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Pain and its Gifts
We all have pain. And in life there is no way to avoid that everything you love will one day be gone. This is a thought that is not easy to hear and often creates deep sadness and fear. But what is it that we fear? What is it that we so desperately want to avoid?
Pain is a part of life that often gets a bad rap for being nothing more than an unwanted sensation or feeling, or physical burden. But if you take a second to look closer at your pain, you will see that it is not really your pain that burdens you, but it is the desire and helpless inability to remove the pain that leaves you feeling powerless. So what then? What would happen if we stopped trying to get rid of pain and instead sought to look at it and feel it and know it more intimately. Might we come to find our love of life and our deepest desires and values at the center of our pain. Isn’t pain merely the longing for that which we love and yearn for.
I often think about those individuals who I most admire, and they all have one thing in common: they all were willing to move through pain to find their purpose in life. Try it. Think of anyone you admire and ask yourself, did they have to go through pain to become who they are. Martin Luther King, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, your favorite actor, or a decorated soldier, or loving mother. All of the successes they have achieved were earned through the pain, and heartache, and failure and loss. The musician must endure long hours practicing while desiring perhaps to take a break or spend time with friends at the beach. The professional athlete trained every day, pushing herself while others enjoyed the rest and relaxation of the early mornings and late evenings. The successful business man had to spend late hours trudging through the agitation of learning how to do difficult tasks that are never taught in school yet are required to build a company from the ground up. He works till he gets it right. She pushes until it is done. And they all make room for pain so that they can have that which they value: love, hope, faith, courage , honor, accomplishment, meaning.
Look at your life and ask your self this question: what type of pain do I avoid the most? What did you come up with? Some of us avoid the pain of rejection, or embarrassment, or sadness. Once you have identified your main avoidance then ask yourself, what else besides the pain did I ultimately avoid. Said another way, what do you have to let go of when you avoid pain? When he avoids rejection, he also avoids emotional intimacy. When she avoids embarrassment, she also must avoid accomplishment and overcoming.
Pain is hard and it is often the last thing we want to feel, but remember, one cannot remove pain without removing growth. Move toward your life and open your mind to the possibility that within your pain lies your deepest greatness and most important journey. the journey of YOU.
My Mind Doesn’t Matter
Several weeks ago, after returning from a trip to Costa Rica, I awoke around 3:00 am with severe abdominal pain. My body was hurting, and I noticed that the first one to notice was Mr. Mind. I noticed that my mind started to attend itself to the possible problems by asking the following: “do I have gas, a stomach virus, food poisoning, a kidney stone?” I didn’t have an answer, so I breathed and focused on rest fell back into a semi-restful light sleep for 3 more hours. By 8:00 am the next morning, I was in an urgent care clinic with throbbing pain in my gut and a 101 degree fever.
The doctor explained to me that I had a small rupture in my colon, also known as diverticulitis. No more than a second later I asked, “Is it serious?” “Yes,” she replied, “very, you need to be admitted into the hospital. We already got you a room. Do you need to call anyone?”
Well, without another second to even catch my breath, my mind punched in again and got to work to solve the problem. First possibility, “minor, nothing, a tear that will heal quickly,” or a “serious tear that will require surgery,” or worse yet, “a highly dangerous tissue rupture and bacterial infection in my body cavity”, a bacteria that will possibly move to my brain, sepsis! maybe life threatening!”
Before I knew what had happened, I was taken over with fear. Ten seconds prior to my minor existential meltdown, I was poised and prepared for all manner of news. So, what the hell just happened?! How did I go from stoic to a ruminating anxious hypochondriac? How did I lose touch with rationality so quickly and without even the slightest consideration for evidence or reasoning?
The answer can be found in our cognitive origin. Around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, homo sapien sapien worried about everything under the following categories: (1) protecting against external threats to life, (2) acquiring food and resources, (3) procreating and ensuring the survival of the next generation, and (4) making and keeping friends and allies.
The main threats to life often included massive predatory animals including saber-tooth tigers, giant hyenas, bears and other humans.
