Using Physical Pain for Growth
My opponent pulled me wide to the backhand side of the court. Being a smart, and cruel, tennis player, he then hit a good shot crosscourt to my forehand. So I hauled ass to my right to chase down the shot. And just as I got to the ball, I lost my balance…
And fell. Hard.
At first, all I noticed was some blood coming down my knee. Then I looked at my hands. No blood. Good sign.
A standing check up
But you don’t really know anything until you stand up and see if you’ve torn your ACL or some other musculoskeletal calamity. So I stood up. Checked everything else out. All systems go.
As the legendary Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn used to say, “No harm, no foul.” And on we played.
Oddly, it wasn’t until later in the day that I realized I’d bruised my ribs in the fall. I’ve done it a few times before, once while playing pickup basketball at the UCLA rec center. I couldn’t raise my arms above my chin for several weeks after that one.
This time wasn’t nearly as bad. It just hurts in certain positions; also when I sneeze.
But, crucial for the purposes of this piece, it also hurts on the follow through of my golf swing. Before going any further, I’d like to take a guess at what eighty percent of you are thinking right now:
“Ohhhh. Poor little Davey has an ‘ow-ey’ when he swings his golf club. Wah, wah, wah. The Russians are snatching Ukrainian kids and throwing them into orphanages and he’s complaining about a little rib pain while playing the snootiest sport ever invented. Get a life, dude!”
Am I close?
Don’t worry. I’m going to make sense of this.
Here’s the deal. My brother invited me to play in his club’s member-guest tournament in a few weeks. He’s a really good player (I’m not) who takes these competitions seriously.
Worrying about letting my bro down
So part of this has been the nagging thought that I’m going to let him down. Again, that’s no big deal in the grand scheme of the world.
But what can be a big deal is how we deal with this kind of pain. I’m not talking in this article about the severe pain or physical discomfort brought by something like chemotherapy, fibromyalgia or migraine headaches.
I’m talking about things like moderate back pain and yes, rib pain. Conditions that aren’t ruining your day, but that you feel regularly for at least a week or more.
As an athlete, I’ve dealt with these nettlesome injuries for decades. This time I put my spiritual work to use.
Putting my spiritual work to work
How? First, I noticed that the pain was on my mind a lot. Whether at the forefront or lingering in the background.
More important, I noticed that I was doing what all of us do — I was pushing the pain away. I was resisting it.
Which leads to the most important part of this article. That pushing away/resisting was done in the background. It’s not like I was saying to myself,
“Boy, that pain really sucks. I wish it would go away.”
No. As is the case with so much resistance in our lives, it was much subtler than that. Again, it was going on in the background.
The harm of resistance
The problem is that this kind of resistance, which most of us do all day long with all sorts of things, is insidious. It’s harmful. It affects our moods. And it exacerbates what we’re resisting.
As the legendary Swiss psychologist Carl Jung so wisely said:
“What we resist, persists.”
And we aren’t even aware that we’re doing it. Which is the point of this piece. To try and get you to become aware when you’re experiencing this kind of moderate pain and resisting it.
You might ask, “If I’m not going to resist it, which should I do?” Good question.
Move the pain from background to foreground
The first thing we do, as I’ve been doing the past few days, is to move that pain from the background of our awareness into the forefront. When the pain arises, go to it. Don’t jump in and let it consume you. Stay in your seat of self and say,
“Okay. There you are. I feel you. I’m not crazy about you, but I acknowledge you’re there. And I’m here, feeling you. I accept you. Because that’s what is.”
This is what I’ve been doing these past several days. And it works. We just keep acknowledging and accepting that the pain is there.
It’s just mindfulness
It’s classic mindfulness in that we’re simply being present with what is. And not allowing ourselves to create a major dramatic story around it. It just is.
The ideas here form the core of the iconic teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course that I took six years ago. He created it in the 1970s to help patients at the University of Massachusetts hospital that weren’t responding to other pain treatments.
I highly, highly recommend watching this Youtube clip of the PBS special Bill Moyers did on this in 1993. Here’s the link (it’s the first 43 minutes of the recording, not all two hours).
So that’s it. If you find yourself with a moderate headache or some other kind of pain, see if you can move your awareness of it from the background to the foreground.
Talk to it. Be with it. I know that might seem counterintuitive and that ignoring it and pushing it away would be preferable, but it isn’t. It only makes the pain worse and longer lasting.
Give it a try.