A BUDDHIST APPROACH TO WORKING WITH PAIN:   FROM SUFFERING TO LIBERATION

I have been pondering how to use my Buddhist practice to work with suffering when my chronic pain flares up.   The Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths came immediately to mind.  These teachings provide a roadmap for living a life free from suffering.  Experiencing my  pain directly, without judgments or resistance, has allowed me to use the Buddha’s roadmap on my journey from suffering to liberation.

 The Four Noble Truths

In his first teaching after attaining liberation, the Buddha taught The Four Noble Truths:  the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path to liberation from suffering.

The First Noble Truth recognizes the existence of suffering. We humans will do everything we can to resist or deny the existence of suffering.  Paradoxically, resisting or denying the existence of suffering only increases our suffering. Recognizing the existence of suffering, without additional thoughts or denial,  is the first step to letting go of the suffering that accompanies my chronic pain.

The Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering, is clinging to things – especially ourselves – as real and permanent.   My knee-jerk reaction when my pain flares up is self-pity.  My self-centered thoughts and negative judgments increase my suffering.  When I let go of my thoughts and focus instead on the direct experience of my pain, there is an immediate sense of relief and spaciousness.

Focusing on the pain itself, rather than clinging to it as something unique to myself, leads to the cessation of suffering – The Third Noble Truth.   Working directly with the energy of physical pain has become my path out of the suffering that accompanies my pain. This path is related to the Fourth Noble Truth, the path to liberation from suffering.

“Don’t Shoot the Second Arrow”

The Buddha’s teachings on the “two arrows” has also been extremely helpful for me. When we experience physical or emotional pain, it is like being shot by an arrow.  According to the Buddha, the first arrow is not problem.  After all, we all inevitably experience pain of all kinds in our lives.  The problem is that we then shoot ourselves with a second arrow with our thoughts,  judgments and resistance to the initial pain.  According to Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Donald Rothberg[i]:

According to the Buddha, our reaction [to pain] is equivalent to being shot by a second arrow.  We can call this second arrow suffering. Suffering arises because when we experience pain … we typically react by lashing out, at ourselves and others.  We believe somehow that this will dispel or mitigate the pain.  We act in such a way that a second arrow is shot, at us or others, on account of the pain of the first arrow.  When we act so that the second arrow is shot, we ‘pass on’ the original pain.

When I “lash out” at the perceived injustice of having a chronic pain condition, I am shooting myself with a second arrow.  My mindfulness practice allows me to notice my thoughts and judgments as they arise, let them go and return to the object of my meditation.  When I’m experiencing pain, I allow that to be the object of my meditation.  As thoughts and judgments arise, I notice them lightly and return to the direct experience of pain.

Working Directly with Physical Pain as a Path to Liberation

Here is an exercise for working directly with pain to alleviate the second arrow of suffering that often accompanies it. This exercise can be used for both physical and emotional pain.

  1. Focus on the pain and breathe into it.
  2. Explore the pain with a sense of curiosity:
    • Where  is the pain located?
    • How big is it?
    • What’s its shape?
    • If it had a color, what color would it be?
    • Is it hot or cold?
    • Is it static or does it move or vibrate?
  1. As you explore the pain in this way, notice how it shifts and moves. This is a good reminder that everything is impermanent.
  2. Remember that we all experience pain during our journey on the Four Rivers of Life — birth, old age, sickness and death.

When I work with my pain directly in this way, I am fully in the present moment. My thoughts, judgments and resistance are gone, and so is the suffering that I’ve added to the pain with those thoughts, judgments and resistance. In that present moment, I am liberated from my suffering.   As the old adage goes, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

 

Reference:

[i] D. Rothberg & J. Kornfield (2006).  The Engaged Spiritual Life:  A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston:  Beacon Press.

 

© 2020 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

HEALING PANDEMIC GRIEF:  WHO AM I NOW?

Now that the pandemic has entered a phase, I am contemplating healing pandemic grief.  I am asking myself many questions:  What will my life look like as things get back to “normal”?  Can I really go back to the way things were?  What have I learned from this loss that I can carry forward in my life to be of benefit to myself and others?

