Several years ago, after a head injury that left me with years of chronic migraines, I read an amazing book called, "Living Well with Pain and Illness: The Mindful Way to Free Yourself from Suffering” by Vidyamala Burch. It’s an amazing book. The thing that’s stuck with me has been these two premises:
SOMETIMES WE WILL HAVE PAIN. We can’t avoid that. But we can avoid increasing our pain!
These ideas were consistent with our yoga teachings, but her exercises on living with pain helped me take the ideas in just when I felt most hopeless. Specifically, we cannot change that sometimes we’ll experience pain and other stressors, but we can control how we respond to them.
Burch says that our most common responses cause “secondary pain.” Yes! We tense and grip and brace, which actually causes more pain. We avoid situations and emotions—and they follow us, prolonging our discomfort. We even cause ourselves pain by clinging to our joys—depriving us of completely being in the moment in each scenario, what we deem pleasant and unpleasant. Everything changes, the “good” and the “bad.” Attaching to either of them can increase our discomfort.
Our yoga teaches us the principles of nonattachment and surrender. This quote from the actor Michael J. Fox, whose life has been altered greatly by Parkinson’s disease, illustrates those principles in action. He explained, “If I let it affect everything, it’s gonna own everything. I don’t deny or pretend it’s not there, but if I don’t allow it to be bigger than it is, then I can do everything else.” Now that’s some amazing nonattachment and surrender!
As he demonstrates, nonattachment doesn’t mean you don’t care. That would be a huge lie! Of course we care. We don’t have to like everything life sends our way. But we can avoid creating secondary pain and missing out on the gifts that might be hidden in each moment. I’ve been relying on those lessons a lot this year with the physical challenges that have come my way.
Our yoga offers us the opportunity to practice and develop the truly difficult skills of staying present and awake, even when we want to flee, wallow and wail. What is that process? We question, gather information, be with what we’re experiencing, feel what we need to feel…and then accept. We accept that sometimes we have limitations. Sometimes we have pain. Sometimes we’re bored, frustrated, angry. And we accept that those are part of our human condition. And what’s next? Then there’s action.
Sometimes that action is surrender, releasing your expectations of how you thought something “should” be. Oh, those are some shackles to pain! Letting go can be the path to clarity on the right way forward. Sometimes it’s accepting how something is now, and working to shift it. Maybe it’s recognizing a weakness and taking action to grow strength there. Maybe it’s activism, communication, getting educated or just being with yourself or someone else compassionately.
We can all learn to flow with our lives more peacefully. What I know is that we can embrace life more comfortably when we let go of our egoic expectations, and when we allow ourselves the time and space to explore our reactions and get clear about what’s happening in our life. That leads to a more skillful reaction and maybe even some new gifts of understanding and growth!
I've taught and lived yoga for more than 20 years. I know it can be intimidating. But it can also be fun--and rewarding--regardless of your starting point or challenges. On this blog I share some of the yoga wisdom that sustains me.