lately I just don’t write too much in response to people–but I’m grateful for your input (ama and Jayme–that means you too!) Very grateful.

  2. i agree with stephany (and thank you, stephany, for sharing your pain), what you write here is beautiful and it rings as deeply true to me. i am a catholic and i find, as you yourself say, that christian mysticism is not dissimilar at all to what shinzen young describes. fighting pain (resisting to pain) only adds to the pain. pain accepted is much easier and sweeter to deal with. now, i’ve got to say that this pain acceptance stuff is pretty damn difficult. i mean, when you are in pain it’s extremely hard to say, “yes, i accept this, i let it flow,” and even though i try i often fail at it. the qi gong will help, i’m sure, and i hope you will share what you learn there with us.

    clearly, there is a contemplative dimension to you (see title of your blog!) which the tremendous pain has tapped into and revivified. it’s a beautiful gift and i’m happy you have this to help you along.

    i’d also like to add that it is SO NICE that the pain of your brother’s death and the physical pain you were experiencing joined forces to make you feel that special relief. and it is SO NICE that what the priest said helped in this. regardless of the specific christian imagery you came up with, you were able to put psychic pain and physical pain together, and that happened through the kindness of another, and another (the priest, your brother). it’s all connected, and we are all connected. enlightenment often comes through the love of others. sometimes people we least imagine will bring solace to us. just think of it: a little priest of a religion you don’t respect at your brother’s funeral! talk about silver lining!

    thank you.

  3. This is really good Gianna. It’s what I don’t generally talk about, but it is all similar to the pain of what I’ve been going through in the last 2 years. When I gut-sob, I often feel it was like a cleansing and often connected to a spirtual experience, hard to put into words. I sometimes think to myself, that it felt like I vomited up emotional agony if that makes sense. During the last several months, as you know I lost my dear friend as well as the events in my daughter’s life. Extreme emotional turmoil, and many times feeling a spiritual awakening of sort as a result of the rawest times of pure agony, and they too were associated with extreme menstrual pain and basic hemorrage[sp] each time, unable to walk and blood pouring, literally out. This is the only place I would write that, because you eloquently and I think bravely, speak about that, I generally don’t talk about it. Twice I had to be escorted by nurses as I was doubled over in pain [non-typical for me] and bleeding profusely[not typical either] at 2 inpatient hospitals where my daughter resided. Each time was when it was in battle to get her out and hospitals blocked it with their attorneys that I couldnt afford. I hope this wasn’t inappropriate to write here, but wanted to say, that though our experiences are not exact, they carry some of the same pain, and I too have felt this connection you speak of, and have found solace in the studies you talk of and also do recommend Tai Chi etc. for that takes you into the next level of healing that pain, by mentally taking you somewhere else, while moving your body, which is a good combination for healing. Thanks for sharing this, I knew you were going to be able to move the grief forward. Take care, Stephany

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