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Pain: A Call for Attention


This is Part 3 of the series "Miracle of Self-Creation." Click here for Parts 1 and 2.


"A Bodhisattva is averse to causes; an ordinary person to results." — Chinese Buddhist saying

When I speak of the power of attention to create self and world, people immediately assume I will offer a repackaged version of The Secret, the Law of Attraction, or another variant of the idea that beliefs create reality. In fact, much of my thinking on this topic arose from the evident failure of the Law of Attraction to "work". I have seen countless people take it up with great enthusiasm: repeating affirmations, visualizing their perfect partner, programming themselves for prosperity and so on, only to conclude a few weeks later that they were fooling themselves, ignoring reality. Why isn't it working?

The most obvious reason would be that the Law of Attraction rests on unsound metaphysical principles. Indeed, it is profoundly unscientific, because it directly controverts the foundational ideology of science: Objectivity. It denies that there is an external universe separate from ourselves, in which events happen to us randomly or according to meaningless, deterministic forces over which we have no power. However, I believe that the scientific basis of Objectivity is crumbling, to be replaced with a new understanding of the universe in which interconnectedness and wholeness are fundamental. I think one can construct a reasonable, cogent metaphysics in which something like the Law of Attraction is plausible. I won't do that now though, because even accepting its basic premises, the Law of Attraction as we normally understand it suffers a gaping flaw that renders techniques like affirmations, "working with beliefs", and so forth ineffectual, or even counterproductive.

New Age ideology says, "Think thoughts of lack, and you will create lack. Live in fear, and you will create what you fear. Hate other people, and you will create the experience of a hostile universe." Each negative belief-state generates the experiences that confirm it. Logically, then, if we want to have different experiences, we must cease indulging in "negative" thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. Thus begins what I call "the war against negativity". It taps into the same energy as the war against sin, against ego, against selfishness, or whatever bogeyman du jour our spiritual/ethical system presents us. It is a continuation in a different form of the struggle against self.

Ironically, in avoiding or suppressing negativity in an attempt to heal some part of our lives, we avoid a crucial key to healing. We ignore the so-called negative emotions, and the umbra of pain that surrounds them, at our peril. They too exist for a purpose; they are gifts that can bring us toward wholeness. Real negativity would be to reject these gifts, and instead to persist in a fight against what is.

At the root of the so-called negative emotions is pain. Pain has two primary functions in an organism. The first is the No of the body. It hurts to cause harm to our organism. When the damage is immediate, then, usually, so is the pain, such as when you touch a hot stove. When the damage is not immediate, such as when you overeat or drink a big glass of tequila, then the pain is usually delayed as well.

All beings seek to experience pleasure and avoid pain. Why then does it seem that modern adult human beings do the opposite? Why do we do things — repeatedly — that cause ourselves pain? Because, as with pleasure, we are such strangers to ourselves that we aren't aware of what hurts.

Once upon a time there was a man who had never experienced fire. One day he moved to civilization and saw his first hot stove. He thought it would be fun to touch the hot coil. Ouch! It really hurt. He certainly had no desire to do that again. He didn't need to reason with himself, "I sure would like to, but I know it would cause tissue damage, open me to infection, and so on, so I guess I'd better not." Do you need willpower to refrain from giving yourself a good hard poke in the eye? Of course not. It is our fundamental nature to avoid pain.

The man's brother was not so fortunate. When he moved to civilization, a foolish anthropologist gave him a jar of anesthetic cream, "Just in case you hurt yourself," he said. The man put it on his hands and proceeded to touch the beautifully glowing hot stove. He didn't feel any pain until much later, when he'd forgotten he'd even touched the stove. He rubbed on some more cream-problem solved! Time went by and he kept touching hot stoves. Why wouldn't he? His hand hurt all the time and he didn't know why. All he knew was that he could get temporary relief from the anesthetic cream. But as the damage spread and gangrene set in, the cream became less effective. He moved on to stronger and stronger painkillers.