As grief educator Ken Doka has said, “Whenever we experience a loss…it helps to recognize that loss and grief have changed us.  We cannot go back to the way we were before. Our situations are different.  We are different as well.”

Instead of pondering what is widely called the “new normal”, perhaps it is more beneficial to contemplate the “new me.”  Indeed, who am I now?

I have been learning so much about myself during this pandemic, spending more time with myself without my usual distractions.  On the one hand, I see my neuroses more clearly, and I don’t always like what I see.  On the flip side, I have learned to be more patient and compassionate with myself, neuroses and all.

I am also seeing more clearly what is important to me now, and what I want to bring forward into my life, both for myself and others, as I move into the post-pandemic world.   As Zen teacher Vanessa Zuisei Goddard says:

What we need is the willingness to look honestly at our wants and our choices and ask ourselves, does this make sense—not just for me, not just for now, but for everyone and for our future?”  What sort of “normal” do we want to return to when the worst of the pandemic is behind us? Stepping forward from this point, what kind of world will we co-create?”

At the beginning of the pandemic, I made all kinds of grand plans: to read those 1000 page dharma books, meditate for three hours a day, and on and on.  After berating myself for a while for not living up to those expectations, I’ve decided to let myself be.  Spending time with my cat purring in my lap, looking at the birds in my backyard, pulling weeds in my garden…This is all practice too, and has been so freeingIntentionally sitting and letting myself be bathed in all of my senses is the best meditation practice of all.

Practices for healing pandemic grief:

There are times when I am afraid that I will drown in profound grief and anxiety, hopelessness and despair.  I’ve also found ways out of these intense emotional states that have lifted me up me when I am afraid of drowning in them.   Here are some practices you can use:

  1.  Connect with gratitude. If you are finding this difficult because of your grief and despair, at the end of the day, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day.  The little things count most, like hearing a beautiful birdsong, seeing a plant bloom, smelling a delicious meal before tasting it.
  2. Connect with your senses. Intentionally tune in to all of your senses – touch, sight, smell, sound, taste, with whatever you are doing.
  3. Contemplate interconnectedness. We often feel that we are a single identity, alone in the world.  The truth is that we and everything around us is interconnected.
  4. Express your appreciation. We often take the people in our lives  — including ourselves — for granted.  Letting them know you appreciate them opens our hearts to ourselves and to them.  After all, we are all truly interconnected.
  5. Memorialize your self-discoveries and new intentions. Use this time to notice how this time has changed you.  Journal, paint or draw about who you are now, and the world you want to create for yourself and others going forward.

 

© 2020. Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEFRIENDING THE INNER CRITIC

We therapists often advise our clients to ignore or reject the inner critic.  That’s a little like trying to ignore a pebble in our shoe.  What if we can do something productive, like removing the pebble from our shoe?  Ignoring it just doesn’t work. What if we were to actually listen to and befriend the inner critic instead of ignoring it?

My meditation practice has helped me separate myself from my inner critic.  Through increased awareness, I started to pay attention to that loud voice, rather than it simply being background noise. In fact, I named my inner critic “Bertha.”  I have usually told her to go away when her voice gets loud. Nonetheless, in times of stress, Bertha comes around more often, and telling “her” to go away just makes her voice louder.  It’s like that pebble in a shoe that gets more and more irritating until we do something about it.

Be Grateful to Everyone

 Befriending my inner critic has been a transformative and empowering experience.  It started with asking myself: What if Bertha is trying to be helpful but just doesn’t know how to communicate kindly and skillfully?