Prehistoric humans would live into their early 30’s and die from any of the million possibilities including rotten teeth, falling rocks, and being speared by an opposing enemy. This period of extreme survival demanded a courageous spirit and pessimistic mind.
Sometimes worry follows a triggering of the sympathetic nervous system, the work horse for a fight or flight response: Pupils dilate (to see better), heart rate increases (to provide more oxygen to the muscles), blood pressures rises, temperature elevates. As the body accelerates, the mind follows suit and begins to also accelerate and worry about the threat(s) and potential solution(s).
Worry was also the result of surviving internal threats. Illness and disease were common maladies and survival favored those individuals who more cautious about what they put into their bodies. Imagine for example that you and two of your cave man friends come upon an English Yew, a berry indigenous to Europe that suppresses the cardiac system and for which there is no antidote.
You are hungry and because of the scarcity and demand for food, and because the berry looks tasty, you have a difficult choice to make? One of your friends, in his voracious effort to acquire food and stave off hunger, eats the berry. The other more worrisome friend thinks you should wait and learn more about the berry. Who do you think has the best chance of surviving the longest?
Our minds have evolved to be pessimistic through the process of natural selection. Because they stood clear of the dark caves, and the unknown berries, and walked hyper alert to the predators looming all around them, our most fatalistic ancestors avoided death better than their optimistic counterparts. Nowadays we don’t regularly worry about predatory animals and volcanoes. Instead we worry about money, and political issues and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Will they make it? We can only hope. We worry about what other people think of us or if we are thin enough or attractive.
I worry too about many trivial and serious issues. But as I laid staring at the IV pumping my body with salt and saline, I pondered my gastrointestinal dilemma, and I had a moment of mindful awareness. I noticed that my mind was grappling with the follow statements: “I have a problem, my colon has ruptured and there are bacteria into my body cavity, and I could die. I need to get rid of this problem!” My mind, like my prehistoric predecessors’, was acting on it’s base pessimistic survival instincts and it was staring with curious fright at the possible perils that lay before me, or better yet, inside me.
After several minutes of shifty anxiety, and excessive attempts to convince myself that I was going to be ok, I was reminded from my training and experience in Acceptance Commitment Therapy ACT that “I am not my mind.” I remembered that my mind is an organ designed to help me survive and that it is not always right and almost always inaccurate. I remembered that my mind would prefer that I assume the worst and retreat into safety than engage my life and move toward growth. With some quiet reflection and a few smiles and laughs with my wife, I began to disengage from the negative thoughts and in their place, I asked one question, “What kind of man do I want to be right now?” The answer: humble, appreciative and loving.
I stared at my beautiful wife and I thought of my children. I smiled at the nurse and I sincerely thanked the doctor and staff for their professionalism and time. I became aware of my parents and brothers and friends and remembered that I was less interested in avoiding my death and more in illuminating my life. I called my mother and brothers and friends to let them know that I was alright. I told my wife that I loved her and asked her to hug my children for me when she got home. I noticed that my minds concern was actually an assertion for my love of life. My mind was afraid to lose that which I love so much. I remembered that I am a very grateful man.
I have a colonoscopy in a few weeks and I am looking forward to it, like I’m looking forward to eating dirt out of an expired carton of milk. My mind will likely have lots of questions about the outcome of that colonoscopy. I know as my life continues, my mind will not care about this blog post and about my values. Instead, when the s*&$ hits the fan, my mind will ask which way to the exit, and I am going to try to remember that “I am not my mind.” I am going to ask myself that simple question again, “What kind of man do I want to be right now?”
Till next time
According to the father of cognitive psychology, Aaron Beck, Ph.D., when examining our thoughts, one common way to understand what is increasing our anxiety or depression is to look at three important areas and they include the following:
(1) Self: Our view of ourselves can give us insight into our self-esteem, identity, and self-image. Self-esteem is directly related to depressive symptoms and understanding the way we view our selves can can help us develop a clear picture of which self-directed thoughts we need to better manage to improve our self-esteem and self-worth
(2) World: Our view of the world can impact our anxiety and depression. If a person sees the world as dangerous and broken, he of she may experience increased levels of anxiety and depression. If a person sees the world as an endless source of adventures they may feel excited and curious. Take a close look at your thoughts about the world to see if you are inadvertently increasing distress.
