In my yoga class last week, we got a handout on "Mahamudra & the Practice of Patience."
Here are the six points of the practice as listed:
- This too will pass.
- I cannot control this in the present moment.
- I have put this and myself here.
- There is somebody who would find this pleasant.
- I can use this problem as a path.
- We must be as gardeners.
All are worthy of contemplation, but the one that spoke to me particularly was the fourth, about finding something uncomfortable or upsetting as pleasant.
What a wonderful way to reframe pain or suffering, whether it be emotional, mental or physical!
I thought of the most physically painful experience I've ever had, which was childbirth.
No surprise there, except for I purposefully went into it refusing any drugs of any kind. Not because I enjoy pain or am some kind of martyr, but primarily because I wanted to be fully aware, fully functioning and, of course, because I didn't want my baby to be influenced by anything unnecessary. Millions have given birth without medication, and I knew it was possible.
It's a personal choice, of course, but in knowing this—knowing I didn't want pain relief—I had to do some serious work to prepare mentally for something all-consuming, painful and completely involuntary. There is no way to run away from childbirth. In classes and through reading and self-study, I worked with my breath and with pain-coping techniques. But above all, I had my mindset.
After that experience, I had no doubts about the whole "mind over matter" thing. Indeed, though each contraction was intense, overwhelming and painful, I never once countenanced the notion of getting drugs, because my mind was made up. (And a good thing I was prepared, too: my labor was so fast I would not have been able to have an epidural if I'd wanted one. Imagine if I had wanted one, and how great my pain would have seemed to me when compounded by dashed expectations!)
Still, it was painful. But thinking "Somebody would find this pleasant" casts the pain in a whole new light.
Who might find it pleasant? Someone who wants nothing more than to be a mother, but who is struggling with infertility or who has miscarried. Someone who has been paralyzed from the neck down. Someone whose body has been injured or is deformed such that a desired pregnancy is impossible.
Even in the moment, I knew the pain was for something good. But, what about pain nearly as bad, but that has no seeming benefit? A few months ago, I had kidney stones. (Misdiagnosed, so at the time I didn't know why I was writhing in pain.) It was excruciating--just horrible. I was so scared, because the doctors didn't know what was wrong with me. At the time, I had nothing positive going on in my head. But imagine if I could have at least tried to mitigate the clenching in my body and breath. Maybe I could have seen the pain as something positive: A body trying to let me know something was wrong--and therefore the chance to heal. If we didn't experience pain, how would we know to address whatever was causing such an insult?
At the furthest point, you can always look at suffering this way: Because of this suffering, I know I am alive. This requires that we look at life as a gift, no matter how tough. (I imagine that can be very difficult in very extreme situations, but that's a topic for another post. For now, it's worth thinking on as a thought experiment. How might even the worst situation be something we can be grateful for?)
Or from an emotional perspective: Remember the couple I discussed a few posts back? The pain of an impending divorce must have been overwhelming, depressing. But who might have seen it as pleasant? Perhaps a woman in Afghanistan, whose rights are so curtailed that divorce (no matter how terrible the husband) is not an option?
I think you can see the direction of these thought experiments.
Now ask yourself, who would find your problem pleasant?