Because the man never had the chance to integrate the experience of pain with the act of touching the stove, he never learned in his body not to do that. As his problem got worse, he read all kinds of theories about why hands hurt. "This is bad for you, that is bad for you," they said. He tried to apply this knowledge to stop himself from doing various things, but how could he really be sure which was correct?

Most people in our society are much like this second brother. We tell ourselves that such-and-such a behavior is "bad for me", that it will end up causing pain, but this knowledge is in the head, and it is not from the head that we make choices. We think we do, but we do not. Remember from Part 1: we make most choices long before we are aware of making them. We make them automatically, according to who we have created ourselves to be. The question, then, is how can we know not just in our heads, but in our whole body, our whole being, that something will hurt? How can we find the easy certainty we apply when we refrain from poking ourselves in the eye?

Eventually the second brother stopped using his anesthetic cream and painkillers, and soon it became obvious why he kept hurting all the time. He'd read touching hot stoves was bad, but he'd never believed it until now. Now it really hurt! He no longer had any desire to touch them. The only willpower he needed was a gentle reminder, the mindfulness necessary to break an old habit you've outgrown.

Similarly, you already know in your head that overeating or drinking or drugs or gambling or any other addiction or compulsion causes pain in your life. You know it in your head, but maybe not in your body, not as a fully integrated experience. There is only one way to know it for real, and that is to feel it. When you feel the full effects of a choice that generates pain, you will no more want to repeat that choice than you will want to poke yourself in the eye.

In other words, when we put our attention on the results of a choice, we integrate cause and effect and create ourselves as someone who will choose next time based on the full consequences of that choice. This new choosing will be automatic, simply because we naturally won't choose something that we know in the body as painful.

Unfortunately, culture has conditioned us to be like the second brother in the story. Anytime we encounter discomfort or pain, our ingrained response is to do something to avoid feeling it. We go to the doctor complaining of pain, and are pleased to receive a pain-killer. Pain is not believed to have a positive purpose, so one goal of medical therapy is to find a way that it not be felt. We do the same with various forms of self-medication through drugs, addictions, and more subtle means. One way is to seek out some form of entertainment. When you entertain guests, you bring them into your home. When you entertain an idea, you bring it into your head. When you are being entertained, the television is bringing you out of yourself. The TV, the movie, the video game, or whatever absorbs your attention allows the pain or discomfort to go unfelt. Anything to make it feel better.

Of course, if there is a real wound generating the pain, then watching TV or eating a cookie or having a good stiff drink probably isn't going to heal it. What's more, an unhealed wound often gets more and more painful while the distraction gets less and less effective. This is the fundamental dynamic of addiction.

Any substance or activity is potentially addictive if it makes a wound or unmet need temporarily stop hurting, but does nothing to heal that wound or meet that need. Most addicts are hurting from deep wounds inflicted in childhood. I believe that in our culture all of us are wounded to some extent, and we are attracted to various addictions according to the nature of the wound.

The logic of addiction says that we can numb the pain of an unhealed wound forever. A series of temporary fixes can make us feel good indefinitely. Feel bad from too much dinner? Have dessert. Feel even worse? Have a smoke. Feel bad again five minutes later? Let's watch a DVD. Let's have a nightcap. On and on and on, an endless quest to escape the pain and feel good.

It is quite understandable: all beings desire to feel good. There is fundamentally nothing wrong with the logic of addiction, except that it does not work. Its promise is a lie, an illusion. I call it the "third-oldest lie in the universe": that we can avoid the pain without healing the wound. Well, as any addict who hits bottom will tell you, all the deferred pain will be waiting for you in the end.

