A couple of months ago I was talking to a sangha friend of mine about the nature of physical pain. Knowing that I’ve been focusing diligently on the cultivation of joy over the last few years and that I’ve experienced a great deal of physical pain in relation to my chronic illnesses he asked me specifically what I did to deal with pain and how to cultivate joy in the midst of it. As I see this as a common struggle (knowing how to deal with ongoing physical pain, limitation, and illness) I thought I’d take to writing about it, as that often helps me to better understand things for myself as well.
It’s important to note that I spent years doing the “wrong” things when it came to dealing with physical pain. Doing the wrong things was what helped me to know and understand what the right things to do were. By wrong I mean I caused more harm to myself and those around me. By wrong I mean I wasn’t taking good care of myself and was embittered with anger, sadness, loss, guilt, and hopelessness to the point of becoming debilitated and unpleasant to be around.
So what do I do now to embrace the difficult nature of physical pain and practice joy? Let’s see..
1. I practice gratitude everyday. Gratitude is perhaps the most important tool we can develop in order to live happier lives. To live in an attitude of gratitude we need to practice getting in touch with it so that it becomes stronger and stronger. Before every meal I say a few words of gratitude. Usually I say them silently to myself. Taking a moment to connect with the food in front of us, knowing that many people around the world do not have enough to eat, and seeing briefly the causes and conditions that made the food possible (sun, water, earth, air, hard work, transportation, resources, many workers…) is an invaluable opportunity to cultivate gratitude. Making it a priority to take a moment before each meal to connect with my food allows me to practice and strengthen my attitude of gratitude and transform it into a tool I can utilize when challenges arise. When we become skilled at taking the time to stop and offer gratitude to the everyday things we might tend to otherwise undervalue or take for granted we can start to bring that to more difficult situations as well, such as when we’re struck with physical pain/illness. The stronger our sense of gratitude is the more we are able to see it everywhere we go and in everything that happens, regardless of the difficulties that arise. Having a strong attitude of gratitude turns everything that takes place into an opportunity for growth and understanding and allows us to not lose sight of all the things going right even in the midst of struggle.
2. I practice smiling. I think this is perhaps the most underestimated tool there is in creating a happier more joyful life. Our ability to smile can often be directly linked to our quality of life. When I say I practice smiling let me be more clear. I practice smiling when feelings of anger arise, when I’m frustrated, when some dude cuts me off when I’m driving down the road, when I’m alone in my car on my way to do an errand I really don’t want to do, when I’m feeling uncomfortable around people I don’t know, when my pain levels rise and it hurts like hell – this morning I practiced smiling during my sitting meditation when I suddenly became aware of how scattered my thoughts were and how many topics I had mentally covered in a super short amount of time. Smiling in these moments allows me to practice embracing unpleasantness. With ongoing practice a little smile can go a long way towards the cultivation of patience, acceptance, ease, and joy, which are all necessary tools in the ability to skillfully deal with chronic pain so that when it arises we can make friends with our bodies and learn how to care for our pain instead of making the pain worse by hating and rallying against it.
3. I practice letting go. Our ability to let go determines our ability to go with the flow in the direction of an uncertain future with joy and ease. The more unwilling we are to change our expectations, attachments, ideas, perceptions, goals, and plans we have for the future the more disrupted we will become when things, inevitably, shift paths. No one plans to have chronic pain or illness. The more I am able to let go of how I think things should be and embrace things as they really are the more freedom I feel. We often suffer not because difficulties arise but because we are unable to let go of how we thought our life would be had that difficulty not happened. I practice letting go by getting in touch with the nature of impermanence. This is another one that takes daily practice in order to strengthen it so that it can be utilized as a tool later on when struggles arise. We often cannot jump right into using tools of mindfulness in order to better handle moments of suffering unless we’ve put the time into cultivating them in smaller, everyday occurrences. One way we can do this is by appreciating the weather no matter what it’s doing outside. There is a large tendency to complain or gripe about the weather. We may even only gripe inwardly to ourselves but that still counts! Complaining about the weather is one of the most common things people talk about. Whether it’s raining, snowing, too cold, too icy, too hot, too dry, too cloudy, too sunny, too windy, too whatever we don’t want to be happening right now it’s a useless thing to fret about and weakens our ability to let go and go with the flow. The weather is impermanent and so is life, it’s important to remember this if we want to live happy lives. We don’t have control over the weather, or how life unfolds, but we do have control over our response to it.
4. I practice with the Five Remembrances:
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are the nature to change. There is no way to escape
being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
I read them and embody them in how I look upon the world. One of the ways I practice is by talking out loud to my cats saying things like: Some day, you won’t be around anymore, or, Some day you’ll die and I won’t get to see you and I’ll be sad, or, I know one day you’ll die. We need to get acquainted with death and dying, with the impermanent nature of all things and beings so that we can live life more fully and joyfully. By remembering that life is precious, fleeting, and always changing we can be better in touch with gratitude, the art of smiling, and the practice of letting go.
5. I practice playfulness. It’s a good practice not to take things too seriously. Laughter, fun, silliness, and overall lightening up are good medicine. Sometimes I practice simply by wearing goofy socks (I have some great ones with faces on them and another pair with sloths and a glittery pair that says Gangsta on them). Sometimes I practice by watching funny videos on youtube. Sometimes I practice just by having a little toy critter nearby. And sometimes I practice by blasting a favorite song and singing and dancing along as though I were performing it onstage. There are many many ways to practice this one especially. When things get tense or overly stressful playfulness can be an important element to regaining our sanity and stability.
I would deem all of these practices as beneficial for all of us. But I mention them in specific relation to dealing with chronic pain/illness because I’ve personally found them critically vital to my own path of pain management, healing, and transformation. These practices aren’t something I will ever look to complete or finish with. They are ongoing everyday practices that aid me in the continuation of further strengthening my ability to accept, embrace, and move forward with the unexpected twists and turns of life, which are crucial tools in being able to live happily, joyfully, and with ease.