I am reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist mind-training slogan[a]:  “Be Grateful to Everyone.”  In her seminal book, Start Where You Are:  A Guide to Compassionate Living,[b] Pema Chodron notes that this mind-training slogan is about making peace with the aspects of ourselves we have rejected.  When we meet someone who pushes our buttons, instead of pushing them away, this slogan teaches us to welcome them in, knowing that they are triggering a part of ourselves we don’t like.  Tibetan Buddhist teacher Traleg Rinpoche notes:

If we can shift our focus from our rigid, narrow and habituated points of view, we will empower our ability to embrace situations in a new way so that every situation will start to seem more workable….We should endeavor to think good thoughts about people who have…made our lives quite difficult at time and try to turn those negative situations to our spiritual advantage, so that we become wiser and stronger.[c]

Of course, Bertha is not a real person, but I find this teaching very helpful in working with that part of me that is self-critical.  As a result, I have started listening to my inner critic with compassion and curiosity, like I would with a young child who doesn’t yet have the skills to express her needs.  Instead of immediately rejecting Bertha, I have started exploring what she is trying to communicate.  For example, if Bertha reproaches me for being forgetful or clumsy when I’m stressed out,  I can thank her for encouraging me to slow down and take a breath.  Befriending my inner critic has helped me embrace parts of myself I have rejected, in a way that empowers me rather than causing  harm. I can then actually be grateful to Bertha,  for reminding me to be self-compassionate.

 

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[a] There are 59 slogans for training the mind to cultivate lovingkindness and wisdom, as a way to bring the Buddhist teachings into everyday life.  The Tibetan term is “lojong”, which means mind-training, or heart-training.

[b] Chodron, Pema, Start Where You Are:  A Guide to Compassionate Living. Boston:  Shambhala Publications.

[c] Traleg Rinpoche (2007. The Practice of Lojong:  Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind. Boston & London:  Shambhala Publications, pp. 96-96.

 

 

(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

WAITING FOR A HURRICANE: ANTICIPATORY TRAUMA IS REAL

As I wait for Hurricane Dorian’s arrival and observe the “cone of uncertainty” about where it will land, I’ve been wondering if there’s such a thing as “anticipatory trauma.” So, when the going gets tough I go googling.  My research shows that anticipatory trauma is indeed real.

“One writer has said[i]some people are already experiencing the fallout [of the impact of climate change] – in the form of what’s being called pre-traumatic stress reactions.”

Coincidentally (or not), while writing this article, I  received a link to a Ted Talk by science writer Britt Wray, on how climate change affects our mental health: https://www.ted.com/talks/britt_wray_how_climate_change_affects_your_mental_health

Wray notes that that “we …need our actions and policies [regarding climate change] to reflect an understanding of how our changing environments threaten our mental, social and spiritual well-being.”  Wray says some of the psychological effects of climate change include anxiety, grief, depression, increased PTSD and existential distress.  She also includes pre-traumatic stress in the list.

As a trauma therapist, I have come to understand that the brain acts like a binary computer.  It links different experiences together as if they were the same and creates what I call “knots of association.”  For example, my brain has now linked Hurricane Dorian with Hurricane Irma and all the memories I have of that powerful storm two years ago.

I remind myself that  “This is not that”  as I untie those knots of association. In fact, in remembering that this is not that, I recall positive memories of my volunteer work in a hurricane shelter with those left homeless by Irma’s destruction.  I remember their remarkable resilience, optimism and strength. I learned that their resilience came from caring for each other, rather than isolating themselves in despondency and despair. (See my blog article “Resilience in a Hurricane Shelter” for more of what I learned:  https://bethspatterson.com/resilience/).

I have offered my “mantra” that this is not that to others experiencing anticipatory trauma.  Here are some other tips that may help as we grapple with hurricanes and other environmental disasters:

  • Practice self-compassion. It doesn’t help to judge yourself for your reactions.
  • Focus your attention on your body instead of your thoughts. For example:
    • Inhale deeply through your nose, from your diaphragm to your collar bone. Then exhale slowly through your mouth.  Imagine cool, nourishing air coming in through your nose as you inhale, and warm, stale air leaving as you exhale.
    • Place one hand on your heart center and the other on your solar plexus, Notice the rise and fall of your torso, as you feel the connection between these two chakras or energy centers.
    • When disturbing thoughts and images arise, simply notice them and return your attention to your breath and body.
  • Become an activist to bring attention to climate change or other issues that may have a negative impact on your wellbeing.
  • Volunteer your time to help those impacted by natural disasters.
  • Journal about your feelings. This helps get those swirling thoughts out of your head and so they become more workable.

