Mind-Body Health

Physical Pain as a Teacher: 5 Life Practices

Physical Pain as a Teacher: 5 Life Practices
We all experience physical pain at some point in our lives. The pain could be acute from a broken bone, or it could be ongoing from a serious, chronic condition. Often, pain can produce a tremendous amount of suffering, but it can also be a catalyst for growth and wisdom.

Here are five practices that can help reduce unnecessary suffering with pain, which can also be translated to other life experiences—to help you dance through life with more ease and joy, no matter what the circumstance.

1. Create a Positive Story

Your experience of pain is highly molded by the labels and judgements you pin to the phenomena of pain itself. Pain is a physical sensation. Beyond that, much suffering can come from the stories created around the pain, such as:

    • Pain is bad.
    • Pain is making my life miserable.
    • With this pain, I’ll never be able to do this activity again.
Develop an awareness of the stories you have about your pain. Catch any negative thought tendencies and choose to spin your experience of pain into a positive story. A positive outlook can help reduce unnecessary suffering and may even provide space for your body to heal.

You can rebuild your story of pain in a variety of ways, including the following.

  1. Imagine you’re living in the future and writing a book about your experience with pain. How did this experience make you stronger and build your character? How did you gain perspective? How were you able to help others because of your pain? Create a story of meaning and purpose—and then make that your reality.
  2. Say affirmations. Affirmations such as the following can help to rewire your brain in a positive way:
    • I experience everything for a reason, including my pain.
    • My pain is a catalyst to help me develop compassion, perspective, and wisdom.
    • I am a soul living on this planet to experience and grow. I embrace joy and suffering with equal amounts of curiosity: What is this life, really? And what can I learn from these interesting experiences?
Life lesson: The practice of spinning positive stories can be applied to any life experience. Become aware of the difference between mere phenomena and the subsequent stories you create, which can skew your perception of the phenomena. As you make a conscious choice to create positive stories about the phenomena, you may find it helps reduce unnecessary suffering in relationships, career, and other life experiences.

2. Breathe and Soften

Having an aversion to pain is completely normal: You feel pain and perceive it as uncomfortable, so you want to get away from it. You may tense your muscles and shorten your breath. You may feel stressed and have difficulty sleeping. This reaction often increases the level of pain, which then increases the tension and the pain. It’s a vicious cycle.

There is another way to react to pain that may initially feel counterintuitive but can ultimately help you break the pain-tension cycle. You may have been introduced to the approach in yoga class: Yoga teachers often encourage students to breathe into the discomfort of a stretch. As the students breathe and relax and soften around the discomfort, it often begins to melt away.

Embrace your pain as a part of your experience. Take long, slow breaths and visualize your breath filling the space in and around your pain. As your body and mind relax around the pain, you may find that the qualities of the pain begin to change and, perhaps, dissipate.

Life lesson: What circumstances are you trying to avoid? Embrace them. Breathe and soften into them. Life can flow more smoothly and you can experience greater ease if you fully embrace and live in each moment as it comes.

3. Listen and Observe

Your body is wise. Your symptoms are your teachers. Particularly with chronic pain, it can be helpful to pay attention to the fluctuations of your symptoms to figure out what your body needs to alleviate the pain. What are you doing when your pain flares? How did you sleep the night before? What were you eating? What were you thinking and feeling? Who was you with? You never know what random environmental factor or thought pattern may be contributing to the pain you feel. Quiet your mind and pay continual attention—your body is trying to tell you something.

Life lesson: Don't understate the importance of listening. With strong listening and observation skills, you can catch subtleties that you may otherwise miss with a busy mind—such as a hint of insightful emotion from another person during a conversation or a little nudge in your gut about a big life decision.

4. Feel Compassion

This may sound silly, but it can be helpful to develop a conscious relationship with your pain. You can even give it a name and have conversations with it, perhaps imagining it as a sad child who you feel a deep warmth and compassion for. What is wrong and how can you help your body feel better? Give the unhappy symptoms in your body a mental hug. Give them some love. The warmth may transfer into a part of you that needs love and nurturing and compassion in order to heal.

Life lesson: Developing compassion doesn't just apply to yourself—it can extend to your interaction with others. Everyone is experiencing their own suffering. Give them some love. It may help them in their healing, too.

5. Let Go of Control

When it comes to achieving goals, our society often teaches us to push through no matter what. No pain, no gain. Do you tend to test your physical limits and push your body to accomplish what you want? Might not be a great idea if your body is signaling with pain that something is wrong.

If pain increases with an activity or a life habit, then stop. Trying to force your body through the pain often gives you the opposite of what you want. Instead of pushing through to the other side, your body may shut down, and the pain could become a more serious or prolonged issue. Learning to gracefully dance with your pain—playing with your limits rather than forcing your body toward a goal—can result in a more positive outcome.

Life lesson: If you’re goal oriented and like to be in control, you may sometimes attempt to push life in the directions you want it to go. Often, the more you push, the more life pushes back. Let things go. Be sensitive to the messages life is sending to you and surrender yourself to the experiences you are meant to have. Sinking into the natural flow of life, without resistance, can bring you experiences that you never expected—and life can be much more interesting and fun.

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*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.