(3) Future: Our view of the future impacts our anxiety and even our anticipatory grief for difficulties ahead. It is important to stay in the present moment and to learn to change your future oriented fears into more positive and healthy thoughts.
Try managing your thoughts by breaking them down into these three categories. When your thoughts are catastrophic or just excessively negative, try repairing the thoughts by coming up healthier, more positive ones.
“To thine own self be true”
There are many interpretations of Shakespeare’s expressions, and I am certainly no expert in Late Middle Age literature, but to me, Shakespeare was trying to emphasize the importance of the authentic life. Polonius uttered this timeless reminder of the virtue of authenticity to the audience in the third scene of the first act of Hamlet. Several hundred years earlier, during the age of chivalry, pain and honor were often intertwined. But during the time of Hamlet and nearer the 16th century, humanism and honesty were rare virtues. The 16th century was a period of ghosts and melancholy, a time when to tell the truth could mean heresy and certain death. It seemed Shakespeare was effortfully pushing away the conventional thinking of the time, moving past our darkest age, and into the next more authentic stage, the Enlightenment.
Websters dictionary defines authenticity in the following way:
In this age of social media and self-preserving conduct, how does one know that he or she is being honest about who they are? And even if they know, why is it so hard to act in accordance with our values.
Heidegger believed that authenticity comes from our effort toward “avoiding the tendency to move toward conventional thinking and behavior.” Is this authenticity?
The political historian and journalist Theodore White said, “To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform. Is this authenticity?
The French Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre saw authenticity as choosing in a way that reveals the existence of the essence of self-determination and self-realization. He felt that authenticity and individuality have to be earned, not learned.
In this age of quick 140 character utterances and well-sculpted home pages, of fingertip fast purchasing, and texting through traffic, and divorcee home improvement experts and house-flippers, how can we live up to the expectations of the well-uniformed, and trust the mass paramedia and uncorrectable politically corrected? How can we be authentic when all our leaders and heroes are lying to us all, all the time?
Well, lets simplify things a bit. Do you know what is right and honest for you at any given moment in time, and can you move toward that rightness without the requirement to remove discomfort? Authenticity means allowing oneself to endure the struggles and hurt that come from honesty and truth.
Authenticity means not retreating into safety and instead standing in growth and truth. It is about raising your intention above your psychological and emotional requirements.
Make no mistake, it is not easy to be authentic. In fact, it will often mean enduring more discomfort at first. And isn’t that the very reason we avoid authentic behavior? Isn’t it that we are trying to avoid some undesirable outcome? Take for example the choice to avoid telling an inconsistent and unreliable friend that they are frustrating you with their constant lateness and cancellations. We avoid the assertion because we don’t want to risk rejection or confrontation, because confrontation is tough and often unpredictable. But what happens when we continue to remove this important disclosure from the relationship? The answer: nothing. Our fickle friend continues to cancel last minute and show up late for dinner and we continue to feel frustrated. But it doesn’t end there, because when we deny our true needs and authentic self, we privately lose face with ourselves.
The truth is that we are the only audience to the private moments and thoughts of our life. We sit back and watch the lead character in the play called “LIFE” acting in ways that are inconsistent, dishonest, and disengenious. And the audience (YOU) are disappointed. We can’t help but feel let down and even regretful when we betray our values. If this play continued on this way, disappointment would be replaced with self-doubt, self-doubt replaced with poor self-confidence, and poor self-confidence with loss of vitality. And a life without vitality is timid and idle.
So instead, be authentic and take the loss and pain that come from the truth of your life. Tell your friend that you don’t appreciate his lateness and allow the truth to mold the relationship toward your values, toward you. Tell others what you feel, truly, not because this elephant or that donkey told you to, but because it is how you feel. Give yourself the freedom to change your mind and adjust your collar. Tell it like it is and let your life illuminate to the fullest.