Most importantly, avoid any tendency to isolate yourself.   You are not alone in feeling distress and anxiety about the “cone of uncertainty” as we await Hurricane Dorian’s arrival.

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[i]S. Colino, “Fearing the Future: Pre-Traumatic Stress Reactions,”  US News, May 24. 2017.

 

© 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

DIGITAL DISTRACTION:  HOW WE USE OUR DEVICES TO AVOID DIFFICULT EMOTIONS

Digital distraction is everywhere these days.  I have started paying attention to how I also use my devices to avoid difficult emotions. Checking my emails and surfing the internet consume more hours in my day than I’d like to admit. So, I have started looking more mindfully at my digital device habits.

How We Use Our Devices to Avoid Difficult Emotions

I have noticed that when watching the horrific news of the day, I often pick up my tablet to play a game of Solitaire.   With this mindful view, I now understand that I often play Solitaire to avoid feeling anxious and worried.

Similarly, when I’m taking public transportation, I tend to fritter away my time on my cellphone. As a result, I miss human interactions and the beautiful scenery around me.  I see how digital distraction distances us from others, and from our environment.

I have been weighing whether my digital device use truly connects me to others. Many close friends and family members prefer to “talk” via text, rather than by phone or in person. I have picked up this habit as well. I believe that much of the divisiveness, violence, confusion and lack of empathy in today’s world can be attributed to an over-reliance on social media for connection.

Digital Distraction As a Defense Against Being Hurt

Many of the clients in my therapy practice admit that they surf the internet to avoid difficult emotions, such as anger, fear or anxiety.  For example, “Donna” has a history of complex trauma, primarily due to her mother’s emotional abuse.  As a result,  Donna has used distraction as a coping mechanism throughout her life to avoid painful emotions.

Donna told me that she has long been “disconnected from life” to avoid anxiety and fear. She worries that if she connects with those in her life, they will disappoint and hurt her, like her mother did. Likewise, Donna avoids connecting with herself because when she does she is filled with negative self-judgments.

Due to her anxiety and fears, Donna often stays up until 2am or later, surfing the internet and playing computer games.  She understands that this habit allows her to avoid her fears and other difficult emotions.

How The Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan Can Help Create Healthy Relationships with Our Devices…And With Others

Donna and I have been working with the book Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers Youby Dzogchen Ponlop[i]We recently applied Ponlop Rinpoche’s Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan to Donna’s digital distraction as a way to avoid feeling her emotions at bedtime.  As a result, Donna is beginning to let go of her digital device urge, and instead, has begun reading or knitting to help her relax into sleep.

I offer the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan here to help you create a mindful and healthy relationship with your devices and understand the triggers that make you turn to them to avoid difficult emotions.

The first step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Mindful Gap.   When you feel the urge to distract yourself with your devices, simply stop, take a breath and notice the urge without taking action. Breathe and feel what’s going on in your body without judgment.

From this internal focus, expand your awareness to your environment.  This is Clear Seeing,  the second step of the Emotional Rescue Plan.  Take a look and see what your body is telling you when you have the urge to digitally distract yourself.  For example, do you feel a fluttering in your chest or tightening in your stomach when you feel anxious? Do you start fidgeting when you’re bored? Is there a pattern to mindlessly picking up a device when you feel certain emotions?

The third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Letting Go.  Allow your body to relax. Breathe in compassion for yourself, and breathe out compassion for all others who feel the need to digitally distract themselves to avoid difficult emotions.

Letting go gives you the chance to choose whether or not to pick up a device at that moment.  My aspiration is to choose connection and aliveness over distraction and numbness.

 

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[i]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016). Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.  New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

PRACTICING COMPASSION AND EQUANIMITY IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

Practicing compassion and equanimity with difficult people in our lives can be challenging.  However doing so greatly increases our capacity to care for all beings, including ourselves.  It also helps release us from getting caught up in negative emotions.

