May You Feel Pain
I’m finding a shockingly large percentage of my thoughts and actions are driven by a single, boring bit of programming. You can sum it up in 4 words…
Avoid pain. Pursue pleasure.
This doesn’t just extend to straightforward things – like avoiding hot stoves or enjoying coffee. Nor am I talking about a tendency to avoid conflict by hiding, reading on my phone, or working more. (Using work to avoid problems is great because it’s socially acceptable. You even get extra “gold stars” for working harder.)
This program runs in many sneaky and subtle ways.
Take depression for example. Depression can bring surprising amounts of pleasure. Our mood can feel predictable and familiar. We can act the victim and blame the world for all our problems. And if we play our cards right, we can even extract the sympathy of others.
So-called “positive” traits fall under the rule of this code too. We’re generous because we feel pleasure in doing so. And donating to charity gives us the satisfaction of feeling like “good people.”
And I could go on and on. It’s like a hidden operating system hardwired into our DNA.
None of this is wrong or bad. Truthfully, this “program” is rather useful. It makes sense to avoid painful events like getting burned, cut, or maimed. And pleasure signals what’s beneficial to us (e.g. making us enjoy raspberries rather than a piece of rotten fish). Without this survival instinct, we would all be dead.
This program has a bug in it. It’s heavily biased toward the short-term. And as a result, our obsession with resisting pain often backfires. We end up causing ourselves more suffering.
And that’s why I offer you an unusual blessing today: May you feel pain.
I’m not suggesting you self-inflict harm upon yourself. I’m not hoping you face some extreme trauma. (Fortune provides plenty of that already.) That’s not what this is about. Nor is this some motivational slogan about “no pain, no gain.” This cuts far deeper.
This is about using pain to create true freedom.
In a recent Taekwon-do class, our instructor made an interesting observation…
To generate more power, make your body more uncomfortable
Consider a foundational kick in the art: the sidekick. You start the kick by bringing your knee up toward your chest, or “chambering the kick.” This preps your body so you can launch your foot straight toward your target. Here’s an illustration of what it looks like…
Chambering your kick correctly though means putting your body in an unnatural pose. (You can experience this yourself right now. Stand up. Balance on one leg. And while keeping your upper body straight and upright, try to bring your other knee all the way up to your heart. It’s kind of awkward.) Yet the effect is like coiling a spring. And when you finally release the kick, the pent-up energy explodes outward.
The default tendency is to ease the tension early – either by scrunching your upper body or not raising your knee as high. That feels more pleasant. It’s more comfortable. But you strip your kick of power.
You can see this principle play out in all areas of life.
Instead of harnessing pain or discomfort, we try to escape it. We do everything we can to stay comfortable. And as a result, we undercut our ability to create change in our lives.
Why change if we’re OK with how things are? Why dig deep or question our cherished beliefs? Life is “good enough” right now. We don’t need to add a whole bunch of uncertainty or deal with uncomfortable emotions.
So we tolerate status quo…
We put up with “busywork.” Instead of taking full advantage of this crazy gift of life that we’re so lucky to receive, we spend our days checking off one chore after another.
We put up with less-than-ideal relationships with our partner, kids, friends, and co-workers. We sidestep the difficult, but important conversations. Some of these relationships end up being meaningful regardless. But if we were a little more open – or a little more awake – they could be magical.
We put up with poor health. Yes, intellectually we “know” that adding movement, eating nutritious food, sleeping more, or not eating a 5th bar of chocolate this week1 would benefit us. But if it doesn’t feel like we’re dying right now, why make those sacrifices.
Yet what if we flipped our basic survival instincts? What we amplified the pain in our lives? What if we allowed ourselves to feel its full weight?
Our current way of living would become intolerable. We’d refuse to put up with it. We would do everything in our power to alter our situation – even if it meant facing our hurt head on.
One of my favorite quotes is about Houn Jiyu-Kennett, the first woman sanctioned to teach Soto Zen in the west. A student summed up her teaching style saying: “Not to lighten the load of a disciple, but to make the load so heavy that he or she would put it down."
Increase the load.
Amplify the pain.
Make it so heavy that you finally let it go.
For in all likelihood…
We’re already carrying pain deep inside
And because we’re suppressing that hurt, it bubbles up throughout our lives. Depression. Conflict in relationships. Burnout. And that’s just my list. I’m sure you can think of several examples from your own life.
This leads to the heart of my blessing…
That you finally feel your pain. That you stop fighting (for just a moment) and let it land.
Only then can you hear the message it’s trying to give you. Only then can you process it fully.
What that looks like for you, I can’t say. There is no perfect method. There is no magical prescription. Figuring out how to face our wounds is part of the path. It’s part of becoming whole, alive human beings.
I can, though, at least offer an anecdote from my own experience…
A little while back, I was invited to attend a session of restorative yoga. And while we were lying in our relaxing poses, several of the session leaders walked around giving healing touch with Reiki.
What Reiki is, or how it works, is still a mystery to me. All I know is that when one of the leaders placed her hands on my shoulders…
My walls crumbled.
In that moment, the full weight of all I’d been carrying in crashed down upon me. Months of doubts and struggle with my health. Stress. Loneliness. Fear of never getting better. The flood of pain swept over in a rush. And for the next several minutes, all I could do was lie there and cry.
Yet walking out of that room later that afternoon – for the first time in months – I felt light again.
I felt free.
Nope. This definitely does not refer to me. I have discipline. I stop at the 4th bar. (And no, I did not just pause to count how many chocolate bars I’ve eaten this week to make sure.) ↩︎