As a mental health therapist, I train people in mindfulness and learning to live through the pain and suffering that life can sometimes offer. As a human being, I am often challenged with that space myself. The secret your therapist will seldom share (because your session should be about you and not your therapist) is that we don’t really have it all figured out either. In fact, every good therapist should have a therapist themselves.
Life throws us curveballs. Spaces where the suffering in life becomes painfully obvious and there is no escaping it. Some of my patients have had so much pain that they turn to various addictions to numb it out. Others refuse to engage in connection because it has become too painful for them to trust other humans. Some even react out of the pain and become abusers themselves. Evolution has made us pain avoidant and fearful creatures simply as a matter of survival.
Our brain is hypervigilant about pain so that it can keep the body alive and this is the rub. For us to connect with each other and experience our fullest, best selves we have to be free of this fear and reactivity. Pain triggers the limbic area of the brain (the fight or flight center) which automatically shuts down our prefrontal cortex and closes off our ability to connect.
We cannot be afraid and connect with others. But it is the experience of pain that creates the need for connection and drives us towards relationship.
Connection, quite literally, creates the flow of healthy chemicals that our brain needs to be happy and fear free. It is through connection that we heal.
I have struggled with this in my own life recently. My father is dying from Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson’s and my mother is losing her grip on reality. My wife’s grandfather (a veteran survivor of WWII who I have grown very close to) died this week, and one of my closest friends ended up in the ICU after her husband died of a heart attack while driving. All of this in a matter of a few days.
As a survivor of trauma and addiction myself, this could really have crushed me at one time. My own reaction to such pain has always been to crawl like a turtle into my shell and hide from the world or, in a former life, to numb out with drugs. The reaction of turtling often disrupts or damages even healthy connections left in my life. Friends fall by the wayside as I ignore offers of compassion and space for healing.
So what then do we do? How do we reach past the pain and learn to connect even in its midst?
Stop being afraid of the pain and learn to embrace the moments as hard as they are. They are learning curves and necessary spaces. The Marines call this learning to embrace the suck. It is a skill best developed through mindfulness practice to calm our brains. When we can remain calm, focused on our bodies and breathing in the present moment, we release fear and open our upper brains to connection and true learning and healing.
In moments of trauma and pain, there is only reactivity and there is no learning. So learning to accept the pain that life can offer for what it can teach us keeps the learning and connected parts of the brain awake and allows us to build resilience to suffering.
We learn in the moment so that, hopefully, we don’t have to repeat it. We stay connected to those who can be there for us and help share the burden that sometimes can overwhelm and when life returns (as it always does) to its normal routine they are there with us to share the sweetness of the good days.
The simple truth is, that pain is a part of life. A guarantee we cannot escape. But suffering is often a choice that stems from our resistance to the pain and the unlearned lessons it would have offered up to us.
So when my therapist looked at me and asked how I was managing all that loss in a few days, I was able to smile lightly the half smile that Thich Nhat Hanh recommends in his work, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” and say simply,
I have stopped being afraid of pain.
I do not look forward to it, but I’m no longer afraid. In Rumi’s poem, “The Guest House”, he advises that we welcome the frightening and angry emotions into our home with a smile even if they tear up the house because, he says, “each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
So keep breathing my friend. Keep yourself grounded to body and present time and space and welcome in the lessons so that you don’t have to suffer any longer.