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen,  translated as  “sending and receiving,” is a powerful compassion practice. In practicing tonglen, we take in others’ suffering, and send them healing and compassion.  Each time you breathe in, you take in others’ pain and suffering. You take it into your heart, where it is transmuted, transformed into compassion. Then you breathe out, and send them healing and love.

Tonglen is practiced in stages:  first for ourselves, then for a loved one, then for a neutral person, then for someone we dislike, and finally for all sentient beings everywhere.  Tonglen can be done as a formal sitting practice or “on the spot”.[b]  For example, I practice tonglen on the spot when I pass a homeless person, instead of looking away.  I breathe in the suffering of that person, and send him or her healing with my out-breath.

Tonglen became a mainstay of my healing from the trauma of witnessing firsthand the horrors of 9/11. It was fairly easy for me to practice compassion for myself, those who died and their loved ones, and all others who witnessed the planes crash, whether in person or on the news. What truly healed me was practicing tonglen and developing compassion for the young hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center.  I saw them as confused young men who abandoned their lovingkindness and basic goodness in the name of religious zealotry.

The transformative power of tonglen lies in directly experiencing that we are all born with basic goodness, and that our suffering, borne of clinging to a solid sense of self, obscures our basic goodness and lovingkindness as we move through life’s challenges.

Practicing equanimity is another transformative practice. It is a powerful way to let go of negativity and an “us versus them” mentality.  Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Han says that equanimity involves seeing everyone as equal:  “We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others.  In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.”[c]

I have recently been practicing compassion and equanimity for Donald Trump. Bear in mind that compassion does not mean approval. Without getting into a political discussion and simply based on my observations, I do not condone Trump’s lies, inflammatory language and divisiveness.

When I find myself getting caught in negativity listening to the news, I take a breath and step back.  I’ve made it a practice to look at Trump’s eyes and practice compassion and equanimity on the spot.  I am then able to see the fear and suffering in his eyes.  Behind his tough guy façade, I see a scared little boy.  Sometimes Trump’s eyes seem eerily empty, a reflection of a person who has been called “an existence without a soul.”[d]

Observing Trump’s pained eyes, I wonder how his soul became so damaged.  As a psychotherapist, it is tempting to diagnose him.  I prefer to try to understand, based on my understanding of trauma and attachment theory, how Trump has become the person he is today.  His mother has been described as emotionally distant and frequently absent.  His father has been described as a “tyrant.”

It is thus no surprise then that Trump is so sensitive to criticism.  His bluster and boastful arrogance are likely a mask to hide his deep insecurity and fear of being seen as weak or unworthy.  As Dr. Justin Frank notes:

One of the things that you do when you’re feeling ignored and abandoned in some way is develop contempt for that part of yourself. You have the hatred of your own weakness and you then become a bully and make other people feel weak, or mock other people to make it clear that you’re the strong one and that you don’t have any needs.[e]

Fear seems to be a driving force in Trump’s life. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda says:

 “[F]ear makes our life narrow and dark.  It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow.  Fear also…disconnects us from the lovingkindness that is our true nature.”[f]

Understanding Donald Trump in this way helps me practice compassion and equanimity, not only for him, but for all others who have suffered because of difficult upbringings.  May they all discover the “lovingkindness that is [their] true nature.”

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[a]Please note that this article is not intended as a political statement, but rather, an essay about how to work with compassion and equanimity for all beings, including those who challenge our ability to be compassionate.  Also see my blog article “How To Be a Mindful Activist…And not lose your mind: https://bethspatterson.com/mindful-activism/

[b]Pema Chodron, (Summer 2002). “Tonglen on the Spot.” Tricycle.

[c]Thich Nhat Han (1997).  The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.  New York: Broadway Books, p. 162.

[d]Dan McAdams (June 2016).  “The Mind of Donald Trump.” The Atlantic, quoting Mark Singer, who interviewed Trump for a profile published as “Trump Solo” in The New Yorker (May 19, 1997).

[e]David Smith.  “Mommy Dearest:  A Psychiatrist Puts Trump on the Couch.” The Guardian. (September 29, 2018).

[f]Ezra Bayda (Spring 2009). “The Three Things We Fear Most.”  Tricycle.