This does not mean that addiction is folly. Sometimes we undergo trauma that is just too painful to feel right now. Children especially recognize when something is too big to feel, so they lock it away in an emotional cyst, and cope with the omnipresent pain of that wound with some form of addiction. From this perspective, we can see addictive substances as medicines, painkillers. Later in life, the cyst rises to the surface and breaks open, so that the stored-up pain can be felt and cleared. This is what happens when an addiction stops working, for whatever reason: the body has built up too much resistance, health no longer allows it, money is gone, you go to prison. Or, perhaps you just know it is time to face reality and feel what is to be felt.

Instinctively, we are drawn to the addiction that is the most effective and least harmful substitute for the unavailable object of the unmet need. If you weren't smoking cigarettes, you'd be addicted to something worse. This is why it is usually foolish to take away someone's medicine by force. It is equally foolish to take away your own medicine by force, including the self-approval and self-rejection-based force of threat and incentive described in Part 1. We all have a yearning for wholeness; we put down our medicines when it is time.

To repeatedly apply an addiction to make ourselves feel better temporarily is just like the brother constantly applying anesthetic salve to his burned hand, or the man in Part 2 eating ice cream to assuage thirst. Not only is the underlying need unmet, but it also prevents us from discovering what that need is.

The things we do to keep the pain at bay not only fail to heal the wound underneath; they also make that wound tolerable. They perpetuate a wounded, hurting state of being. They drive a constant anxiety, a constant restlessness. There is no peace, because unfelt pain is always there, waiting for any undistracted moment to be felt. That is the origin of boredom-it hurts just to be. Do you ever eat or smoke because you are bored? Boredom is a key defining feature of our civilization, direct evidence of the cutoff from most of our being.

If it is true that numbing or deferring the pain perpetuates the wound, then might it also be true that feeling the pain could help us find and heal the wound? We have made an enemy of pain. Could it be that pain is actually an ally in healing? This question leads to the second purpose of pain: Pain is a call for attention.

Once upon a time there was a woman who sat on a tack. By chance, it missed the nerve when it went in, but pretty soon it started to hurt. She didn't know why her posterior was hurting. It was very uncomfortable though, and soon the pain spread all over her backside. She began to hold her body in a different way and walk with a limp. Her whole body hurt all the time and she didn't know why.

She went to her doctor for help. "I hurt everywhere," she said. Her doctor gave her some pain medication, which helped for a while, but eventually even increased doses couldn't make her feel better. She asked her friends. They tried to cheer her up by taking her mind off it. "I hurt too," said one, "Let's go shopping!" "Let's eat some donuts!" said another. "Let's have a drink!" said a third. But these solutions were just like the doctor's pain medication. As soon as the shopping trip was over and the donuts consumed, the woman felt just as bad as before.

Other friends, thinking themselves wise, offered all kinds of philosophical advice. "This too will pass," said one, "so just keep enduring." Another one said, "Your pain is the result of bad karma, and when you've worked it all off it will go away." A third friend said, "Life just hurts, it is the way things are. Detach from the pain and you will feel better."

Fortunately, this was a courageous and strong woman. She was fed up with being in pain all the time, and she refused to believe that life is just like that, just as we all know that it is not supposed to hurt just to be. So one day she said, "Enough! No more escaping the pain. (After all, escaping isn't working any more anyway.) I give up. I'm just going to feel it."

She stopped trying to take her mind off it. She stopped trying to think of something else. She sat down and let herself just feel it and feel it and feel it. After all those years, finally she was giving the pain her full attention.

(That is what pain wants: your attention. If refused, it will ask more loudly.)

After the woman fully felt her pain for a while, she started to notice some things she'd never noticed before: many different sensations in different parts of her body that she'd all lumped together as "pain". We use that one word to encompass so much! She noticed an emanating source in her backside, surrounded by layer after layer of holding, tension, and compensation. "Aha!" she thought, "that's where it is coming from." Soon it became obvious. "I wonder if there is a tack in my butt?" She reached around and pulled it out.

Pain is your body's way to direct attention to a wound. There is a saying, "Energy flows where attention goes." Pain directs attention, and therefore healing energy, to the source of the hurting.

