I had a stereo speaker as a teenager that would lapse sometimes into a static, distorted blare unless I gave it a good knock on the upper right corner. Some loose wire or circuit board would then jiggle back into place and the music would return clean and powerful. The distance between a headache and a song was only a few millimeters.
In my life, pain has similarly alternated between being a source of connection and empathy, as well as shame and isolation.
I remember a year of terrible housing luck where my wife and I and our infant daughter experienced lead paint, bedbugs, and several thousand dollars forfeited to crummy landlords.
Once, I was walking down the street rehearsing arguments and legal claims when I was rescued from my downward spiral by a Buddhist contemplation I once learned:
“Just as I am suffering, how sad that sentient beings are in pain.
Through this adversity of mine may all beings
With no exception… Be cleansed of suffering.”*
*Adapted from The Song of Gyalwa Gotsangpa on the Practice of Illness.
The contemplation doesn’t require us to know how our difficulties may benefit others. At this point, the action plan is less important than the fact that when we bring the challenges of others to mind, we become more generous and less ashamed of our own problems.
Using your own suffering to develop empathy for others
In New York City, where I live, how many families with less means than mine have been forced to leave unsafe housing, but instead of a friend’s house, ended up in shelters (23,314 children in February 2018 alone)?
Pain and vulnerability turn our mind from its insatiable desire for comfort and security towards the truth that so many of our fellow humans are not having an easy time right now.
We can, as the poet Wendell Berry once wrote, cultivate “the wish to be generous.”
Here’s two bits of advice:
1.) The next time you’re experiencing pain of one kind or another – back pain or anxiety, say – try to offer a wish of healing to both yourself and others who are feeling the same way.
For example, when my neck is tight and throbbing, I sometimes think, “May all people with neck pain who don’t know how to make it go away be happy and healthy.”
It doesn’t drain us or dilute our own chances of recovery to extend a kind wish to others. If anything, I find my Alexander Technique students experience more relief when they extend their directional thinking, of “neck free” for instance, to include all the participants in a retreat or workshop. They become less mired in the seemingly intractable nature of their own problems.
By including others in their wish for happiness and ease, their back pain tends to lessen as does the inevitable pressure and self-obsession that tends to accrue with chronic pain.
2.) The second bit of advice is to try to deal first with the feelings around the pain, rather than focus on eliminating the pain (which tends to lead to tightening and angst, if not a worsening of the pain).
So, you can offer, “May all people with plantar fasciitis be happy, healthy, and live with ease.” It’s a small shift, but a profound one, to use your own suffering as a way to develop empathy and connect with others.
This doesn’t mean that you put your own needs on hold. It’s simply that you occasionally widen the healing stream to include others and remember that you aren’t alone. We can’t always control our pain but we can choose how to respond. Become an expert in empathy.
The delusion of chronic pain is that we are fundamentally distinct from others. While it’s true that some people may not “get” your situation, you also aren’t alone. There is a kinship you can have with people you’ve never even met.
I have two young children and I don’t have much time for formal meditation practice these days. This on-the-spot practice of including others is a powerful way to keep my heart more open.
When reflecting on my calendar this week, this is the wish that arose:
“May all beings who feel stressed about time be happy, healthy, and enjoy their lives.”
About the author: Dan Cayer is a teacher, writer and speaker. Dan is trained in the Alexander Technique and teaches Fluid Movement, an innovative approach to dealing with pain and stress. He is writing a book about how to transform the experience of pain and illness with openness and kindness. For more information, visit his website dancayerfluidmovement.com