Bob Marley said that “out of da darkness der muss come aaouut da lighht.” Light, after all, comes from heat. And where does heat come from if not pressure and friction? Sometimes we have to experience distress to get to the preferred outcome. Growth is almost always achieved through pain and discord. There is only one circumstance in which pain does not produce growth. When pain and distress are the subsequent outcome to avoiding pain itself, we have not grown. To the contrary, we have compressed and stagnated. Avoidance of discomfort when the cost is a value we have for life, the result is “shrinkage” (well placed obligatory Seinfeld reference). Think about it. Think about the last time you avoided discomfort and it cost you a value. It turned you toward misdirection. How did you reconcile that 180? How did you face yourself? What was required to do so? Alcohol? Lies? Deception? Then what? Where from there? And if pain is the consequence of trying to remove pain then you just proved that the infinite regress can be infinitely painful, repeatedly and without any reward for your infinite effort. Instead pursue your truest importance and make room for the pain that comes from doing so. Think of working out a muscle, doesn’t it hurt to grow. Or the growth that comes from learning a new idea or area of study. Studying is hard! And often feels irritating, but there is no other way! I had to be irritated to finish grad school. If I avoided irritation, I would still be buying $1.50 jello bowls at the cafeteria waiting for my 3 hour class followed by 1 hour lab at 8:30 pm. And I would still be irritated. There is that infinite regress, but now with irritation and cheap jello.
Kahlil Gibran in his acclaimed “The Prophet” said that, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.” Pain and joy walk hand and hand and they share square footage inside of you. Embrace them both as you would your children because they both need your acceptance and attention.
If you are a musician, think of this concept in terms of harmony. Harmony is the agreement of two notes to produce a pleasing effect. In music theory it is understood that, sometimes, it is the two most incongruent notes that create the most beautiful chord. The harmonious sound of truth and mutual understanding that comes from an honest confrontation with a dear, albiet “flighty” friend. The concert that comes from acknowledging our faults so that we can forgive others for theirs. And the peace and pride that comes from facing our fears, even if doing so means being afraid. These are the edifying actions of an authentic life.
Authenticity means that we move toward our deepest most honest values and make room for the resulting discomfort. It means that we are not afraid of the true nature of our life. The true essence. In life, pain is unavoidable. So, instead of putting effort toward retreating into safety, put effort toward renewing and expanding growth. Authenticity is the best pillow for your soul.
Till next time
1. Positive emotions: these can include joy, curiousity, awe, excitement, pleasure, and many others. It feels good to wrap yourself up in a warm blanket on a cold night, or to see a child walk for the first time. Positive emotions come from many places and if we want increased happiness, we need to fill our life with positive feelings.
2. Engagement in activities: Life is not always easy and sometimes it is down right painful or depressing. It is important to be able to distract ourselves from time to time so that we may give our minds a break from it all. Activities are the events that draw our attention away from life's problems and challenges. Any activity will do, so long as you enjoy it. Try playing connect four, or take a walk, or work on a puzzle and see how much more happiness fills your life.
3. Relationships: Relationships are the number one happiness makers. Relationships allow us to bloom into ourselves and experience the fullest sense of what it means to be a human. This is because relationships provide a sense of trust, love, security, personal growth, and understanding that cannot be achieved alone. Work on your relationships to increase your overall happiness.
4. Meaning: "Why am I here?" "What is the purpose of my life?" Answers to these questions are what often get us out of bed every day. The morning you come to know why you are here, the more you will be able to get through your challenges and struggles. Meaning allows us to have a sense of values to aspire to. Meaning increases happiness by importing value to our experiences. Search for meaning and you will experience a richer and happier life.
5. Accomplishments: Accomplishments allow us to grow in ourselves. Humans thrive on a sense of completion and progress. Ask yourself everyday-"what can I do today to feel accomplished?" Accomplishments do not always have to be monumental. Sometimes the greatest accomplishments can be small gestures, such as calling a friend, or making good on a promise.
Work on developing the five factors of happiness in your life to increase your own happiness so that you may live a richer and fuller today.
- Cognitive Triad
- Pain and its Gifts
- My Mind Doesn’t Matter
- “To Thine Own Self Be True”: The Pain and Enlightenment of Authenticity