Countering the impulse to withdraw from discomfort

Linda: Regardless of what we do, life will at some point bring us losses, disappointments, and instances of physical and emotional pain. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.

Pain is the experience of something that creates physical, mental or emotional distress. It’s the body’s way of bringing awareness to something that needs our attention. Pain, either physical or emotional, is the body’s way to inform us that we need to attend to something.

Although pain isn’t an emotion, there are emotions that are painful to experience. Grief, anxiety, guilt, shame, and rage are each examples. Emotions are energy in motion in the body. Some are more difficult to experience than others and we identify them as being “negative,” but those are simply labels that describe our assessment of those sensations.

Suffering is what we experience when there is prolonged resistance to painful experiences. It is often during our efforts to avoid, deny, or resist that which is inevitable, that we create suffering.

People who live at a high level of well-being know how to respond to the messages they receive from their body, and are able to attend to their emotions appropriately and skillfully. They are neither compulsive pleasure-seekers, nor compulsive avoiders. They don’t compulsively deny pain, but rather experience feelings and sensations with a minimum of attachment or aversion.

The tendency to withdraw from painful experiences is a deeply embedded pattern. We do it involuntarily, which in many instances is a good thing.

We don’t have to try to decide whether or not to let go of a hot plate, our nervous system implements that decision and takes the appropriate action in a nano-second. Most people don’t have any idea that another response is possible. If you are running a marathon, and develop an excruciating chest pain, it’s appropriate to stop running. If you don’t, your body will be stopped in its tracks, literally.

And yet, there are times when staying present with uncomfortable feelings is more skillful or appropriate than letting go of the hot plate.

Developing the capacity to listen to someone’s grievances, rather than to disengage or become defensive with them will bring about a very different outcome. If your business partner is upset with you because you didn’t do something you promised to do, and you are feeling pain, it may be better to experience the discomfort than to walk away or argue, either one of which is an example of trying to disengage from your own pain.

To be able to distinguish a skillful from an unskillful response requires the development of the trait of discernment, as well as the capacity to tolerate intense feelings and sensations.

One of the things that distinguishes highly accomplished athletes from others is their ability to tolerate physical pain and discomfort. We are not encouraging people to create unnecessary suffering or to seek it out, but to increase their capacity to be present with strong sensations with compassion and care. While we can’t eliminate pain, we can learn to respond to it in ways that don’t prolong it and minimize unnecessary distress.

We can’t expect to be happy all the time; that would be unrealistic. But there is more that we can do to make room for discomfort so that we experience it thoroughly and then it can move through us and pass on by.

The antidote to suffering lies not in the elimination of pain, but in our ability to meet it with compassion and acceptance. When we can do this we will also become able to respond to another’s pain in the same way. Not only is making room for some unhappiness a gift to those we love, but to be able to hold their blues with them is a profound addition to developing any healthy, wholesome relationship.


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