On being down

I’ve spent much of my life in pain.

This doesn’t, in any way, distinguish me from anyone else.

In the olden days, I was hell bent on experiencing life as pain – as a never-ending recitation of wishes that things be different than they are. This made me very effective in the world of work: a constant focus on how to do things better, how to make things better, is a tremendous resource. But it didn’t lend itself to much happiness. And worse, for me, it wedded me to the illusion that the appropriate response to all pain, to all suffering, is to seek to fix it.

About a week ago, I took a tumble out of a vehicle plummeting down a mountain – into the plastic tube through which it was hurtling. (Ever been on an Alpine slide?) I skinned myself painfully, on my arm, my hand, my knee, and my face. My arm is where it looks the worst (and it looks pretty bad), though truth is, it wasn’t such a bad wound. I’ve put some antibacterial ointment on my scrapes, and I’ve kept them very clean. Beyond that, there’s not much to do. I could, I suppose, take Advil for the pain.

I suspect I’ve got another week or ten days to go before the unsightliness is gone, and maybe five or seven days until the discomfort is gone.

Until then, the challenge before me is to inhabit the discomfort, the pain, mindfully, consciously, to learn what there is to learn from it, and not to waste time or energy organizing myself against the fact that it is as it is.

So too with the slight sense of being “off my game” about which I wrote yesterday. To the extent that my being down isn’t simply internal meteorology (and I’m sure there’s some of that), I’m pretty sure I know what the contributing factors are. Some of them lend themselves to intervention on my part; others, not so much. Suffice it to say, where I can affect my down-ness through constructive action, I’m striving to.

The impulse that has gotten me in so much trouble over the years is the sense that pain is unbearable, intolerable, that every ache must be medicated. I’ve used sex, porn, and cigarettes most frequently as my medications of choice, but there are lots more.

The realization that has helped me so much these last few years is that while pain is inevitable, suffering is, for the most part, voluntary. Or at least, if not voluntary, it’s not inescapable.

It’s remarkable how interesting pain is, how varied are the sensations in my arm where the flesh has been peeled away. Unreflectively, I dismiss it as “pain,” and I wince, flinch, medicate, moan. More reflectively, I attend to it, consciously: there’s heat there, tightness, a slight itching (which is itself a complex sensation, featuring both cold and heat). There’s sharpness and throbbing, it all ebbs and flows. And it will, surely, pass.

In my older guise, confronted with pain, I would simply act out, hoping it would end, and fleeing it until it did. (It never did; my actions in fact largely ensured its continuation.)

More recently, I’ve gotten more practiced at experiencing my pain, inhabiting it, accepting it. Not courting it, but neither rejecting its inevitability. At being interested in it.

I’ve slipped just a bit in recent days. That’s neither good nor bad; it simply is. But noticing it is a gift for which I’m grateful.


  1. You’ve given me some food for thought here – I live with my pain and minimise it fairly successfully. I’ve not considered being mindful of it (despite being mindful of so much else). So thank you!

    xx Dee

  2. I think most of us want to escape pain. I’ve read before about mindfulness and learning to simply be with pain, discomfort, and negative emotions rather than trying to avoid them, and though it’s obviously easier said than done, it’s something I try to keep in mind as well. I think self-awareness is incredibly valuable, though often difficult.

  3. interesting as I am the opposite, inflict pain on myself to learn and grow from it. The current form is weight lifting, in which in order to grow you must destroy and feel the muscles ache from the stress and riggers they are put through. What have I learned, I like pain more that I expected, because through it I become stronger. The saying no pain no gain is part of our routine as the other guy I workout with often reminds me of over and over.
    For the first time I am on my A game constantly because I know that it is helping me grow both physically and mentally.

  4. Your post definitely gave me food for thought. I get angry when I am in pain or any kind of discomfort. It irritates me, I feel like my body is letting me down and I get angry because I am feeling weak. And I hate feeling weak. I might have to change that…

    Thanks for your insights.

    Rebel xox

  5. I have so much I could say about this, if I wanted to reveal my profession here, or if I were allowed to email you. Blargh.

    Suffice it to say that what you said here: “…pain is inevitable, suffering is, for the most part, voluntary. Or at least, if not voluntary, it’s not inescapable.” – YES. 🙂

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