Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Clean pain, dirty pain

This book is blowing my mind (an expression I am loathe to use). I'm reading concepts that I've sensed, but have had no words for, ideas that I just know are true, feel absolutely right, dead on, and liberating. If that isn't mind blowing, I don't know what is.

I would have preferred a more elegant term, but here's a concept: "dirty pain." Dirty pain is not simple pain. It's pain muddied up with ideas about how we should feel, what we should feel, why we are feeling what we're feeling, rules we've imposed on ourselves, all sorts of nonsense. I suppose dirty is as good a word for it as anything else. Pain muddied by other issues is surely dirty.

I've often wondered about this. I've had ample evidence that I have a high tolerance for pain. This contradicts my relationship to chronic pain. I've explained this away by saying it's because it's worn me out. Well, sure it has, but still, I know in my heart that I haven't learned to cope with chronic pain, even after a lifetime of it. And why does it just get worse? I know I'm not alone in this by a long shot. I've heard this from every chronic pain sufferer I've known. It only gets worse with time. The reason for that seems mysterious. Even the people I've thought most wise about their health problems admitted to this one; we would all scratch our heads and even laugh at how counterintuitive it seemed to be that it only got worse with time. One thing we'd agree on is that exhaustion had to play a part. But still. It didn't seem enough of an explanation.

I've sat for six hour long tattoo sessions. I do not mind pain. I'll go further and say that I can enjoy it. That's clean pain. It's pain that I know has an time limit, or pain that I've asked for. If I injure myself, I might even laugh about it. Getting my blood drawn, the pain of a test, these kinds of things, they don't bother me at all. It's absurd - I spent 15 years tattooing people and helping them understand that pain is only a sensation! This same person can't handle chronic pain. How can that be so?

Underneath the pain are messages that cause suffering, that's why. Yesterday was a good example. I woke up in a startling amount of pain. My first thought was "What did I do wrong?" That was the first bit of dirt. That one thought muddied the waters. I caused myself to suffer by trying to figure out why I felt the way I did, and I had to find blame. I thought through the day before. I ate pork. Maybe it was the pork. That was dirty pain thought #2. I broke a "rule" and now I'm being punished for it. When I got up and realized just how weak I felt, I could have gone back to bed and gotten more rest. But no, I forced myself up, and set about making breakfast, in spite of feeling exhausted. Dirty thought #3: I must get up. If I don't get up, I'm succumbing to depression. No, I needed more rest. If I had broken my leg, I'd keep the cast on, keep my leg elevated, take care of it. Simple. But this is not simple; it's dirty. Later, I started to cry, and that's when dirty thought #4 and #5 came in: "I shouldn't be crying." Dick was home, so I thought "It feels bad to cry alone when there's someone here." That produced an avalanche of dirty pain thoughts "My parents ignored me when I was sick." "I've lost so many people because of my health problems." "People shouldn't have to suffer alone." "I need some tenderness." "I am helpless." "I am hopeless." "I am an idiot for continuing to fight for life living like this." As you can see quite plainly, waking up in pain caused me to suffer way more than physical pain could possibly merit. If it was only physical pain, I could handle it well. It is not.

Of course, I knew this, but I did not know it in a simple way. Calling it "dirty pain" makes sense. Trying to finally tease out what avalanches of suffering are caused by these fleeting thoughts is my task at hand. I may be able to see that these thoughts are fleeting and are "not me." I may be able to detach, but there's truth behind these thoughts, or emotional hurts that need to be finally (at long last) addressed. I am not living by my values on account of my pain, and that needs to end. It must end. I do not like who I have become. I do not like how my life has become so small, how I've stopped making plans, having hopes and dreams, stopped giving to others fully (or at all). .

Though I'm sorry others suffer, iit does feel good to know that I'm so very much not alone in this. It's all very typical behavior, a common problem. Right now, I feel physical pain and I am "just" experiencing it. I am not suffering. It just is. I can live with that. It's like the pain of doing too much exercise. Well, not entirely. That feels good.

Painting note: Ferdinand Hodler 1853 – 1918 Date and title of painting unknown (by me).


jmcleod76 said...

This all makes complete sense to me, from the comfort of objective distance. Like you, I have a high threshold for certain types of pain. It's one thing when you know what the pain is, when you can wrap your head around it. Pain is tolerable - maybe even pleasant - when it's finite, when you know what brought it on, and you have a reasonable expectation for when it will end. More importantly, it's tolerable when you know that it doesn't signal anything serious. That's why we have pain, after all, to warn us when something is wrong (when it's doing it's proper job, anyway, and not fucking around like a toddler left alone in a room full of breakables). When we know what that "something" is, and that the "something" isn't really anything to worry about, we can sit back and allow pain to be just a sensation. It's predictable, and we like our lives to be predictable. Even if we think we like danger, we court that danger in calculated, predictable ways - skydiving, bungee jumping, kinky sex with safe words ... we have a reasonable expectation of how these things will turn out. It's uncertainty that pulls the rug out from under us, almost always. What is this pain? What's causing it? Is it something I can control? When will it end? If it does end, will it come back? When? Will it be as bad as now? Worse? You may have the answer to some of those questions, but clearly not all of them. Some of them are unanswerable. Regardless, the mind goes looking for answers, patterns. That's nothing to feel bad about. That's what the mind does. It's what's kept us, as a race, from being eaten by the lions. The trick, I suppose, is holding loosely to our thoughts - using them when they're valuable, letting them slip away when they're not, and like the Serenity Prayer you mentioned yesterday having "the wisdom to know the difference." Easier said than done, of course. This book you're reading sounds very Buddhist. Is that intentional, on the author's part, or just another of those Dharmic coincidences one inevitably encounters?

Best of luck with your pain today - and tomorrow, and whenever. I've said it before, but please, please take care of yourself.

Much love. jjm

Julie H. Rose said...

Absolutely right. The book is translated from the Swedish. It's a "dharmic coincidence" but I'm sure these authors have studied Zen. No, I'm not sure, but I find it impossible to imagine otherwise.