Finding Peace Amidst Pain: An Unconditional Relationship with Life

As some of you know, my body has had quite a bit of difficulty over the last several months. I took a break from writing and a big step back from coaching and work in general to focus more on self-care. Recently the energy has been flowing more again and I’m feeling excited and hopeful about diving back in and taking things up a notch, or several :). We’ll see! I know many of you have been waiting patiently for the release of my book, “Flourishing with Chronic Illness” [Thank you!!!] – so here’s a little preview of an unedited chapter that I wrote earlier in the year on one of the key concepts. We are all capable of learning to have An Unconditional Relationship with Life and in such experiencing more peace and ease under any circumstances. Enjoy!

 

 

I’ll preface by saying that what I’m pointing to here can be applied to all sorts of circumstances in life. I’m illustrating the point with the specific example of physical pain, but the potential applications are endless. This concept can be applied at any given moment in your entire life. Of course, there are certain times when it will feel especially profound, or particularly difficult, but any time in which you are feeling overcome by difficult thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, or circumstances, you have the opportunity to practice what I’m writing about here. You are capable of choosing how you show up at any given moment, no matter what.

We all have different difficulties that we are dealing with and of course I can’t directly compare my experience, or my levels of pain or other symptoms to those of any one else. There’s no point in comparison. What I will say is that I have found that it is possible to experience positive emotions and enjoy life even in the midst of pain that was more severe than I ever knew was possible. The biggest factor here was in letting go of my resistance to the pain. Letting go of my stories around it and just being there with it. This goes directly against what most of us learn about how to deal with difficulties in life. Just as many people speak of “fighting” illness, we think that we need to be in constant opposition to anything that seems “wrong” in our lives. We don’t think we “should” be dealing with pain and other symptoms, and so we resist it. This resistance to the way things are, in-itself, makes life less pleasant and more difficult. It can contribute to general feelings of resentment and to seeing life as a struggle. It totally makes sense…AND there is AMAZING potential for peace in realizing that it doesn’t have to be that way.

What do I mean when I refer to “resistance?” What I’m pointing to here is that we learn early on in life that certain things are bad and certain things are good. We learn that pain is bad; we think that if we are in pain, we are not ok. Anytime there is something going on that we consider bad, such as pain or illness, we tend to think that we need to actively be doing something to fix it. You may or may not be conscious of this, but there is often (or constantly) an underlying feeling of “I’m not ok. Something needs to change.” In this, there is RESISTANCE to your experience of the present moment, and resistance causes tension and suffering.  Acceptance of your experience of any given moment allows this resistance and tension to be released.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t try to do something about changing a situation. It doesn’t mean that you won’t try, for example, to address the root of pain, or find a way to relieve it, but it does mean that the presence of pain won’t automatically have you in a state of fight or flight, of thinking and feeling, “something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong.” The same goes for you’re diagnosis/state of health in general. There was a time when I was so focused on how to fix what was going on with my body, of trying to get to the root of the MS, or make it all go away, that it was a constant source of stress. There was never a moment of true rest or ease, because there was always this background feeling of “I’m not ok and things won’t be ok until…”

Again, I’m not suggesting for you not to do what you can to limit and prevent pain, but a lot of times there is nothing you can do about it. In those moments, whether you realize it or not, it is possible to let go of the idea that something is wrong, to let go of the idea that you need to be fighting anything, or figuring anything out, and just let yourself be in the moment, with your full experience, with the pain and all. You can observe the thoughts that come up without identifying with them. You are not your thoughts. You can observe the feelings that come up, and allow yourself to fully feel them all, without identifying with them. You are not your feelings. You are not your pain, you are not your illness, you are not your body. You, in your essence, are beyond all of this. You are witnessing it all.

There are times when my body is in such extreme pain, or my mind is so exhausted that it feels like there is no point for me even to be awake, and in this, there is resistance to my experience of the present moment. I find myself wanting to just sleep, or skip ahead to when I might feel better and be able to function more fully, all sorts of thoughts and feelings come up. But when I notice, I bring my awareness back to the present moment, realizing that THIS MOMENT IS ALL I HAVE. It is the only thing that is real. A future day, or a even future moment, is never guaranteed for any of us. If we are not showing up fully for any given moment, regardless of whether we consider it pleasant or unpleasant, we are not fully living in that moment, and this is a waste of life. Coming back to the moment in this way, I embrace my experience, without buying into thoughts that things “should” be any other way. Instead of resisting the pain or extreme exhaustion that I’m feeling…I feel it. I just let myself feel all of it, without judgment. I feel the pain, I notice the thoughts and feelings of resistance coming up and I observe them without judging them, or falling into them. (Until I forget and get consumed again, and then the whole cycle starts over). The more I practice this way of being though, the more natural it becomes, and the less I get caught in resistance. Habits take time to change, so it’s not as if we can just flip a switch and change our automatic responses from that moment forward, so it takes patience and a willingness to choose this other way of being, over and over again.

You can have  AN UNCONDITIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH LIFE, in which the way you are showing up at any given moment does not depend on conditions. This broke through to me one night, last September, when I was feeling some of the most intense physical pain of my life. I was in bed, in a hotel in Ireland, trying to go to sleep, and it just felt like sheer torture. My entire body was in extreme pain, and there were so many thoughts and feelings coming up, “This shouldn’t be happening;” “This is horrible;” “This is torture;” “What’s wrong with my body;” “Why is this happening?” “What can I do?” “I’m not ok” “Something is wrong,” The pain was so extreme I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the night. Then suddenly, I stopped resisting. All it took was a moment of being willing to let go of all of the stories and thoughts that were coming up, and just being there, with the pain, with all of it. And there was this incredible opening. The pain was just as severe as it had been, but I no longer felt like I was being tortured. I actually laughed out loud. I felt awe and joy in experiencing that just by shifting my mindset about what was happening, I could bring in peace and comfort and ease, even in the midst of excruciating pain. It was total serenity and it shifted everything. I realized that night that I could either be in resistance to the pain, being totally caught up in it, and be completely miserable, or I could practice making the most of any given moment, regardless of the pain, and live my life to its fullest.

