DT-Transforming Mental Pain into Freedom

Tonight, I’ll draw on a chapter in Joko Beck’s book Ordinary Wonder to discuss how meditation practice can help us transform mental pain into freedom. Most of us carry unnecessary tension in the body. Rather than flowing with life’s continuous changes, we tend to resist what feels unpleasant. Whenever we react with aversion or grasp at what we desire, parts of the body tighten and gradually become rigid. (I am not speaking about intractable or excruciating pain that requires medical intervention.)

Meditation practice allows us to observe that we seldom accept circumstances just as they are. Instead, we tend to function according to our personal agenda for how we think life should be. Unrealistically, we keep hoping that no unpleasantness will ever occur. When my nose itches, I notice an urge to scratch it. If my back is stiff, I have an impulse to shift my posture to alleviate the tightness. It’s only when I let go of futile attempts to control what feels unpleasant that my restlessness subsides and my habitual bodily tension begins to dissipate.

Joko Beck admits that it took decades of practice before her body was naturally relaxed most of the time. Her advice is to keep releasing repetitive thoughts and judgments, while returning over and over to awareness of body sensations. The body communicates in the present moment and does not lie. It registers challenges in life as discomfort. As we develop trust in its innate wisdom, we learn to let the mind follow the body’s lead towards stillness.

As Joko says, our difficulties are important because they remind us to pay attention to what’s happening. In her words, “[M]uch of our pain is in trying not to feel it …. If you can get your mind out of the way, the pain can start to dissolve.” When we stay with uncomfortable physical sensations without adding our opinions and worries about what should be happening, pain naturally transforms. Simply experiencing it as fully as possible, without overthinking, permits the pain to fade.

It takes a lot of daily sitting practice to build enough courage and discipline to experience discomfort without fleeing or seeking distractions. At first, we may stay with a painful sensation for only a couple of seconds before the attention wanders away. Persistent practice teaches us to be with mental pain for longer and longer periods of time.

Recently, I had an opportunity to practice with a distressing situation at the hospice where I volunteer as a chaplain. A visibly upset nurse greeted me with the news that, without any advance notice to the hospice director, one of the employees had been “furloughed” abruptly at 4:00 pm the prior afternoon. A Human Resources representative from the umbrella organization that oversees the hospice had phoned our colleague, giving her one hour to leave the premises. As of that moment, her work computer access was denied, and her health insurance was terminated. She had no time to fill her medical prescriptions nor to bid farewell to her co-workers and the patients she had been serving.

As I listened, I was aware of my clenched jaw and my tight belly. I felt outraged on behalf of this dedicated case worker, who had labored for decades in the community to help people suffering from HIV and AIDS. When I phoned her to express my condolences and support for her plight, she replied, “Thanks, but I feel as if I’ve been thrown away like trash.” The rest of the afternoon, I tried to console patients who were sad and angry that their beloved case worker had disappeared without any apparent reason. Amidst my words of comfort, I validated their justifiable feelings of indignation.

At home, I told Mark what had occurred. He agreed with my decision to write the CEO of the umbrella organization. In an e-mail letter, I praised Omega House hospice, where compassionate, respectful patient care impressed me during four years of chaplaincy internship and inspired me to continue volunteering there as a chaplain. I described the harmful effects of my colleague’s sudden furlough on patients and on staff morale.

From my viewpoint, even when a financial crisis necessitates layoffs, a devoted employee merits at least two weeks of notice to say goodbye, to receive gratitude for their service, and to bring dignified closure to their work with patients. It does not reflect well on the agency if people in the community hear that honest, hard-working health-care workers are being terminated suddenly without any warning. By the time I sent the letter, my body felt more relaxed.

The CEO replied promptly, addressing me as “Pastor Ginger” and thanking me for my feedback. She offered to arrange a phone date to discuss the situation. During a courteous conversation about stressful economic pressures that she is facing, she acknowledged the lack of compassion in the way that my co-worker was fired. The CEO promised to schedule a meeting to listen to her grievances and seemed to understand the importance of treating employees humanely.

Although there is no happy ending to this situation, my meditation practice helped me to be aware of my angry, upset emotions and uncomfortable body sensations. Instead of reacting impulsively, I channeled the anger so that I could communicate clearly and firmly without causing harm to myself or others.

Joko points out that the normal tendency in our culture is to avoid reality when it’s painful. In general, we resist suffering. We tend to distract ourselves by eating favorite snacks or making fun purchases. If a relationship becomes difficult, we seek a new partner. If our body aches, we take a pill.

In my experience, people who have faced and endured hardships have a dignified presence that is palpable. At a wedding party on St. Patrick’s Day, Mark and I sat at a table next to guests we’d never met before. (To protect their identities, I’ll give them pseudonyms.)

Seated to Mark’s right was a solidly built man with a kind facial expression. “Matt” introduced us proudly to his attractive wife and their two mature teenage children. The family had traveled from Louisiana to attend the wedding. Matt divulged that the previous year they had made the trip to Houston multiple times for his wife’s ovarian cancer treatments in the Texas Medical Center. When we expressed sympathy, he said, “I feel blessed that she had wonderful medical care and that she’s now in remission. I’m grateful that we became closer as a family.” It was clear that by choosing to face the tough reality of a life-threatening illness, Matt and his family had transformed a scary, painful experience into gratitude and equanimity.

On my left side was a lovely young woman who projected an air of calm self-confidence. “Cora” introduced herself as an eighth-grade history teacher. Without a hint of self-pity, she told me that her husband died last summer at the age of 39 in a Veterans Hospital from injuries sustained during warfare in Iraq. Cora described how she and their two young daughters had accompanied him loyally during his declining health, taking trips that were on his bucket list, and finally supporting his wish to be disconnected from life support. She declared, “I have no regrets about how we lived the last months of his life.”

As a widowed single mother, she expressed her grief to a pen pal, “Tom,” whom she started writing when he was a military pilot in Iraq. Although they continued corresponding for twenty years, throughout his service in Afghanistan and his return to civilian life, they did not meet in person until he learned about her husband’s tragic death. At that point, Tom traveled to visit her and her daughters. He was impressed by her loving commitment to her children and her students and by her healthy routines of cooking nutritious meals and attending regular yoga classes. She appreciated his compassionate concern for her well-being and his friendly ease with her daughters.

Cora and Tom are now in a committed long-distance relationship, and they seemed very happy together as dinner partners at his cousin’s wedding. I sense that no matter what happens in her relationship with Tom, Cora has transformed the pain of her grief into a strong resilience that benefits her family, friends, students, and everyone she encounters. She is freely making choices to be healthy and content.

I was struck by the synchronicity of sitting with Matt and Cora, who had no idea that I was preparing a dharma talk about transforming mental pain into freedom. Each of them showed me that life’s difficulties can be our greatest teachers, bringing forth previously untapped reserves of fortitude, love, and compassion.  

Meditation practice helps us to build resilience to prepare for unexpected challenges in life. We learn to label our thoughts and to return to the body. Eventually, we realize, “It’s just thinking,” and we see the difference between thinking and sensation. Gradually we become free from being caught up in thoughts that resist reality. As we welcome reality with its ten thousand joys and sorrows, we shed conditioned fears and judgments about painful experiences. In that process, we are liberated to embrace life just as it is.