The Power of Our Perceptions When Suffering From Chronic Pain

B&W picture of woman looking out on a lake on a cloudy, cold day

I am often asked, “What helped you to get better, to overcome pain?”            

There are many things from a healthy diet, to yoga, stretching and exercising, to certain medical treatments like prolotherapy. Those helped me physically. What helped me emotionally cope with chronic pain, and still does, all started many years ago at an event that taught me about the power of our perceptions. I almost did not attend because I knew that one hour of laying on the floor instead of my bed, would cause tumultuous muscle spasms and increased pain; but, I am grateful courage came forth that night. It started me on a path of deep healing. 

That eventful night, I attended a Dharma talk in a run-down, white house in San Francisco. Perfectly centered between gold and red tapestries that cascaded down the front walls of a small room sat a monk whose serene expression contrasted the sharp, prickly hairs that stood erect on her shaved head. Her serenity brought me a glimpse of peace to which I and the other nineteen attendees hungrily clung.

The Dharma talk’s topic was Suffering. I knew this word well, as do most people. Its meaning is understood through experience that encroaches upon us by one means or another. To me, chronic pain was synonymous with suffering.

 “We are the cause of our suffering,” the monk told us matter-of-factly and gave an example: Imagine standing in a long line, and a stranger pushes you aside to get ahead. What is your first reaction? Do you yell at the person or make sly comments out of anger and impatience while she stands in front of you? Do you envision ways to get back at her for taking your spot and making you wait longer? Do you politely tell her that you were already there? “Or,” offered the monk, “do you first consider the possibility that this person may have been distracted by her own thoughts, not even realizing that she jumped ahead in line, or perhaps, she is in a hurry for a very important reason and it is okay to let her go before you?”

Then, she asked us:

  • Which reactions would create anger, impatience, and tension—more suffering?
  • Which reactions would not create suffering?
  • Do you think that the situation created your emotional suffering, or was it your thoughts and reactions to the situation?

 “How we perceive a situation affects our emotions and thoughts,” was the wisdom that the monk shared with us that night. 

   

Does Pain or Our Perceptions of Pain Cause Our Feeling Victimized? 

When I went home that night, I wondered how the Dharma talk pertained to me. I first thought that the stranger the monk talked about was my pain. Pain was a ferocious entity, a parasite that cruelly sucked so much life from me, cutting me off from the world. I was furious with pain. It exhausted me. It exhausted my hopes. I tried to control it, but my inability to do so resulted in feeling victimized—conquered. I resented this, thusly, I feared and rejected pain more.

Yet, later that night after the Dharma talk, I realized the stranger, which I originally thought was pain shoving and pushing me aside, was actually me. I had become my own victim. The pain was not destroying me; my thoughts, beliefs, perceptions of and emotional reactions to pain had been making me feel victimized. As we enter experiences with certain beliefs, we in turn, create a reality to validate these beliefs. Reality, or more literally, our perception of reality, is what we make it. The meaning I gave suffering, and the story about my suffering on which I ruminated, caused my suffering.

Although I hated pain and battled and feared it, I began to recognize that I did not actually hate and fear pain itself, I hated and feared feeling pain. I was not afraid of pain, I was afraid of suffering and what I emotionally identified with the concept of suffering. It is not emotional or physical pain, but the aversion to pain that caused my suffering. I had created a world of rejecting experiences (rejecting the sensation of pain, my body, myself). How could I not feel anything but enormous fear, depression, and loneliness? It was I who had been taking away my power, not pain.

Pain can feel overwhelmingly powerful, physically, mentally, and emotionally; however, just as our mind can play a large part in our suffering, it can also free ourselves from suffering. Our perceptions are subjective, not fixed. We can change our thoughts, perceptions, attitude, beliefs, and our outlook. 

 

That night, the Buddhist lecture initiated my process of learning that when we look through the keyhole into our life, it is important to detach from thoughts, desires, emotions, fears, actions and reactions. When we let go of unhealthful thoughts and reactions, we create space for positive thoughts, open-mindedness, adaptable thinking, and joy. 

I never want to limit my life, but rather, enhance my life with a reality of possibilities.

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