Back to this concept of an unconditional relationship with life. Of course, conditions affect how you can “show up” on some levels – you may be physically or mentally limited in a way that keeps you from doing things you want to do – but what I’m referring to is how you are showing up in the deepest sense. How you are either being fully with your experience of the moment, or resisting it in some way. The tendency for most of us is to be engaged and connect with people when we feel good, but when we don’t feel so good, we are not as engaged, we don’t connect with people as easily, we are more likely to try to numb out with food or other substances, and we are just not as satisfied with life in that moment. Think about it, how do conditions tend to affect your behavior? How do you act when you feel good, or like things are going well in life? How do you act when you don’t feel so good, or like life isn’t going well? My point is that you can actually CHOOSE to embrace each moment, regardless of conditions, and be with whatever is there. You don’t have to let conditions dictate how you are showing up in the moment. Granted, sometimes it’s a lot easier than others. Sometimes it’s very difficult. But there is GREAT FREEDOM in knowing that you have choice. You can choose how you respond to any given situation. You can choose to show up fully for everything, in each moment, whether it’s the way you want things to be or not, and in this way you can have an unconditional relationship with life. You don’t have to be tossed around by the ups and downs of life; you can release resistance and just be with all of it, even when it’s difficult. Being present with everything as it comes.

Cultivating mindfulness is what makes all of this possible. The broadened awareness promoted by positive emotions contributes to the same thing. This expanded awareness gives you more space so that you can witness thoughts, feelings, patterns, pain…all of that, without getting caught in identifying with it, or letting it define your experience of the moment. The broadened awareness that come with mindfulness and increased positivity gives you more CHOICE. It allows you to choose where your focus is, instead of automatically falling into habitual ways of being.

 

Here are some suggestions on how to let go of resistance while experiencing extreme pain or other difficulties.

 

Letting Go

Just let go…of everything. Let go of any beliefs you have around pain being bad, any stories about what the pain means, how it might be limiting you, or affecting you or your family. Let go of anything that you think you need to do in that moment. Let go of judgment of anything you’re feeling. Just let everything be. It’s not so much a matter of DOING anything, as it is a matter of letting go of the idea that you need to DO anything, about the pain, or anything else. We tend to turn away from pain because we think we shouldn’t be having it, but if you turn towards it, letting yourself be fully with it, tending to it, instead of trying to push it away, just this can bring in more peace and ease.

 

Meditation

Daily meditation is the number one practice I suggest for every single person I work with. See if you can meditate by focusing your awareness on the sensation of pain itself, or a difficult emotion, without judging it or labeling it, just feeling it fully, with curiosity, as if you’ve never felt it before. As I’ve written about elsewhere, there are so many forms of meditation. The best thing is to explore and find something that resonates with you, so that you’ll actually do it. Meditating for at least 15 minutes a day will change your life in amazing ways. Try it! I dare you :). Check out YouTube, Dharmaseed.org. or the UCSD Center for Mindfulness website, all of which have free meditations to help get you started.

 

Meditation has been THE biggest key in improving my experience of life. It is the foundation for everything else. The mindfulness that I’ve cultivated through meditation has made the application of what I’ve learned through positive psychology much more effective. It has strengthened my mind in a way that gives me more power to choose my mindset, where my focus is, etc., and has given me a sense of *acceptance* in all sorts of circumstances that in the past I would have been putting energy towards resisting. Resistance only causes more tension. And acceptance does not mean apathy. It doesn’t mean giving up, or not doing what you can; it means that you are not in resistance to whatever is happening in the moment. You feel the pain, you are aware of your state of health, but your energy is not going towards thinking it should be any other way. This makes space to just be with whatever is there, and I’ve found that it allows me to be with people more fully, even in the midst of severe pain, without being caught up in my head, or totally consumed by the feelings in my body. I’m not saying it’s easy! It has been a practice for me. It’s not something I am always able to remember to do in the moment, but the more I do, the more amazed I am by the way it can shift my experience of things.

 

Saying “YES”

You might also try saying “yes” to the pain. This might sound crazy, but this is just another way of describing an unconditional relationship to life – or to the moment, just saying “yes” to everything. “Yes” this sensation is here. “Yes” this is what is happening right now. By saying “yes,” you are no longer saying “no” and resisting what is there.

 

Asking “What if…?”

Another phrase that I love playing with is, “What if…?” Asking the question, instead of making a statement (eg. “I am ok.”; “I am whole and complete.”; “This illness does not define me.”), allows you to tip-toe past the part of your brain that might otherwise be more likely resist what you are saying.

Here are a couple of “What if” phrases that I find particularly comforting:

– What if in this moment, there is nothing you need to control, change, or manage?

– What if there is nothing you need to do, and you can allow yourself to simply be?

You might consider asking, “What if I’m ok right now?” or “What if this is ok?” when you are feeling severe pain. Also, play with coming up with different phrases – What’s important is that it speaks to you.

So, how might YOU apply this concept of having an Unconditional Relationship with Life? Do you have any suggestions to share?

 

LOVE, Kelly