Pain Is Optional, Is That True?

prickly plant

If I have to pick up a cactus, and I don’t know about gloves, pain may not be optional for me.

It’s Always About My Own Experience

In the last newsletter I sent out entitled, “The Work Is Preventive Medicine,” I mentioned that I am more and more aware that pain is a choice.

This caused confusion for someone who wrote me saying, “I often don’t experience that I am able to ‘just let go’ of my stressful thoughts, so if I am not able, how can it be an ‘active’ choice?”

I’m so glad that she wrote this because it brings up something very important.

There Is No Shortcut to Doing The Work

My experience upon my friend’s death was that I didn’t grieve. I saw that the pain was optional, and I sidestepped it spontaneously. Yay for me! But just because I saw it that way in this situation doesn’t mean that it’s always my experience that pain is optional.

Just ask me if I think pain is optional when I’m straining to do a good job with something! I haven’t worked that issue thoroughly enough yet.

Theoretical understanding means nothing to me. I’ve heard a million enlightened theories. I’ve had my own. But ultimately, I can only go with my experience. If I see that pain is optional in a particular situation, great, lucky me. But if I don’t see that the pain is optional, then it’s my job to experience the pain, to notice the thoughts behind it, and to do The Work on them.

Why Was It So Easy for Me This Time?

I attribute my lack of grief at last week’s funeral to the deep work that I did after my mom died in 2010. I spent two months working through so many nuances of my stressful thoughts about her death. It was during that work that I noticed a choice to go into the pain, or not. And that insight was a big part of ending my grief at that time.

In other words, it was through the process of doing my work—the slow, old-fashioned way—that I found this option and became stronger at exercising it. So when this new death occurred, I was ready. The muscle was there. And it was strong enough to hold me.

That’s what I mean by The Work is preventive medicine. The work I did in the past supports me today.

But there’s a big difference between discovering an insight through inquiry and reading about someone else’s experience, or trying to borrow an insight, even if it’s my own.

In my Experience, Borrowing Insights Doesn’t Work that Well

Other people’s insights are nice references. So are my own past insights. But they are not a substitute for my present experience.

Either I’m triggered now, or I’m not.

If I am, I need to do The Work, and no insight can help me. If I’m not triggered, then I don’t need to do The Work.

It’s that simple.

The Work Is Not Just Turnarounds

The work is not positive thinking. It is not even insights. The Work is self-exploration.

And it starts with deep listening to what are the stressful thoughts coming up in me. I need to be listened to before I can even consider a turnaround.

As Byron Katie sometimes puts it, stressful thoughts are like crying babies. They need to be held and listened to.

That’s What The Work Does

There is no substitute for that. I can’t just say to my self, “Let go of that thought!” or “Turn that around!” It won’t work. Just like it won’t help to tell a baby to stop crying.

The way The Work works is to take it slowly. It starts by really listening to what the crying thoughts are saying. And gently inviting the mind to explore the truth, or non-truth, of the thought in question.

This passes the power back to the mind. It says to the mind, “I trust you. You be the judge about what’s really true here. You be the judge about whether this thought brings peace or stress.” This can be so empowering when the mind is crying.

When the mind is crying, the four questions of The Work are there to hold it. Only after going through the four questions, does The Work invite the mind to explore the turnarounds and to look for examples of the turnarounds.

This Process Is Feels Like Kindness

This process is listening. It is empowering. It is gentle. It is objective. It is the opposite of “just letting go” which, of course, is not usually possible.

And, if I cannot let go of my stressful thoughts in a particular situation, then my pain is definitely NOT a choice for me. In this case, my pain is there for a reason. It is my faithful alarm clock, letting me know that I need to do some work.

Have a great weekend,

“That’s the purpose of stress. It’s a friend. It’s an alarm clock, built in to let you know that it’s time to do The Work.” Byron Katie, Loving What Is

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