The Zen of Dealing with Chronic Pain

words & photo by Brian Thompson.

When dealing with a chronic pain or a longterm physical ailment, it’s important to be aware of the two separate parts it consists of; the physical pain, and our resulting mental anguish from it.

Much of the suffering we identify with and experience through our pain is entirely within our heads. It comes from the stories we build up around the pain and that we become consumed by. Much of our suffering is within our attempts to resist our pain.

When we don’t accept our pain, we suffer.

To lessen our suffering, we must detach ourself from the stories of identity we’ve personalized our pain with. You are not your pain itself, you simply have a pain — there is a big difference between the two. Your pain does not make you any less of a person.

We make things worse when we label ourselves as something less than what we are because of the pain we’re trying to cope with and manage.

Every human experience is shaped by how we perceive it, by how we react to it, and whether or not we continue to think about it and dwell on it. Once we personalize an experience, we attach ourself to it. It becomes sticky, and the experience lingers. It feels as if it’s still happening, even though the moment has long ago passed by.

“The Buddha compares being afflicted with bodily pain to being struck by an arrow. Adding mental pain (aversion, displeasure, depression, or self-pity) to physical pain is like being hit by a second arrow. The wise person stops with the first arrow.”

—Bhikku Bodhi

If I get slapped in the face, the physical pain is temporary. It will only last for a few moments. Any suffering I continue to feel after the face will be entirely within my mind. It’s my emotional response to the pain that makes me suffer, not the pain itself. It's the stories I tell myself and dwell on that are responsible for dragging the experience on and on, and that makes the sting feel as if it were still fresh.

The good news is that we can change how we experience our pain. We can lessen our suffering from it through a practice of mindfulness. When we are mindful of the way we think about our pain, we can detach ourselves from the emotional baggage we saddle onto it.

Allow your mind to observe your pain, without attaching any stories of personalization onto it.

“Why did this have to happen to me? Life isn’t fair. What did I do to deserve this? I’ll never be able to work again. My life is ruined. I just can’t handle the pain any more. What am I going to do? It hurts so much. It makes me so grumpy, so sad. I’m useless. No one will ever understand. I can’t do anything ever again. I’m so angry I just want to punch the wall!", we say to ourselves.

Can you see how our mind makes things worse for us? The continual negative repetition kills our spirit and sucks the life out from us.

Instead, we must witness our pain without judging it, without personalizing it, without identifying our self with it, and without reminding ourself how much it hurts every few minutes. Try to only notice the physical sensation. Watch for any thoughts you might attribute to the pain, and let them drift by without grasping onto them with your continued attention.

This is the practice of mindfulness we need to engage in. This is how we become skilled at not clinging to any of the negative thoughts that arise from the experience of our physical pain.

Let the physical sensation exist all on its own, independent of any thoughts your mind wants to attach to it.

Your pain is a teacher. Resist it no more. Allow it to be the very catalyst that deepens your personal insight and wisdom. Let your pain become the focus of your meditation.

Perhaps there are contributing causes or unhealthy behaviours that might be making your pain worse, but that you’ve been resisting due to your negative and depressed state. Allow this insight to make positive changes in your life, which can then improve your overall wellbeing. Perhaps there are specific exercises you’ve been ignoring, or diet changes you’ve faltered on, which you know will help ease your physical pain. Perhaps there are better ways to spend your time, that will take you mind away from dwelling on your circumstance.

This type of personal inquiry and self-awareness allows us to awaken from the stupor that our pain has lulled us into. It shakes us out of our complacency. It inspires us to move beyond the pain, and to start living once again, in spite of it. For some, it can be the very thing that gets us up and out of our sickbeds.

We are not limited by our bodies, no matter what we tell ourselves. Our body is not who we are. Who we are is the Awareness that sits within the body, that uses the body as a vehicle to experience the world through. Any pain we experience is merely a device to expand our consciousness with, we just haven’t learned how to properly use it yet.

Accept your pain and use it to nurture your spiritual self — use it as a tool to foster your growing empathy, compassion, patience, courage, optimism, and loving-kindness with. There are infinite blessings to be found.

Use your pain as a force of positive and progressive change. Let it be the very thing that makes you rise above the impermanence of your suffering.