Healing Through Pain and Pleasure
Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. – Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen
Pleasure—embodied, connected pleasure—is one of the ways we know when we are free. That we are always free. That we always have the power to co-create the world. Pleasure helps us move through the times that are unfair, through grief and loneliness, through the terror of genocide, or days when the demands are just overwhelming. Pleasure heals the places where our hearts and spirit get wounded. Pleasure reminds us that even in the dark, we are alive. Pleasure is a medicine for the suffering that is absolutely promised in life. – Adrienne Maree Brown
Here are a few reflections on pleasure and pain in the healing process from my life experience.
I had out-patient double inguinal laparoscopic hernia surgery in the beginning of August. I was experiencing some discomfort and pain immediately after the surgery so I decided to take an oxycodone pill expecting the ride home in the car might be rough. The immediate discomfort after this kind of surgery is the carbon dioxide gas still in the abdomen that hasn’t been absorbed yet. After I got home, I was doing well enough that I could cook my own dinner and rest with some comfort. I took another pain pill to get a good night’s sleep. I still had some pain and discomfort the next morning but that was the end of the oxycodone for me. One of the side effects of narcotics is slowing large intestine activity. Getting the bowels moving again after surgery was more important than having pain. And by the time my elimination system was operational, the pain was manageable with Tylenol.
Managing pain is one of the great advances in Western medicine. In my early 40’s I started having some joint pain with osteoarthritis. As we get older, the damage we do to our joints in our younger years starts catching up with us. Being hit by a car and thrown across an eight-lane intersection when I was twenty had some negative consequences for some of my finger joints and my right wrist that I landed on. Not right away thankfully, but 20 years later. That was when I started taking Glucosamine Chondroitin. Today I take GNC Tri-Flex. The huge, hard to swallow pills don’t eliminate all the pain but the remaining discomfort doesn’t interfere much with my daily life.
I’m grateful those pills, a multivitamin, and a D3 supplement are the only pills I take daily. Maybe once a week or so I’ll take a Tylenol for a headache or tension in my back or neck. If I’ve worked hard doing some extra work or have accomplished a significant task, I might have a beer or a dish of salted caramel (lactose free) ice cream. Each pain or pleasure modifier helps me maintain my homeostasis. Maintaining a sense of well-being is enhanced by balancing the levels of pleasure and pain we encounter.
And sometimes more action is needed to get back in balance. The emotional pain that arises in relationship, for example, can’t be resolved by taking a pill or having an extra serving of dessert. I’ve learned over the years the healing choice is to move toward the people that I’m experiencing conflict with rather than away. I’ve learned many communication skills in listening, reflecting what I’m hearing, asking honest questions, revealing myself appropriately and at times pushing into painful areas that can help resolve the conflict and reestablish care, compassion and trust. I find each such engagement both scary and sacred as I work to hold my heart open to my suffering and to theirs.
The most profound learning I’ve experienced finding healing through pain and pleasure has happened on meditation retreats. Sitting, walking, standing, lying down and eating in silence while being minutely attentive to body sensations moment by moment is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding. Sitting completely still for an hour or two brings attention to every chronically tight muscle or imbalance in posture or movement. For some people this is easy. For most it can be very painful, even agonizing at times.
I remember well one of those agonizing moments. I was pushing myself hard to sit late into the night after everyone had gone to bed. I was in a hurry. I wanted to become a meditation super star like the masters I’d read about who didn’t need to sleep because they were so accomplished. I sat with a pain in my shoulder I just couldn’t manipulate to make it go away. Exhausted and defeated I gave up and decided to follow the meditation instructions exactly instead of modifying them to suit my preferences. As I let go and accepted the discomfort without needing to fix it or push it away, it released. The words point to the experience but the experience itself felt like a taste of the liberated mind. Finally, after years of practice, I knew where I was going.
Pleasure and pain are facts of life, sensations that can teach us and help us in the healing process. May we strive to learn from them honoring both as important and necessary for us to restore our inner balance.