Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional
I read this yesterday in a book about mindfully navigating the pain of childbirth. Certainly not the first time I’ve heard the phrase, in this instance, the words seemed to hover above the page in a quiet stillness - italicized in my mind for extra emphasis.
This, I realized, was a key teaching for me and for so many to have ready when the going gets tough. Yes, certainly for women in the process of giving birth. But also for women and men everywhere dealing with the ups and downs of being human.
As I reflected on the words for a few breaths, I noticed other similar themes start to flow into my awareness:
Pain is only weakness leaving the body - A phrase that will always remind me of my High School swim coach Mr. Butler, who would write these foreboding words on a white board in advance of a particularly challenging practice set.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger - Another oft-used sports motivator, this contains all too real truths in it about life’s greatest pains.
It’s not the amount of stress in your life that matters, it’s how you dance with it - A lesson absolutely learned from experience from research done on stress-management’s impact on biological aging.
These adages that we hear in one form or another are big, golden nuggets of truth. Offerings that get us out of places of denial about life and into the reality of what is. They’re helping me unpack some belief’s that aren’t always so easy to navigate, like:
Childbirth can be easy and pain free! - I can acknowledge sure, that’s a possibility I am absolutely open to but I need to get my butt in gear for all ends of the spectrum of pain here.
All things in life can be met with gratitude and appreciation! - Again absolutely I agree this can be possible, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have to sometimes work through immense pain to get there. The illness or death of a loved one - especially when it’s untimely, pulls at the bedrock of what we know life to be and the pain/stress of that runs deep.
And even the snowball affect of little annoyances - a day where everything seems to be against us (we spill coffee on our shirt at 7:45 AM, meetings, flights, and all manner of things are rescheduled or cancelled, people we’re relying on drop the ball, and we feel like Atlas, holding the weight of the whole world on our shoulders) - instead of applying some trite Instagram quote, we can consciously feel the frustration, but relinquish the need to heap on an extra layer of suffering.
We do this by remembering: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
Birth, as I’ve come to understand and witness (I was at the birth of my nephew about 4 years ago) , is an intense, dramatic, and deeply sensational experience. And, like a beautiful work of music, it has multiple movements. An early stage, an active stage, a transition stage, a pushing stage, and a baby-in-your-arms stage.
Like life in all ways, the mind can want to get ahead of itself and resist the presence of the moment in each phase. How long is this going to go on for? I can barely handle this part, how will I handle what’s next? How exactly is this baby going to come out of me again? And on and on and on…
All those questions are future-focused, this leaving us to a place of anxiety and fear-driven suffering, pulling us away from the presence of the actual moment. The moment of sensation - the acceptance of the feeling at hand as it’s own focus-point - be it tightness, stretching, expansion, discomfort, or yes just generally, pain.
The thing is, we all go through painful processes in life - losing a job, dealing with an injury, going through a bad breakup, etc. Sometimes the pain is emotional or mental, other times physical, or perhaps a mixture of all of the above.
If we can stay present with the moments and waves of pain - the discomfort, the emptiness, etc. - using a healing anchor like the breath, and doing our best to resist the mind’s craving to run to the future or the past, we can ride the wave of it safely to shore. Even for the big painful events that last far longer than labor, all pain can heal, and yes, it does make you stronger.
So wherever you are feeling the friction of pain creep up in your life, I encourage you to rise to its challenge with conscious awareness, grit, presence and grace, knowing - as strange as it may seem at the time - it is all, ultimately, part of the dance.