Pain is not suffering. Don’t believe me? Good, you don’t have to…yet. But if you not only read what I say in this post, but try the strategies I recommend and allow yourself to notice what’s going on inside, you’ll get it.
Now, the reason I’m talking about this at all is that people talk about pain as though it’s suffering. “Pleasure is good, and pain is bad.” “The goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.” I say, that’s nonsense.
Pain is a part of life, and pain is especially a part of growth, so learning to do it without suffering is an obvious win.
Examples of Popular Pain
At the same as people go around saying that pain is bad, almost everyone I know can name some pain that they enjoy. The classic examples are spicy food, deep massage, and exercise. I’ll add sad books and movies to the list so that it includes examples of emotional pain.
Have you ever enjoyed the burn of spicy food, the feeling of pain as a knot in your back unravels, or the gentle ache of your muscles after a good workout? Have you ever cried in a movie while reading a particularly heart-wrenching scene in a book and considered the experience positive? If so, you’ve experienced pain that wasn’t suffering.
And if you’ve experienced pain that wasn’t suffering, then when you experience pain that does induce suffering, you should realize that there’s something different going on with that pain.
The Function of Pain
Pain is an attention signal. More accurately: think of pain as an attentional signal and you’ll suffer a lot less. Some part of you has some data that it wants to share, and it’s not going to shut up until it communicates it. Your model of the world is wrong, and the pain isn’t just trying to inform you, it is actively informing you right now. If you try to resist it and pretend you can’t hear what it’s telling you, you will suffer.
Maybe your pain is telling you that the hot stove is hurting your hand (true). Maybe it’s telling you that cold weather could be dangerous (maybe true, likely not true). Maybe it’s telling you that your dog is dead and you can’t play with him anymore or that you can’t always believe your own promises.
When you resist pain and try to ignore it or push it away, it will get louder and grow bigger. It will overwhelm you and create a feeling of urgency.
How to Look into your Pain: Six Ways
First, you need to pick some pain that you’re feeling. It can be physical or emotional: either will work. If your knee hurts, you can use that. If you’re judging yourself or worrying about something, use that. If you aren’t experiencing any pain at all right now, get some ice water and put your hand in it. (This is completely safe for at least ten minutes–scientists use the hand in cold water test to measure pain tolerance.)
Now, try these techniques:
- Observe the pain with curiosity. Be greedy for its data. Pretend that you are an alien who has been studying humans intensely for the past 50 years. You want to know everything about them. Today is your lucky day–you have been granted 10 minutes to experience the reality of a human. You are so excited about what you’re going to learn!Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the intensity constant, or does it fluctuate over time?
- Where exactly do you feel it in your body?
- What is its character? (achey, sharp, dull, etc.)
- Does the experience of the pain seem to be correlated with anything else that is happening?
- Lean into the sensation, and even try to intensify it. Often, when we experience pain, we try to minimize the sensation. This time, do the opposite. Try to feel the pain as much as you possibly can. Invite it to get bigger, stronger, and louder. Nick Tarleton has reminded me of the power of concrete metaphors and has suggested taking a cold shower so that you can literally lean in while you try to feel the sensation as much as possible. You’ll know when doing this one is working when feeling the pain is making you feel more alive.
- Observe your related mental processes.
- What are you picturing when you feel this pain? (If that doesn’t work, try asking what the pain would look like if it did look like something.)
- If the pain sounded like something, what would it sound like?
- What related thoughts are running through your head?
- What tone of voice are you using to talk to yourself about the pain?
- What is the pain trying to tell you? Why is that important?
- Observe your sense of self and expand your awareness. This is probably my most abstract recommendation, but it does work. How does the pain interact with your sense of identity? When I feel pain, it starts to feel as though the content of my pain is who I am. It never is. I think one of the key factors here is that my spatial awareness gets distorted. Imagine your awareness expanding outwards and becoming in line with the proportions of reality. Don’t try to make your awareness of the painful sensation any bigger, expand your awareness of everything else.
- Engage in dialogue with yourself about opening to the pain. I practice IFS, which means I spend a lot of time engaging in inner dialogue. If you’re trying to look into your pain but it isn’t working, it’s almost certainly because you’re afraid to do it. Direct these questions to the part of you that doesn’t want you to feel the pain:
- What are you afraid would happen if I were to feel the pain?
- Do you trust me?
- What are you afraid would happen if you were to trust me?
- Are you afraid that I won’t be able to handle the pain?
- What are you trying to protect me from?
Listen to the answers you get and respond appropriately. Tell yourself that you can handle the pain. Tell yourself you’re trying an experiment, and that you can always go back to resisting later if you decide you don’t like the results.
- Go meta. My favorite . If you’re totally stuck and haven’t opened to the pain, do you now feel pain about not being able to open to the pain? When I set out to accomplish something and don’t succeed, I feel pain. I bet you do too. Maybe you even feel anger at me for suggesting such crappy techniques that didn’t work? Great! Open to that. Try all the steps above on that pain. Or try to open to the part of you that is resisting the pain. Try all the tools on the resistance itself. If you don’t get a shift by doing this, please leave a comment or email me and let me know. I’ll be surprised!
How I learned to look into pain
I mostly have Michael Vassar to thank for learning the right mental posture. Not so surprising, if you know me. Michael has had a huge influence on my thinking in a bunch of ways.
But oddly enough, looking into the pain was something I learned from Michael mostly before I really knew him. Based on a Less Wrong comment of his, I made some Anki cards for myself about how the right thing to do with pain was to look directly into it. And at first I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I kept trusting that he must have meant something, and that it was probably good advice. When I found myself in either physical or emotional pain, I would remember to try looking into it. I got the hang of it more and more over time. If you’re interested in turning your pain into something that isn’t suffering, my hope is that this list will help you learn to do it faster than I did.