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Accept your pain

Accept your pain:

It’s radical but it’s the only way through.

If you are like most of my clients accepting your pain sounds like the definition of insanity. They say, “accept my pain? I’ll never get better.” Recent evidence-based practices like mindfulness and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) suggest that turning toward the pain may just be the best way through.

“So if I accept, turn toward my pain. It gets better?”. Yes. One of the great axioms in Buddhist philosophy is that avoidance causes suffering. Avoidance is human nature. In terms of pain, our natural response is to avoid it or get rid of it. For acute pain, this makes a lot of sense. Put your hand on a hot burner, remove it for goodness sake. But for chronic pain, avoidance makes it worse. It’s like trying to sleep when you can’t. The more we focus on not sleeping, the worse insomnia gets. If I tell you not to think of a warm piece of chocolate cake, you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Try. See? Hold on. I have to go bake a cake!

With this in mind, ACT offers practices for facilitating acceptance of physical and emotional pain. They all involve turning toward your pain, learning from it, breathing and watching it dissolve. My favorite exercise is a variation on what’s called the Physicalizing exercise. It involves focusing your attention on the pain and describing it in terms of shape, size, weight, temperature, surface, edges. As you do that, invariably the pain changes or moves. As you continue tracking, breathing and describing, the pain gets better.

With acceptance, there is a relaxing of the mental, physical and emotional resistance to pain. ACT suggests that you put energy into living your core values instead of putting it toward resistance. There is a big difference between thinking, “this pain is awful. I don’t want it and it will never get better. ” versus “I am in pain. I don’t like it. I’m sad and angry about it. And now how am I going to live my life moving forward.” By focusing on what is important to you and what gives you joy, you put the pain in its place. Pema Chodron, a very wise, Buddhist teacher says it well. “The only way to ease your pain is to experience it fully. Learn to stay with uneasiness, learn to stay with tightening, so that the habitual chain reaction doesn’t continue to rule your life”. It is most definitely not an easy path. It’s even radical but with attention, acceptance and compassion, there is a way through. And you are not alone.

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