The Perception of Pain
“It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.” ~Pema Chodron
How many hours have you spent living in pain? Oh, I’m not talking about physical conditions here; broken bones and painful illnesses and things that can be relieved by popping a few pills or taking a hot bath. No, the pain I’m talking about is the pain that twists your heart into a knot; the kind that pierces you insides; the kind of pain comes from reliving painful memories and circumstances over and over again; playing them out on the movie screen of your mind in all of their gory detail.
Perhaps they are old memories; things that happened long ago and far away; things that impacted your childhood or things that you have simply not been able to let go of. Or maybe the painful event happened just this morning; someone saying something unintentionally hurtful as they walked out the door, and you can’t keep your mind from going over and over what was said.
But not only does the scene replay over and over again in your mind, you then find yourself going over all of the possible interpretations and connotations of what was said. Why did they say that? Was it something you said or did that prompted them to react that way? Could you have done something to prevent it? What did they mean by it?
Before you know it, minutes, sometimes hours have passed and you have absolutely nothing to show for all of your worry but a headache and a tear stained face. You haven’t had breakfast. You can’t focus on your work, you’ve called or texted half a dozen different people asking for their input on the situation; their interpretation of what happened, and when they can’t give you a satisfactory answer you find yourself snapping at everyone around you, and all because you can’t let go.
Ah, that wasn’t what you expected me to say, is it? I’m sorry; did you think I was going to say that the pain you have been experiencing is all because of the event that happened so long ago; all because of the hurtful things that the person said as they were leaving? Did you think I was going to tell you what a brave soul you are for having to relive that horrible time; to re-experience those negatively associated comments and those situations that scared you for life? Well, I’m not, because it’s not true.
You are not feeling bad because of what the person said – or because of whatever it is that happened to you in the past. You are not a brave soul for being able to relive your memories stoically (or even tearfully). What you are is being selfish, and your selfishness is hurting you.
Does that sound rather harsh? Perhaps it does. But that does not make it any less true.
As humans, we cling to our pain – it’s what we do, and there certainly seems to be enough of it around. We pin our hopes and expectations onto people and circumstances; onto events and outcomes, and when they fail to live up to our expectations, we feel hurt and rejected. We experience pain.
But we can’t simply let it go at that. We can’t simply feel the pain and then move on. Oh no, we have to cling to our pain. It wasn’t simply enough to experience it. We have to own it. We have to keep it close, locked away in a pretty carved box; one that we can take out and rummage through whenever we feel the urge to trust again; whenever we feel the urge to live.
We cling to the memories of those things that hurt us because we have an instinctive urge to avoid pain; because we don’t want to be hurt that way ever again, and reliving that painful event or circumstance; playing that memory over and over again in our minds is our way of protecting ourselves against its ever repeating. The thing is, in making ourselves repeat these memories over and over again, we are hurting ourselves far worse than the event ever could – or did. Instead of experiencing the pain once; learning from it and moving on, we force ourselves to experience it time and time again.
It is far better to let go of all of the old hurts and painful memories. Will this leave you open to being hurt again? Of course it will. But if you want to really live and not hide yourself away, it is a chance you are going to have to take.
When you find yourself recalling a painful experience, instead of letting it play out in your head, stop it in its tracks. Lift it out of your mind complete and whole as you would a flower that you have picked and hold it in front of you; over a pond or river in your imagination. Acknowledge the pain that the memory caused, and then let it go. Drop it into the water. It is gone. The fear and the pain that were attached to it are gone too.
Will this leave you vulnerable to be hurt again? Yes it will. But it will also give you a freedom and lightness of being that will make your spirit soar seeing as that it is no longer weighted down with the fears and expectations that you had given to it for safekeeping.
Besides, if you remember that the pain of experience comes not from the experience itself but rather from what we tell ourselves about the experience then you will find the way that you view your experiences changing radically, all it takes is a shift in perception, and the ability to let go.