Pain and Growth

Pain hurts.  Wow, that’s obvious, huh?  I know I’ve posted about this topic before in terms of physical pain and the value of  yoga and veganism in managing pain, but lately I’ve been pondering the ways in which mental/emotional pain can bring something to our lives that may be positive – even though it doesn’t feel that way at the time.

The last few weeks have been a psychological challenge in my life.  I’m having major home remodeling done – always a stressful thing.  I’m participating in a job search (as a candidate).  And, a member of my immediate family is going through an extremely difficult time with his health.  These things, particularly the last, have combined to give me a significant amount of stress and emotional pain.

Of course, the emotional doesn’t just stay emotional.  It spreads throughout our bodies.  Over the last week, when I couldn’t get to yoga for several days due to the issues going on, and they continued to increase in presence, I could literally feel my muscles tightening and began to experience daily stress headaches.  On a trip to the doctor yesterday, I found that my blood pressure during that visit (typically so low that they check to see if I’m still alive) was 160/95.  That’s extremely high for me.

Kahlil Gibran, and other philosophers and yogis, tell us that pain can be a learning moment that increases our capacity for understanding and for joy.  But, this isn’t easy to embrace when you are in the moment of the pain.  Gibran says:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Thinking about this, Gibran is telling us that only through discomfort can we grow, only through experiencing the moments of pain can we truly feel the moments of joy.  If we can learn to become more comfortable with our pain and discomfort, not rejecting it, but feeling it and examining its roots and its depths, we can learn to be serene even in the moment of pain, knowing that it is a season of our lives. I know this and can do this with physical pain (it’s how I got through natural childbirth several times) by breathing into and relaxing into the pain instead of pulling away.  But, now I have to learn how to stop rejecting my mental/emotional pain – to ease in instead of pulling away.

But, that’s certainly easier to say than to do.  When I feel pain, I want to shove it away.  I want to find a way to hide it, to drown it, to punish it.  I see others around me doing the same.  Some drown their pain with alcohol (not that having a drink is a bad thing – but drinking to stop your feelings doesn’t allow you to benefit from them), some with drugs, some with food, some with sex, some with sleep, and so on.  For me, it’s often denial of the self.  If I can focus completely on the needs/actions of others (whether that is doing things for them, congratulating their successes, or becoming angry over their failings), my own pain becomes dampened.  Behaviorally, this typically results in eating less, exercising less, sleeping less, and working more.  I know it’s not good, but I have a hard time preventing this pattern of behavior, because it allows me to flee the pain (somewhat). This reaction makes me a pretty good worker, but it doesn’t do  anything for me (or anyone around me) long term.

Not surprisingly, in this recent period of psychological distress, I find myself returning to these patterns of behavior, rather quickly and easily, like sliding into a pool of water.  But, because I have been doing so much yoga, reading about the self, working on my eating patterns, etc.,  I’m a little more mindful that I’m heading in this direction.  So, I gave myself a few days and just let it go, but now, I think, I’m ready to try to enact a more positive approach to pain and stress – maybe.

Today, that meant going to a yoga class and spending that time letting the thoughts of sadness and anxiety float through my head during poses, without scolding myself for having them, nor ruminating on them.  The difficulty of doing poses and focusing on the breath is extremely helpful for me in doing this.  It also meant putting food in my mouth this morning – regardless of desire or distaste – just eating the healthy items that provide my body fuel without any attachment to the process.

I don’t know how well I’ll be able to really enact this philosophy of pain, but I know I should try and that I will benefit in the long run from whatever steps (even baby steps) I can make in this direction.  What do you do in  your life to help yourself see stress and distress as normal parts of your growth as a person instead of fighting them as unnatural and to be avoided?

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