Pain and one approach to coping with it
This is presented merely as something to ponder or think over. You may even try adopting this approach when you are in pain, say with a nagging headache or a back ache. We’re not saying that it would be easy, but it might be a worthwhile experiment. Try it as a thought experiment after you read this essay.
We think it was Alan Watts (1915 – 1973) in one of his numerous paperback books on Zen and eastern philosophy that described this approach to one’s encounter with pain. Say one has some pain, take for example a headache (and painkillers are either not at hand or not wanted, or are ineffective in eliminating this pain), and the pain is continuing for some time. In our example, let’s say the person is in (not insignificant) physical pain for one hour. At the time the pain started, the person had no idea how long the pain would continue unabated, but expected it to continue for some appreciable time.
How should a person approach or react to significant continuing pain, not intermittent but constant pain and discomfort? Watts’ premise was that the difficulty we experience with such pain is increased by our thinking and worrying about the future continuance of the pain. As we recall, he said to the effect in his illustrative example, that at 2:37 p.m. you were in pain. And, later at 3:05 p.m. you were still in pain. But how did you react to the pain you were experiencing at 2:37? Did you add to that moment’s pain a lot of worry and anxiety and apprehension (expectation) that you would still be in pain for another half hour or one hour or more? The added worry and anxiety can serve to needlessly drain one of energy and also serve to depress one’s mental state. This can make the pain at any given moment seem larger (worse) than it truly is.
Watts proposed that when in such pain we ought to ignore the past and the future and live in the “now”, the immediate moment only. It is irrelevant to the current moment that you were in pain one second ago and also five minutes ago, etc. Similarly, it is also irrelevant to the present moment that you might be in pain a minute from now, and even an hour or more from now. Freeing oneself of the concerns of the past and the future can lessen the burden that the present moment’s pain places upon one. This Zen like change to our perspective could make the pain less debilitating, less difficult to endure.
Watts was not saying that this change in perspective would eliminate the present moment’s pain or the next moment’s pain (if one is to still be in pain). He was saying that each individual moment of pain does not need to be exaggerated or made worse by worries and expectations of possible future moments of pain. In a sense, he was advocating a digital approach to enduring pain as opposed to an analog approach. Each moment is a discrete packet of pain and is independent of the moment preceding it and the moment succeeding it. Of course, many of us experience (or perceive) pain as a steady stream, or continuous flow of pain. But, Watts’ ideas do have conceptual appeal. Putting them into practice while we are experiencing pain is no doubt easier said than done.
As for so-called “tolerance” to pain, the differences among individuals may be caused by different mental outlooks. It seems to me that it is possible to psyche oneself out about pain. Like as a child, in the doctor’s or dentist’s office, many of us sweated having to get a shot. Remember, our subconscious mind can only follow the instructions we give to it. If we keep obsessing on possible pain and our inability to cope with it or to face it, the subconscious will give that same message back to us, and we will have trouble dealing with pain. It is the proverbial “self-fulfilling prophecy”. At least try to maintain a neutral attitude or outlook towards pain. Even some positive affirmations could not hurt. “The pain will only be very temporary. I will not let it get me down. Others have endured and overcome greater pain. So, it will not be so bad.”
I had several tetanus shots in my childhood even into my early teens – just could not stay away from construction sites or wood piles and got punctured by a few iron nails or other metal fragments. Perhaps, I never overcame the dislike of shots. When my dentist goes to do a filling or crown, he asks if I want any Novocaine or whatever they use these days. My response is that the needle will cause me more discomfort than his drill.
Bad headaches plague me not infrequently. Rarely do I take anything for them. The over the counter pills just are not strong enough, and the side effects of prescription pain killers are not wanted either. Usually, the approach taken by me is to simply go about my day and not pay too much attention to the pain. The pain can lessen or intensify at different times throughout the day, but unless it is intense, the pain is usually not noticed much. When the headache lasts into the third day, however, it usually has worn me out by costing me some sleep over 2 nights. When the pain belatedly stops, it is usually only after the next night’s sleep that I feel back to “normal”.
Waking up to leg cramps in my lower legs is a much different story. Sometimes as I am awaking I can feel one or the other calf muscles tightening up and can quickly change the position of my leg to prevent the intense cramp coming on. There are times when a cramp strikes without any warning. This high level of pain cannot be ignored and one is forced to live (suffer) in the immediate moment. The muscle cramps up so tightly that it is pressing down extremely hard on the sciatic nerve and the pressure registers in my brain as intense and steady pain. The only way to get the cramp to go away is for me to be punching the bunched up, swollen muscle very vigorously. After a bad attack, the muscle is bruised deep down, but not from my punching. The cramp’s intensity seems to be actually bruising the interior muscle well beyond what my blows could do. (Having gone online to look into this, doctors can say that such cramps are not that uncommon as people age, and that they are not life threatening and do not cause cancer. But, no one really knows why this occurs. It just adds some pain to an occassional morning and sometimes elicits or provokes some unseemly curses from sufferers.)
Pain is part of life in this world. But, perhaps, we as individuals can adopt approaches that can lessen its effects on us, and not let it detract too much from our daily living which is challenging and stressful enough. There are those who tend to glorify pain (usually religious zealots who also can traffic in excess guilt). But, I do not share this view. There is no virtue in suffering for suffering’s sake or just to be suffering. A corollary here would be that severity for severity’s sake is known as cruelty. (Of course, if there is a need for penance for past sins, then one can do greater charity as charitable and loving sacrifices can atone for a multitude of sins.) It seems that we are put through one hell of a lot of suffering over the course of our lives. That is the reality of the human condition.
Please beware of Tylenol and the prescription Vicodin. The acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol) in them can strain your liver. Do not be using them too often. Occasional use is not hazardous but chronic use may be very harmful to the liver. There is currently disagreement within the medical community about this, but concerns about acetaminophen go back many years. There are people who go through bottles of Tylenol as often as the rest of us go through bags of potato or corn chips – and that is not good for their health. When there is controversy in the US medical establishment about something, methinks the best approach is to avoid, if possible, the item of controversy. As the old adage goes “When in doubt, don’t.” (As well, the US medical establishment is not known for being quick in admitting errors.)
As always, best wishes to all readers.