Finding Peace In The Pain

This post originally appeared on The Emotion Machine.

We all want just a little bit of peace every now and then in this increasingly chaotic world, right? Is that too much to ask? Most of us make little, unconscious deals with ourselves like “I’ll be happy when…..” Fill in the rest. Think about it. What are the deals you make with yourself?

I used to be a pro at this. Happiness and peace were always right around the corner. I could almost taste them. Right after I found the right man. Right after I started a lucrative career. Right after my ex-husband and I got along. Right after my skin cleared up and my hair had just the right amount of curl with no frizz.

Well, I’ve not found the right man. I’ve not even started a lucrative career. My ex and I still don’t get along. My skin isn’t anywhere near blemish free, and my hair is frizzier than ever. Yet, I’ve found happiness and peace because I’ve learned that these things are in my mind and can be cultivated in even the most painful circumstances.

Three Practices To Use Pain As A Teacher

In her book The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness, Pema Chodron writes:

There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.

A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is.

Pain, discomfort, and uncertainty are all a constant part of life. She encourages us to actually “lean into” these and explore what they have to teach us. In her books, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, she outlines three methods for working with chaos and burden in life.

No More Struggle

She calls the first one “no more struggle.” This is a regular, meditation practice in which she advises that we learn to stop fighting with ourselves, stop struggling with circumstances, emotions or moods and look at what is and what arises with compassion and a nonjudgmental attitude. She says “….drop the storyline, slow down enough to just be present, let go of the multitude of judgments and schemes and stop struggling.”

If you already meditate, great! If you don’t, start! Even if you can only do it five minutes a day, it will change your life. It has mine. There is so much scientific evidence as to the many benefits of meditation for your body and brain, including reduced stress and anxiety, increased relaxation, improved sleep, lower blood pressure, strengthened immune system, reduction of PMS symptoms, increased focus and attention, improved relationships and more. A regular practice actually, physically changes your brain in as little as 8 weeks recent studies show.

The Poison Is The Medicine

Second, she advises us to use the poison as medicine and as a fuel for waking up. “When anything arises – any kind of conflict, any notion of unworthiness, anything that feels distasteful, embarrassing, or painful – instead of trying to get rid of it, we breathe it in.” She teaches a practice here called tonglen which is basically recognizing with compassion and openness the identical condition of others who, in the very same moment, are feeling similar pain. Instead of pushing difficult situations away, tonglen teaches you to use them to connect with others who, just like you, find themselves in pain. It’s the human condition and our kinship with all living things.

You don’t have to be this formal or this Buddhist here. I’m not. I just imagine and empathize with others in the same situation or facing the same conditions. It puts things into perspective. Instead of emphasizing and enlarging the issues as worry would do, it makes me feel not so alone in my fears and challenges and shrinks them. If someone else can do it, I can too.

Awakened Energy

The third method for working with chaos “is to regard whatever arises as the manifestation of awakened energy. We can regard ourselves as already awake; we can regard the world as already sacred.” She goes on to explain that “regarding what arises as awakened energy reverses our fundamental habitual pattern of trying to avoid conflict, trying to make ourselves better than we are, trying to smooth things out and pretty them up, trying to prove that pain is a mistake and would not exist in our lives if only we did all the right things.” This attitude invites us to use everything in our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly – as a basis for growing and learning or for attaining enlightenment in Buddhism.

Instead of asking “Why me?” and focusing on how unfair it all is, this allows me to have faith that whatever “it” is is for my highest good and that there will be some learning and growth in it. It does not guarantee that I’ll enjoy every minute of it, but that the value of the experience will become evident as the events unfold. It allows me to trust that things may make absolutely no sense now, but in retrospect, it all will.

Pain is a part of life. Everyone’s life. It is never going away – for too long anyway. I have found that changing my perception through practices such as this allows me to find peace amidst the pain.

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