Ride the Waves of Pleasure and Pain

Last week I tweaked my hip and back during a workout at the gym and was experiencing some ongoing discomfort for a few days. While I was focusing on the pain, I remembered an important teaching that I learned years ago and wanted to share it with you. It has been extremely helpful through a number of years of difficulty with my back but also through times of emotional pain.

The teaching came during a workshop by Vidyamala Burch that I attended at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society many years ago.  She is a renowned teacher from the UK who specializes in teaching mindfulness to people with chronic pain. Her impetus for creating this career path was due to her own journey with physical pain and severe mobility limitation after having a spinal injury over 40 years ago.  As she puts it, she has learned to work with her mind so that she can “have a good life, though my body can be challenging.” Her presence, message, and teachings have stuck with me and I use it a lot.

You’ve probably noticed that when something happens to you that causes pain—physical or emotional—you tend to dwell on it and it calls for your attention. For instance, I kept noticing the pain in my hip last week and there was a work problem that was worrying me that kept coming up in my mind (ruminative thinking!). The negative things in life are like that—always calling our attention. It’s the way our brains are organized.

Using Vidyamala’s method, the first step is to just be aware in a more general sense of what is happening in the present moment. Be aware of the breath and scan the body from head to toe, paying detailed attention to all of the sensations in the body, not just the ones that are painful.  In other words, practice mindfulness of the present moment – aware of all sensations with curiosity and kindness and without judgment.

The second step is to “move toward the unpleasant.” While this might sound counter-intuitive, it is actually an important part of the practice. Open to the unpleasant aspect of the present-moment experience so that you engage with it in a non-reactive, non-aversive way. At least half of our suffering is not from the pain itself, but our resistance and aversion to the unpleasantness that is already there. So, by acknowledging the truth of the moment, just as it is, we reduce suffering by half. And, when we face the unpleasant directly we discover many qualities of the experience. For instance, both physical and emotional pain ebb and flow. They aren’t solid and they aren’t “me.”

Step three directs you to seek out the pleasant that is also happening at the same time. I LOVE this part. When we are locked down on the negative it is often hard to be aware that there is pleasant happening, too. In my situation, I noticed that there were many parts of my body that didn’t hurt and there were many positive, enjoyable things going on in my life besides the problem I was focused on. Really allow yourself to enjoy the pleasant sensations in the moment.

Now you’re ready for the bigger picture. Step four suggests that you broaden your awareness to include both the unpleasant and the pleasant with equanimity. Try not pushing away the unpleasant or clinging to the pleasant, but experiencing them directly as passing momentary experiences. Notice what happens when you are riding the waves of all the experiences that are happening, not just the ones you’d prefer.

Having gained some perspective, step five is to choose to respond rather than react. From here, how would you like to proceed? Regardless of passing circumstances, what are the best choices you can make? Each moment presents a new opportunity to fully meet the conditions of your life without being pushed and pulled by them.

It is true that we will face suffering in our lifetimes—almost every day in small and sometimes quite large ways. How we choose to feel, experience, and respond is truly up to us when we use the tool of mindfulness and these steps of mindful attention to all that’s happening.

In addition, it is true that what you focus on gets strengthened. If you focus on the pain in your body you are actually strengthening the neural pathways to pain in your brain. Knowing this, I am very careful to direct my attention to other parts of my body that don’t hurt and then to my entire body so that this process does not occur. When you focus on being frustrated, impatient, angry, worried, and sad you will increase the likelihood that these feelings will continue. Realize it is just part of your experience, along with happiness, joy, peace, contentment, and ease.

Take in the whole—not part—of what it means to be human. You can be with the pleasant and painful and ride the waves of life through it all. I’ll see you on the on the surfboard!