Pain as my teacher

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. So we must find a way of dealing.

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.

HOMEWORK: If you practice yoga or some other form of challenging exercise, 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.

This is the second of a three-part series on “Resistance to Pain.” Next week: “Mastering Pain: What’s Next?”

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