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Finding Joy Amid the Pain

Even while we suffer, says Darlene Cohen, we can experience joy in life by opening up fully to our experience, not closing down. Drawing on her training as a Zen teacher and her own long experience with chronic pain, she offers an awareness approach to living well with suffering.

Catherine was a highly successful financial consultant in downtown San Francisco, a young woman thriving in a man’s world, reveling in all the rewards business acumen can bring: luxurious condo, designer wardrobe, everything but disability insurance. After her car accident, she found herself living with and financially dependent on her mother again, just as she had been as a child.

Ricardo played soccer every weekend before he herniated a disk at work; soccer games had been the center of his social world and his prowess the cornerstone of his identity. He had been married only a year, but he could no longer make love to his energetic, vivacious wife. Forced into the role of househusband while his wife supported them, he was depressed and humiliated.

Two years after her adored sister died of cancer, Emily seemed to be functioning just fine. She worked, had a family life, pursued hobbies. But suddenly and unpredictably, she still burst into tears and cried effusively. It was as if her sister’s death had opened up some old, deep wound that would never heal.

Many of us in the course of living our everyday lives endure terrible suffering: grief or anxiety or depression or physical pain that won’t go away. I think of this kind of suffering as “mundane” anguish, affliction rendered bearable only because it’s part of our everyday lives, like drawing breath or doing the dishes. If we ever got relief from it, we would suddenly apprehend how dreadful it actually is.

It doesn’t even take a specific loss to experience mundane anguish. We humans suffer just because everything changes all the time. Having once achieved some goal, we can’t rest on our laurels. All of life’s circumstances are dynamic, ever evolving into something else. We clutch at security in vain.

I myself have had rheumatoid arthritis, a very painful and crippling condition, for twenty years, and the stress of the disease—the fear of the future and the despair at what has been lost already—is often worse than the physical pain that I am suffering at any particular moment.

How do we deal with the mundane anguish of our everyday lives? How do we continue to live under crushing stress? And even further, how do we not just get through these things but have rich, full, and worthwhile lives that we actually want to live—under any circumstances?

Our intelligence and dignity themselves are developed by our being alive for everything, including the mundane anguish of our lives. Just our awareness of our sensations, of our experience, with no object or idea in mind, is the practice of not preferring any particular state of mind. Such intimacy with our activity and the objects around us connects us deeply to our lives. This connection—to the earth, our bodies, our sense impressions, our creative energies, our feelings, other people—is the only way I know of to alleviate suffering. To me, our awareness of these things without preference is a meditation that synchronizes body and mind. This synchronization, the experience of deep integrity, of being all of a piece, is a very deep healing.

I’ve often heard people in pain say, “I know it would be better if I could accept my pain, and I keep trying and trying, but I can’t! I can’t accept it; I hate it!” I think many people have a skewed idea of what “accepting” pain is. If you have the idea that coping well should resemble serenity or equanimity, something like the proverbial “grace under fire,” then you think you should resign yourself with a big cosmic grin, no matter what horrors are being visited upon you.

Actually, “accepting” pain sounds to me too passive to accurately describe the process of successfully dealing with chronic pain. It fails to convey the tremendous energy and courage it takes to accept physical pain as part of your life. Truly accepting pain is not at all like passive resignation. Rather, it is active engagement with life in its most intimate sense. It is meeting, dancing with, raging at, turning toward. To accept your pain on this level, you must cultivate particular skills. After you have developed some proficiency, dealing with pain feels much more like an embrace, or the bond that forms between sparring partners, than like resignation.

What are the skills necessary for dealing with chronic pain, pain that you have day in and day out and probably will have for a long time? If you have chronic pain, your job is to (1) acknowledge that pain and its burden, and (2) enrich your life exponentially. This is coming at chronic pain from two angles: one is acknowledging it and understanding what it costs you in terms of suffering; the other is opening up your life, making it so rich that no pain can commandeer it.

Before you lose your creative energy to depression and before you are disabled by somatic manifestations of your anxieties, you can begin to live with your suffering in such a way that life’s frustrations and disappointments are part of the rich tapestry of living. In order to have such an attitude, you need to cultivate skills that enable you to be present for all of your life, not just the moments you prefer.

Acknowledging your suffering—exactly what it is costing you to live with your painful situation—is the first step on the path of penetration into the wellspring of your experience, and it holds tremendous potential for your liberation from depression and anxiety.

How do you learn to acknowledge your suffering? I think it lies in practicing respect for all your feelings. You must treat your anxiety, pain, or hatred gently, respectfully, not resisting it but living with it. When you do resist it, you need to treat that with respect, too. You must develop your capacity to appreciate each thing as it is now, while inundated with suffering. Nothing should be treated with more respect than anything else.

When you are able to give all your feelings your full attention, without believing that one feeling is good and another bad (even if you think it is), then compassion, irritation, pain, hatred, and joy are all sacred. When our way is very hard, we have an opportunity to use every flicker of our imaginative fire. This attitude gives us a tremendous sense of freedom and creativity. We feel as if we can imbue any situation with the richness of our own poetry.

After I was bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis, my mobility was so impaired that volunteers from the San Francisco Zen Center began cleaning my room, doing my laundry, and washing my hair. As my body got weaker and my pain greater, and I could no longer deny my situation, I realized that this is the life I have been given. This is the body I have to live the rest of my life with. Within my experience, this is my reality. Every day, I woke up and began to say, “What part of my body can I use today to do the things I have to do?” Strangely, I found relief in just being the suffering. Because I was so ill, nothing was demanded of me: no function, no performance, no self-sufficiency, no heroics. Just me living and breathing. This baseline life allowed me to live in a very simple, nondemanding way.

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