Even without any other action, attention is healing all by itself. You can feel that in the mere presence of a true doctor or healer-you feel better already. The same happens when a good friend truly listens to you. You haven't taken any action yet, but you feel better already. Usually, though, action follows attention. Like the woman with the tack in her butt, the result of the attention is often a new kind of action, action that feels natural and right and not very difficult. This is again the miracle of self-creation through the power of attention. By integrating pain we create ourselves anew; this new being then makes different choices.

Remember the pleasure principle: it feels good to meet our needs. But how can we accurately choose what feels good, if we haven't really experienced what feels bad? How can the second brother choose not to touch hot stoves, if he has never allowed himself to feel the burn? How can you choose not to use, if you don't allow yourself to fully feel the discomfort of using? How can you choose a different state of being, when you haven't fully experienced the one you are in? Do we ever really allow ourselves to experience the wreckage of life, the pain of it, until it overwhelms every attempt to defer it?

The good news is that no matter how hard you try to stop it, the pain will be felt, one way or another, eventually. All beings desire to fulfill their function in the universe. The "negative", painful emotions of anger, shame, grief, hate, etc. are no exception. If we suppress them, they will just try harder to emerge into the light of conscious experience. They will engineer situations designed to trigger them. If you harbor a reservoir of unfelt shame, that being called shame will repeatedly create humiliating situations until finally you have to feel it. Unfelt anger will create situations that make you angry. The more successful you are at NOT feeling, the more you perpetuate this kind of situation.

In its demonization of negativity, New Age manifestation ideology based on the Law of Attraction or the power of positive thinking bypasses a crucial gateway to healing. We are told that to manifest health or money or love, we must not give attention to negativity: the feelings of impotence, frustration, or hopelessness that often surround these issues. But these painful emotions are actually messages from the soul: indicators of a blockage that needs to be cleared. The illness, poverty, or loneliness that we want to change may actually exist in order to give us access to buried emotional wounds, so that they may rise into the light of awareness for healing. If we try to change the situation without healing the wound that creates it, we will succeed temporarily at best, and the wound will find other ways to make its presence known. We seem to want to heal while skipping the healing process; we want healing without healing. That is impossible. As Confucius said, "I have heard of flying with wings; I have never heard of flying without wings." We must feel in order to heal. The answer is staring us in the face; it lies within everything we battle against and everything we avoid.

With this in mind, I would like to offer a revised technique based on the Law of Attraction that actually works. Go ahead and write your affirmation, create your visualization, state your new belief. Then notice any negativity that comes up: doubt and disbelief initially, and then perhaps a cascade of pain: stories of the genre, "It's not fair"; anger at the injustice of the universe; perhaps, if you are like me, a deep grief with no object. Do not push this negativity away, but instead resolve to feel it more and not less. Stay with it as long as you can, without trying to figure it out, without trying to rationalize it. Just be in it, feel it for as long as you can. Eventually it will peak, and at its very maximum it will break, and it will give way to something else, perhaps a feeling of peace, serenity, or even euphoria. When that happens, you can know that you have healed a bit of the wound whose unfelt energies were blocking you.

Do this every time you practice your affirmation or visualization. When you are finally able to bring your desired scenario fully to mind, without a shred of doubt, of "too good to be true", of any emotion we label negative, then you will know that there is nothing standing between you and your desire. The negative emotions are not obstacles, they are symptoms of obstacles. Let us not commit the error of treating the symptom and not the cause.

In my own life, the most important application of the ideas in this essay has been in my relationship with my children. When confronted with an angry or weeping child, many parents will either tell them that they shouldn't be angry or sad ("So control yourself"), or they will try to distract them from those emotions by giving them something to "make them feel better". For example, the other day Philip, age 3, was crying because his friend Bradley yelled at him. Response 1 would be, "Oh come on, it's not so bad, stop crying," or even, "Shut up or else!" Response 2 would be to give him a lollipop. Either response is a recipe for disaster. If you successfully repress a child's anger, the anger will try to come out in another situation, or even create situations to give itself an outlet. The parent is then surprised at the disproportionate intensity of the child's outburst, not realizing that this is deferred anger finally coming out. She concludes that something is wrong with the child.

