Pain: A Very Special Form of Resistance (or, How To Shrink Your Life)

Luciano GuimaraesBonsai are fabulous, aren’t they! Those twisted, dwarfed trees, trained through the process of cutting the tap root and wrapping limbs in heavy wire, seem still to capture the beauty of natural process, trees compensating for wind and soil to continue living. When I was younger, I wanted to cultivate bonsai; I think, as the daughter of a psychiatrist, I saw in them a reflection of what I saw in people, in myself: stunted at the root, twisted by outside forces, yet profoundly beautiful for all of that.
Oh, youth! At some point, I began to realize the downside of those lovely contortions within me, and others. That there is a distinct difference between being shaped by life, and being twisted into a dysfunctional pretzel. As bizarre as it sounds to me, my body and spirit became comfortable with being uncomfortable, and when I decided to exercise free will in becoming healthier, THAT was when the pain started.
Oh, the pain! The highly unpleasant, even overwhelming effort it takes to mindfully address the impact of our family and societal influences, and grow instead out of our inner life force, can be daunting. It is natural to resist, to recoil.
People seek therapy ostensibly to address pain, yet truly for the most part simply to be rid of it. No, it’s o.k. It’s natural. If I could simply wave a wand over your head and thereby eradicate the rawness of every wound you’ve suffered and could not heal, I would. When I combined bodywork with psychotherapy, I think many of the clients who got on the table were hoping, as one client put it, to just “get the pain out of here!” As if my hands were energetic suction cups. Sadly, many of my clients have contorted their lives to avoid the unavoidable. Their jobs are beneath their capabilities because they are afraid to fail, or they live only for their jobs because they feel lost in exploring the world outside. They cling to relationships because they hate being abandoned, or are alone because they fear heartbreak.
Paradoxically, then, pain and the fear of it rule their lives.
Pain reveals. Stephen Gaskin, cofounder years ago of a commune in Tennessee called The Farm, once said the degree to which one is enlightened is revealed by what one says when one hits one’s thumb with a hammer. Metaphorically, even literally, that hammer threatens all of us: divorce, termination of employment, violence, illness, and a host of other disruptions confront our lives. We wrestle with each other, contrary needs vying for primacy. We crash, at full throttle, into the walls of our limitations and those of others. Death, metaphorical or literal, sooner or later leaves an impact on our lives Even in the best of cases, you will fight with your beloved, need to discipline the children you adore as they test their emerging wills, confront employment agreements no longer agreeable. When things are fine, we can convince ourselves that we are, too. In pain, we find a deeper truth. Pain is unavoidable. In yoga class, although some are young and lithe, most of us are either aging, poundage-impaired, or feeling the effects of our interesting pasts. We breathe into the slowly outstretched arms, the quivering leg upon which we hold a shaky balance (or not hold, as the case may be). Our bodies are riddled with the remnants of our memories. Occasionally, emotions arise and surprise us. This, I think, is the beauty of yoga, that regardless of presumed peace of mind, that the strain of the pose reveals what’s REALLY going on inside. It is so temping to stop the pose, to rest before the minute is up. For most of us, this one hour marks the only time in the day that we cannot be distracted. Our bodies demand our complete attention. In finding the fine edge between effort and overwhelm that we are invited to breath into our discomfort with compassion for our selves – and so befriend the discomfort that will result not only in greater strength and flexibility, but a calmer mind. I recall once being in a very stressful pose, Warrior 1, and noted suddenly in the midst of strain and grunt that I actually felt…joy?! Total surprise. If you practice, notice where you mind goes – does it move to judgment? Does a strange pervasive anger flash, resulting in a wave of heat, or does sadness, heart-ache (literally), even self-pity arise? Or do you find a sudden bliss arising? Observe how resistance shows you become impatient, start thinking of “more important” things to do, hurry through the difficult poses. Allow your curiosity to be your friend in these observations.
Learning to manage, and not avoid, pain is a crucial life skill. In doing healing work, our bodies learn both to tolerate discomfort better, and to rebound more quickly from the pain that life continues, at times, to bring. And it is in the tolerance to pain, the ability to move to the edge of it, and with breath and presence embrace it, that we learn once again (back to the bonsai metaphor), to extend our own taproots deeply into the earth and to straighten our limbs (oh, but not completely, for it is in the marks left from life that we count our experiences, and what we have learned). In learning to embrace that pain which will inevitably come anyway, or is here now, and to develop strategies that allow you to have confidence in moving through pain and out the other end, pain then becomes a side-note to a life defined by other more revitalizing pursuits: creativity, passion, intimacy, purpose, generosity.
Once we learn how to deal effectively with pain, it becomes a nonissue. This is a core paradox of healing. All the ways in which we once lived our lives in avoidance of relationship, of loneliness, of failure—the wires we self-imposed to restrict our own vitality—are gone, and all that is left is opportunity and adventure. Even our perception changes, as we no longer, in looking around, note first or primarily the potential danger – instead, we note that which is pleasing, interesting, beautiful. We physically feel less guarded, more present, even as we feel more confident in our ability to manage the risks that occasionally, inevitably, arise.
A therapist once told me, “pain is pain…and it’s JUST pain.” I hated him for that. Hate me if you will—but I understand his point. So go to a yoga class, contort yourself to the point of resistance…and start to master discomfort.