“The next exercise is completely voluntary. I would like to emphasize this. You do not have to participate if you do not want to,” said the leader of the workshop.
I was attending a multi-day retreat on self-discovery a few years ago and we were approaching the end of the weekend. The room was dark, my chest was vibrating as if I had been plugged into a wall socket from the thumping of the music that was playing.
“This exercise is about understanding pain. For many of you, this will be scary but if you can do what I suggest, you will move beyond the discomfort. You will see that pain is not suffering. Pain is a sensation. We add the suffering,” he explained.
“You have two choices. You can either stand and hold your arms out to the side so that they are parallel to the ground or you can sit on the floor, legs outstretched in front of you, and clasp you hands behind your back. You will then bend forward as for as you can. In either case, you will hold the position for as long as you can. The record is 60 minutes.”
“If at any time, you feel that you need to stop, then stop. Listen to my voice, follow my instructions. Let’s begin.”
I chose sitting on the floor. I was nervous but intrigued. Moving past pain? What is that? And with a chronic, degenerative spine condition, I knew that sitting on the floor and bending forward would be a problem. I knew I would hurt and probably fairly soon into the exercise.
I leaned forward and felt the tightness in my lower back and into my legs. “Breathe slowly. Follow the breath with your mind. Put your attention on what you’re feeling in your feet, then your knees, hips, lower back, shoulders, neck, head.”
And so I did. But at about five minutes, my spine was beating on my brain with a sledge hammer. Everything hurt. And now the pain wriggled its way into my legs. I couldn’t focus on anything but how awful this was.
“Breathe. Slow, easy, deep breaths. If you are uncomfortable, place your attention on that feeling. What color is it? What color is that feeling?”
Color? How do I describe pain as a color? “All feelings have color. Just take what your mind gives you. What color is this feeling?”
I slowed my breath but struggled keeping my attention on it. My lower back felt like it was going to tear apart. My legs were tingling, burning. I wasn’t sure if I could feel my feet anymore. I was miserable.
I went back to the breath. Color. What color? Where’s the color? And then I saw in my mind, a cloud of grey and red swirled together. Where did that come from?
“And what shape is this feeling?” the leader asked. “Look at it closely. Is it round, square, jagged? Big, small? Flat or 3D? Look at the shape closely,” he said.
Shape? I could see a swirling, rotating mass of color but no discernible shape. How long can I do this? Where’s my breath? I have to get up…no, I don’t. Shape, where’s the shape?
I had started a timer at the beginning of the exercise and had glanced at it once when I was about five minutes into it. I had no idea how much time had passed. So, I glanced again. Eight minutes. You have got to be kidding me! Only 8 minutes!
I still couldn’t find a shape. I was about to quit when the workshop leader repeated his instructions. And then I saw the glob of grayish-red morph into something. What is that? The shape was round like a tennis ball with tiny projections all over it – sort of like a weapon from the Middle Ages. It was spinning.
Am I losing my mind? “Look at the texture of the shape. What do you see? Smooth, rough, dimpled, dented? What does the surface look like?
A grey-red, round mass with a rough, spiked surface rotating in space.
About this point, I realized I still hurt but I didn’t care much about it. I could feel the “pain” but it had no meaning, no suffering with it. It was just a thing, just another sensation like an itch or pressure. I had moved past pain into just sensation. I had lost track of the time so I glanced at the timer. It had been just over 30 minutes.
I stopped around 35 minutes not because of pain but I thought going another 20-30 minutes with both of my legs feeling numb might not be such a good idea.
As I returned to the upright sitting position, I had a few immediate thoughts. Oh, this will be good….standing up should be really fun if I can do it at all…this is going to really hurt. But I had no pain at all. None. Normally, I could sit on the floor with my legs outstretched for several minutes but getting up would be a struggle – stiff, sore – followed by a short period of inflexibility as I tried to straighten up. It would pass quickly but the longer I sat like this, the worse it would be.
Not this time. I had no ill-effects at all. And none the next day either.
The Take Away
Pain is complicated. In some cases, the cause is clearly physical like when you fall off a ladder and break your leg. But in this case, was the pain I experienced coming from an “injury”? Was I damaging something and was that why I hurt?
Some pain, as in my case at the workshop, emanates from fear. And it feels like it could be something bad. The initial feeling I had was a stretching sensation mixed with a level of discomfort. At that point, my prior experiences with the sensation came into play. And I have had plenty of unpleasant experiences with “pain”. In my case, I was anxious about hurting before I had even attempted the exercise. My mind was preparing for pain. I was anticipating it, setting myself up for it. I was afraid of hurting and fear always lowers the pain threshold.
Fear places you exactly where you don’t want to be. It makes pain worse, more frightening and disabling.
By following the workshop leader’s instructions, I was able to observe the sensation and separate myself from the fear. As I did, the suffering or what most of us would call “pain” stopped.
I’ve used this technique since the workshop with varying degrees of success. In the workshop, I had several things stacked in my favor: the instructions, the environment, the support from other people, the music, and my curiosity. To use it successfully takes concentration and discipline. Sometimes I have those things and sometimes I don’t.
Buddhists have an analogy about the mind and meditation. Imagine a waterfall with water running over the edge and in front of a rock wall. The water represents your thoughts and emotions. The rock is your body. Where you want your mind to be is in the space between the water and the rock. That is where I ended up the day I went past pain.
I’m not saying that this technique is how you should treat pain nor should you ignore pain. The technique helps you reduce the emotional suffering that tends to come with the pain sensation. Even brief periods of time of being the “observer” can be very helpful.
If you have an ache or pain and feel upset, angry, sad, or some other unpleasant emotion about it, consider the technique I that I described above. I think you’ll find it helpful.
Doug Kelsey, PT, PhD writes about “active aging” – how to overcome aches & pains, get strong, flexible, agile and stay as healthy and fit as possible over your lifetime. If you enjoyed this article, join his free newsletter.