I have learned a third response (through many years of mistakes!) Instead of repression or distraction, I give the emotion space. I said to Philip, "You must be really angry, right?" He might say, "Yeah," and cry even harder. Or he might say, "No, but I'm very sad." With just a phrase or two, I'll keep his attention on his feelings, and let him know through words or just by holding him that it is okay to feel this way. I won't try to mitigate it by saying, "Bradley didn't mean it," or "You'll feel better soon." For Philip, at that moment, the pain is pure and complete, and who am I to second-guess the rightness of what he is feeling? Soon though, the feeling finishes and passes leaving barely a trace. The air is fresh and clear like after a cloudburst on a summer day.

The same principle applies to adults too, except that it is much more complicated because our outbursts are far, far separated from the originating incident, or series of incidents. Each person is unique, and sometimes it requires familiarity and skill to find the means to give someone permission to feel. First and foremost, you must be able to hold a space without judgment. This applies toward other people and toward yourself as well. If the judgment arises, "You shouldn't feel like this," or "I'd handle this situation better," then you cannot exercise a healing role in that person's life.

On some level we all understand the necessity of feeling. Perhaps that explains our innate resistance to being "cheered up". Try to cheer someone up, explain rationally how things aren't really so bad, and she'll rebut your every point and reject every practical suggestion. That is because what she really wants is to feel bad (angry, sad, etc.). What is healing is to allow that desire, to hold a space for her to feel, perhaps to ask questions or make statements that intensify the feeling. When that wave of emotion peaks and breaks, healing has happened. Some of the poison is gone.

When something happens that brings up feelings of annoyance, rage, despair, discomfort, or sadness, remind yourself that it is okay to feel these things. It is okay to feel bad. Don't blame the situations that trigger these emotions on "negativity". Negativity is as much a symptom as a cause of our problems. If a frustrating situation arises, I know I have frustration to be cleared. For many people, it is a physical illness that allows access to buried wounds. Typically, strong feelings of impotence, despair, anger, or hatred accompany serious illnesses. You can see the illness as doing you the favor of bringing these feelings up to be felt and cleared. Maybe nothing else could do that for you. The illness is your medicine.

Self-creation through the power of attention is not passive. It is not a substitute for action. It is a way to align action with truth and make it powerful. The more we integrate the feelings — joyous and painful both — that result from our interaction with the world, the more our actions align with truth, the truth of what is. From integrated, felt experience, new kinds of actions arise naturally. We find ourselves with the courage to do what had been impossible before. The body is transformed, external conditions shift, and even deeper, perhaps subtler, wounds surface from the biographical and archetypal realms.

Our civilization is built upon the illusion that pain from a wound can be deferred forever without healing the wound. When we destroy nature with technology, we try to manage the consequences with yet more technology. Today, thousands of years of unhealed wounds are rising to the surface for healing. They take the form of the multiple crises of our time. These planetary crises invade our personal lives as well, forging a necessary convergence of personal and planetary healing. They are our medicine.

We can be part of this healing in the same way as we heal ourselves and those around us. Each of us is born into a destiny that includes a greater or lesser portion of the Wound of civilization. Our individual hurtings are not separate from those of the planet, which project holographically onto each of us. Hence, the mystics' truth: your personal journey has cosmic significance. As we integrate more and more of reality through the power of our attention, our choices inevitably shift to make sense given what is real. When we allow ourselves to experience the emotional truth of the way we relate to what is, we can no longer live oblivious to the impact of our choices. Driven by the same imperative that draws us to pleasure and repels us from pain, we seek to apply our gifts toward the healing of the world. The miracle of self-creation is also the miracle of world-creation. It cannot be otherwise.


Image by Fort Photo, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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