by Leatrice Asher
“Man always travels along precipices. His truest obligation is to keep his balance.”
―Jose Ortega Gasset
Balance is a fundamental principle in the universe. We know that imbalances in nature (which primarily arise through human thinking) can create dramatic effects such as drought, severe storms, global climate change, earthquakes, and fire. We also know how an imbalance on one side creates a corresponding corrective action, as in the cycles of heat and cold.
The human habitat of the doer is also an ecosystem that functions best when its constituent elements are in equilibrium. So it is important to have some understanding of what our own ecosystem looks like when it is out of balance—and how to bring it back into balance. Pain, for instance, is a symptom of imbalance, yet pain can also show us the way to restoration of the balance. Pain and suffering serve as our own system of checks and balances. Without them we would have no way to gauge our tendency to stray from our center to the extremes.
When the pendulum swings to one extreme, the other extreme will tend to manifest in equal measure. If we eat too much salt, we then crave sugar. If we exercise to exhaustion, we must then rest to recuperate and compensate. When something comes into our field of attention that we don’t want to be there, our first response is to try to push it away from us. When we desire something and it isn’t forthcoming, we try to get it at any cost. When life doesn’t look the way we want it to look, our discontent drives us to a state of imbalance as we teeter between attraction and avoidance, pleasure and pain.
The virtues of moderation, or the “middle way,” have been explicitly and implicitly acknowledged in spiritual traditions throughout history—most explicitly, perhaps, in Buddhism and Taoism, as well as in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Pain is our body-mind’s own thermostat. It tells us when we are operating at extremes. After dinner, if we go to the cupboard with the intention of having a few cookies and end up eating the whole package, we will suffer the consequences. Once the pain kicks in, we will likely correct course—at least temporarily. But pain also teaches us what is moderate, prudent, and wise. We remember the last time we ate a whole package of cookies, and how we suffered in the same way. Pain shows us the connection between our actions or thoughts in response to what we encounter, and what our life now looks like because of that response. Wavering from our intention is painful not only physically but psychically, because we are as two people: On the one hand we know intuitively what is the best or most appropriate course of action, yet we persist in ignoring the wisdom we already have. And our pain is persistent in its message that we must change, because the only way to make our lives look and feel different is to alter whatever we are thinking and doing that has given rise to the discomfort. Will we change before we have an incentive to do so? Pain provides the incentive. Life gives us exactly what we need. We have only to learn to live with ease in its embrace.
In the process of showing us ourselves, pain can teach us much about how we think. Our thinking reflects the accuracy or inaccuracy of our perceptions. Faulty thinking; that is, thinking that creates destiny, is at the core of our fears and hurts, so if pain is present, we can look to the nature of our particular thinking (and actions) as the precipitators of those sensations. The results of this type of thinking may manifest immediately, or in the near or relatively distant future. The longer the time that elapses between this thinking and the events or circumstances that follow in the wake of it, the less likely we will be aware of how we had set the end-result in motion. Whatever we set in motion always cycles back at the appropriate time and place—and always comes back to us. And because shared thoughts and assumptions create our interpersonal worlds, erroneous thinking patterns can be especially powerful when linked through family, friendship, marriage, religion, groups, and even societies and nations. Thus is the power of thinking and how it determines what we may encounter in life. But by observing the precise nature of our own thinking we can discover and sense this power, both in ourselves as individuals and in groups. We will then see that thought and action are actually a single continuum.
Thinking and Pain: Making the Connection
Being preoccupied is often an early sign of disharmony. If we are preoccupied, mulling things over, rehearsing or obsessing on a situation, we are not being present in this moment. This sets in motion a vicious cycle. If we are not present, we are less likely to even notice the disharmony in our life—and we need to start noticing it before we can switch gears and be present again. Preoccupation is a signal that we are not physically attentive but are lost in aimless thinking—and our inattention to our environment increases the likelihood of being involved in a minor mishap, or even a major catastrophe.
But if we take note each time an incident or feeling of imbalance occurs, as well as our thinking at that time, we will begin to experience the link between our thinking and the pain. We will then be likely to access this information more readily next time. Each time we engage this process we will build on our ability to recollect the situation that gave rise to the difficulties. Eventually, with practice, we will become attentive to these moments of preoccupation as they arise.
When we think we are being controlled by pain we may feel as if we have no options. This feeling of helplessness activates our fears. Of course we will want the attendant sensations to stop … as quickly as possible. But this motion of trying to wrangle out of the discomfort only serves to entangle us further in it. This attempt to try to choke the experience is a frantic gesture designed to keep pain, and the concomitant damage we expect it to inflict, far away from us. If fear is present, as it often is when we are in pain, it’s imperative that we don’t let it shut us down. It’s those very fears we try to sidestep that become strange alien forces that lurk in the alleyway waiting to pounce on us. It’s like the little Dutch boy who puts his finger in the hole in the dike to hold the water back. This is an effective means of doing this only as long as his finger remains there, but as soon as he releases it, the torrent is released as well. If we continue to respond to fear this way it grows ever larger, becoming the demons and ogres that wait for their moment to surface again. A demon is only some lesson grown in ferocity because we refused to (or couldn’t) acknowledge or deal with it and the sensations it called up at some previous time and place. The only way to know the nature of any particular fear is to look it in the face. By turning towards the very thing that frightens, we use fear as an instrument for further self-exploration. If we can regard fear as such, we will not feel so used by it.
