I often find myself pondering the concept of suffering. This is nothing morbid, nor a reflection of my own state of mind but rather a side effect of my work. I am often asked to help people with their physical complaints and sometimes those who seek me out are suffering.
Now the definition of suffering is called a state of pain, distress or hardship yet I have known of many people in pain who are not suffering. I have also met plenty of people who are enduring a hardship but they are not suffering. There have been times too that I have met people who are suffering but they are not in pain, nor do they have hardship. In my mind, true suffering comes from a distress caused when we are in conflict with what we are experiencing.
Pain does not become suffering even at intense levels unless we are distressed by what we feel on more than just the physical level. Some who by the nature of their condition are experiencing large amounts of pain do not describe what they feel as suffering. The body can be in physical distress yet the mind and emotions can remain clear. In this situation the person is not suffering. Conversely, low levels of pain do not mean a person is not feeling distress. Even a small pain can become suffering if we cannot accept it. Suffering is entirely subjective.
Pain serves a purpose in life. It is there to drive us away from its source. It is a natural phenomenon in our nervous system that ultimately protects our lives or at least reduces our damage. When we feel pain we pull back away like snatching our hand from a flame. If we react quickly to the pain, we only get a second degree blister instead of a third degree trauma. So pain protects us from greater harm.
Chronic pain, the type of pain that stays with us, is another matter. Since our nervous system is designed to act on pain by pulling us away from painful sources, chronic pain confuses our unconscious mind. It thinks since the pain is still there that we have not gotten the message and it brings our attention to the pain over and over again. See it says – that is painful – get away from it. Yet the nature of a chronic condition is that we cannot resolve the pain. There is no place to run. Our unconscious mind’s attempt to help us instead pushes us into a greater awareness of our pain, almost as if the pain is magnified. This is when some may begin to suffer. Yet it is not the amount of pain, nor even the chronic nature of the pain that causes us suffering. The conflict between what we desire to have and what we actually have is the pathway that leads us to suffering.
Solace through yoga
Solace is defined as a comfort or consolation in a time of distress. Solace is not necessarily the reduction in pain or the increase in physical ability but rather a change in the perception of the person experiencing distress. Solace comes in many forms.
I work with a physical therapy group where I teach yoga to those in chronic pain. The classes are very gentle and simple. Many of the clients in this group arrive in a physically debilitated state. Many are suffering and some have been suffering for years. Frequently these clients find solace in the yoga that I teach and their solace is a comfort to both their body and mind. Physically, the gentle yoga poses work to activate long dormant muscles and provide physical relief through balancing opposing forces throughout the body. This form of gentle yoga is one I call Recuperative Yoga and it is designed to bring comfort to a body in distress. Recuperative yoga, coupled with an attitude of respect for the body’s limits can go a long way in creating a pathway to healing. However, since suffering is more than just physical distress, we do more than just physical yoga. Greater solace can be achieved through a change of mental perspective.
One of the most important things I teach to the chronic pain student is a guided relaxation called Open Focus. The Open Focus relaxation is a guide to unite the body and mind through the senses. What we hear, feel, see, taste and smell is a constant input into our nervous system. Yet once we receive the input, we filter most of it as non-essential. If the input is ordinary and does not trigger our mind into thinking it is an opportunity or threat, we will not be conscious of what that sense is bringing to us. Right now as you are reading this, you are hearing, feeling and seeing a large number of things. Yet, if you are really paying attention to what you are reading you are probably only aware of one or two sounds, maybe a sensation or two, especially if you have some sort of ache, and you are consciously seeing only what is in the very center of your vision.
Want to try a little Open Focus?
Relax your body in a comfortable position, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Starting with what you hear, notice the loudest sound, notice voices, music, traffic noises, electrical noises… Some sounds are close to you and louder, but others are farther away. Some sounds are nearly constant whereas others are random or intermittent. The more you listen, the more sounds you will hear. Soon instead of one or two sounds you may become aware of more than a dozen, all layered together and happening at the same moment. This is open focus and we can do this with every one of our senses.
When we open our focus our conscious mind begins to notice the moment as it is happening. This is the very moment that our unconscious mind and body never leave. When we create an interaction of conscious mind, unconscious mind and body together we can create within ourselves a profound sense of relaxation. Using this technique we can learn to give equal attention to each aspect of our senses. When we practice this technique with what we feel, we learn that painful sensations can be brought into perspective with all the other sensations. If we open our focus, although pain may still be perceptible, it can be balanced with everything else we feel. Thus we can create solace and reduce our suffering.
If you are intrigued with this and want to experience it yourself you can find this on my Peaceful Relaxation guided meditation audio. The audio contains several relaxations along with the Open Focus meditation. If you want to listen to a short clip of the relaxations, you can find them online through iTunes and Amazon. I also end most of my yoga classes with this relaxation if you want to experience a ‘live’ version.
See you on the mat,