Facing Our Pain

by on October 11th, 2014
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Facing Pain


This is the second of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapter three through five. To find out more or to ask to be of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.



You may recall from the introduction that Pema Chödrön identified the main underlying thread of the seven years of her talks that led to this book.  This thread is maitri. I thought it would be helpful to begin the discussion of chapters three through five by describing maitri in more detail.

Maitri (pronounced mītrē): Developing loving-kindness and unconditional friendship with ourselves. Maitri is to observe clearly and accurately “who we are, what we do; seeing our patterns and habits” while loving ourselves. To have maitri is to see ones habits and patterns unvarnished AND with unconditional friendliness.  She emphasizes that this is not self-improvement process “rather it is a process by which self-deception becomes so skillfully and compassionately exposed that there’s no mask to hide us.”  It is “giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart.”

In chapter three she writes, “We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators.  We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives”. 

So we meditate to be awake—not to be good at it, not to be good. And what is it that we are to be awake too?  We are to be awake to Here and to Now.  Here and Now. That is, this very moment is the perfect teacher—the teacher that we need right here and right now.   We have, then, a very reliable teacher who is always here when needed.

But what if this teacher tells us, as Pema Chödrön’s  teacher told her, that we are to “lean into the sharp points”—that we are to confront the painful things, the things that our instincts tell us to run from.  What if this very moment is a very painful moment—a moment of fear, despair or shame?  What if this moment seems unbearably lonely?  Is this really a teacher we should stay with?  

It at first seems contradictory to self-love to expose ourselves to such pain.  Besides, it is very hard to do without lots of practice.  The point, however, is that suffering is lessened by facing pain, seeing it for what it is and coming to understand it’s impermanence. This is hard to do but it can be learned.  Having the courage to learn this is an act of love and compassion toward ourselves. 


Here’s how Pema Chödrön puts it:


“The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening… Basically, life has just nailed us…

            “Most if us do not take these situations as teachings.  We automatically hate them.  We run like crazy.  We use all kinds of ways to escape—all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it.  We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain…

            “Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear… What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance.  We’re able to see how we run and hide and keep ourselves busy so that we have to let our hearts be penetrated.  And we’re also able to see how we could open and relax.”  So when we begin to apply this to our lives and don’t succeed, we begin to see and learn from it.


So what is the alternative to staying with the moment as it is?  The alternative is to run, hide or pad it with something.  We push away reality and grasp comfort or what, at first, seems like protection.  Since what we grasp  is not real comfort or real protection we continue to grasp for more, in the futile hope that we will find something we can hold on to.  This endless chase, with only temporary relief until we need to grasp for more,  is the very core of addiction.


If only we can stay with our teacher—this present moment, however painful, we can learn what it has to teach. “To the degree that we’re willing to see our indulging and our repressing clearly”, Pema Chödrön writes, “they begin to wear themselves out.  Wearing out is not exactly the same as going away.  Instead, a wider, more generous, more enlightened perspective arises.” She encourages us during the most difficult moments, “When we reach our limit, if we aspire to know that place fully—which is to say that we aspire to neither indulge nor repress—a hardness in us will dissolve.”


Meditation Tips:

  • The goal is mindfulness.  Meditation is the vehicle.  We do not strive to be good meditators.
  • Mindfulness is broad awareness versus laser focus.  It is helpful to think of soft focus.
  • Clear awareness is impermanent.  That is the nature of things.  Just like clear sky is impermanent.  Just like still water is impermanent.  A cloud passes through the clear sky.  The winds creates a ripple in the water.  Then it passes. So do not expect   many consecutive moments of clear awareness—if you have three seconds that is great..
  • Label you discursive thoughts, “thinking”.  Do this without judgment, with maitri, loving-kindness toward yourself.


Exercise:  After having established self in this sitting, comfortable but with straight back and relaxed chest and with eyes closed or half-closed:


Say to yourself (aloud or silently) “I am here and this is now.”  For moment be aware of the space you are in with everything around you but focus on nothing in particular.  You can look around or with your eyes closed scan the space by memory.


After awhile, shift your  focus to a worry, pain or sorrow that is present to you today.  Think of the trouble as following you as you walk away and then you turn around, stop and face it.  Say to it, “What do you have to teach me today?”

Then turn you mind to your body.  Where do you feel this worry, pain or sorrow; in your chest? In your gut?  What does it feel like?  Notice it’s solidity—it’s density.  “Ask yourself, is this really as solid and as dense as it feels; is this really as solid, as dense and as enduring as I think or fear it is?”  Maybe your answer, in the moment is “yes”.  That is okay.  Accept this.  Say to yourself  “At this moment my (worry, pain, sorrow) feels solid, dense & enduring.  Even as I am learning this may not be the case.”

If you can locate a different pain, sorrow or worry in your body shift your awareness there.  Focus on that for a moment in the same we just did.  If you don’t have another pain, worry or sorrow sit mindfully for a few minutes.


If you have already accepted an invitation to be part of the discussion go to: DISCUSSION

Next Post: 10/17/14


Categories: Therapists in Lancaster

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