How to work with pain

by Catherine Haylock

When we injure ourselves, we experience physical pain. This might prevent us from doing our favourite yoga class or any activity we love. We feel limited and maybe frustrated as a result. We might get angry and feel self-pity, or we are looking for someone to blame, leaving us with a strong emotion. Our mind adds suffering to the pain.

Or there is emotional pain. Pain we don’t want to deal with, we turn away, distract ourselves. We numb ourselves to mask the pain, we spiral into a loop of frustration, anger or depression, questioning everything, so we don’t need to deal with the source of the issue.

As a result, we are adding additional suffering to the pain.

Buddhist’s concept of pain

Buddha uses the parable of the two arrows to explain pain. Anytime we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. Being hit by one arrow is painful, being hit by a second one is even more painful.

The first arrow is the unavoidable pain, which we don’t always have control over: unfortunate situations, injuries, or people might inflict pain on us. The second arrow represents our reaction to the first arrow, the meaning we attach to the first arrow. The second arrow is of our own making and optional.

It is human nature to shy away from pain

We are afraid of disappointment, being vulnerable, or embracing ourselves as we are. We don’t want to feel these negative emotions, so we all have found coping mechanisms often rooted in our childhood. These coping strategies became habits stored in our bodies and minds – Samskara.

We can work with pain. It is an opportunity to dissolve suppressed emotions, issues. Suppressing pain masks negative emotions and causes us to feel the positive ones less.

The concept of the two arrows become obvious when we sit down and become still. The pain will start to bubble to the surface. If you can stay with the pain, you will notice how strong the urge for avoidance is, how our mind would love to crawl away from the body, trying to escape from feeling. We can become aware of the two arrows and get between them through mindfulness. Keeping the focus on our body and staying with the pain, we notice how the mind gives you a grand narrative, trying to fuse the second arrow to the first.

Finding the courage to work with and through your pain is a self-empowering experience and can be applied to the rest of your life.

How to work with pain

There will always be situations we need to face in life, which are uncomfortable, painful and unavoidable. The aim is not to live a painless life, the aim is to feel freedom while pain is present. This might sound discouraging, as the fantasy about a happy and free of pain life sounds more appealing. But the reality is, even in an enlightened state, the world is still turning, and you still live your life with all its ups and downs. The only difference is that the second arrow won’t hit you and will feel free and not trapped.

Dealing with strong emotions

When you have a strong emotion, like anger for example, sit down and become still.

1. Use your breath as an entry gateway to your body

By focusing on the breath, we start to calm the mind. This helps us to become aware of sensations in our bodies. For example, when you feel angry, you might notice a sensation within your chest. So focus on it and observe it. 

2. Observe your sensations

What kind of sensation is it? Does the quality change the longer you observe it? Just stay with it, notice when the mind tries to bring the second arrow into play, and go back to the sensation in your body.

3. Answers will come

Sometimes answers will arise, or the sensation softens or disappears. Just observe and stay until you notice a difference in the sensation and then come out of your meditation and take a moment to reflect. Notice that you might feel more peaceful, softer, the pain might still be there, but without the intensity you felt before, without having a hold over you. You can see now clearly what is, without the distraction of the second arrow, and you can act from a place of clarity instead of lashing out and reacting.

Each form of pain is manifested in our body

The more we become sensitised to sensations, the easier we can access and distinguish the two arrows, having the opportunity to deal with the pain instead of turning to old habits to mask it.

In asanas (postures) you can easily feel a stretch or a muscle contraction, or at the end of a class, when we rest, do a body scan and feel your body’s sensations. The more we practice this awareness, the faster we can access it in meditation. The two arrows become more distinguishable over time, allowing us to drop the second arrow. You can feel pain but also be free from it at the same time.