Ours is an apprenticeship that culminates in liberty from our usual self-imposed limitations and restraints, because as the reality of what we are becomes known we will readily accept whatever comes through our life, and never again will we curse that manifestation for arriving too soon … or too late. We have the capacity for courage―much more than we give ourselves credit for. If you find yourself feeling frozen in an uncomfortable emotion try asking yourself, “What am I supposed to learn from this?” You might also remind yourself that emotions will not diminish by turning away from them. You may avoid having to face yourself that moment, but you are not “off the hook.” You will encounter the same type of emotion in another situation, another relationship, again and again, until you bring the lesson connected to it to resolution.
If pain is present, whether of a physical or emotional nature, we have to intentionally turn toward it. This is not a one-time realization and decision. Every time sensations arise that we regard as painful we are being asked to make that decision again. It may be helpful to actually say to ourselves, each and every time an imbalance or pain is perceived, “All right, what is being asked of me now?” Eventually we will become so familiar with the territory, and uplifted by the benefits we experience from doing the work, that we will automatically “step up to the plate” whenever necessary. Once we see how readily information is forthcoming (if we would only ask for it) and how quickly we are returned to equanimity and a sense of well-being by doing so, we will be spurred on to continue the effort. No longer will we have to long for peace. We will be it.
The Investigative Process
Usually we are in some degree of physical or emotional discomfort or tension, whether that is a feeling of tightness in the shoulders, abdominal discomfort, low back pain, irritability, or anxiety. If you can stop whatever you are doing this moment and focus on the sensations you are experiencing, you should be able to locate such an area of physical and/or emotional discomfort.
As you proceed to survey and identify the locations and characteristics of these sensations, and determine what is required of you, you are also becoming more aware of the body as separate from what you essentially are, and you are becoming more aware of how you use the body. Check your posture. Is your body situated in a position that is creating strain? If so, alter it now. You’ve set your body in whatever habitual postures you find it in and you can “unset” it as well. Remember that you are in charge. But if you have given up and assigned all your power to the sensations you are experiencing, then you will feel under their control. You need not experience a sense of helplessness, but first you must return to that state of intentionality in which you actively distinguish sensations of the body from you―he or she who feels them.
In order to test the validity of the points that follow, it is important not to wait until you feel engulfed by the sensations of pain to try to apply them. Oftentimes we are so overwhelmed by the sensations we are experiencing that we don’t have the detachment or clear-headedness to respond as we may wish. Our everyday life experiences offer up many opportunities to begin to put our understanding of the points that follow into practice:
1) You feel sensations but you are not those sensations. You might actually have to say to yourself, “I am perceiving sensations that are impacting my body (and in turn creating an emotional state), but I am not those sensations.”
2) The next question to ask yourself is “Am I letting myself fully experience those sensations, or am I bracing against them?” This is important to determine. You may think you are allowing the sensations, but unless you are experiencing the pain actually changing, you are not. If you are not completely allowing the sensations, you have not understood the first point, and you may be too frightened to open to the extent that you can allow the full expression of them. You might want to remind yourself how vitally important this work is to your understanding of what you are. This will become more evident as you allow those sensations of pain because your experience of them will change. Once you know, through direct experience, that you are capable of being in the “driver’s seat” you will be able to switch gears more readily.
3) If an emotion such as fear, anxiety or anger is present, you will want to see if you can identify the source of the emotion.( Emotional states are covered in the article – From Disequilibrium to Equilibrium in 4 easy steps).
We are not used to thinking of pain as having this revolutionizing ability—to change the very condition of ourselves—so our experience of it stays moored in a calcified viewpoint that pain is unacceptable. But if pain is transformative then how can it be unacceptable? The freedom from pain that we desire is inherent in the very nature of pain! Think about this. If pain holds the key to our freedom then the only way we can realize that freedom is to make a welcoming place for it.
The particulars that make up our lives—our jobs, our relationships … all of it—exist to provide the stage for the people we’re supposed to meet, the situations we need to be involved in so that our lessons can emerge, and to provide an opportunity for us to take responsibility for them. Overly dramatizing these situations, or wishing them to be other than what they are, only prolongs the proper conclusion of them. What you do with your pain has meaning. Once you experience this connection you cannot help but be more attentive to your response to pain.
Although we can always learn a good deal about ourselves from severe, chronic conditions, and the accompanying pain, we cannot always expect cures of them. Pain may signify a condition that should be properly assessed and attended to. None of the suggestions offered here will prevent you from doing this. –L.A.