Many years ago when I was pregnant with my son, I decided to have a home birth without drugs, assisted by a midwife. My hope was to be as wakeful and present as possible during the birth, and while I knew the pain would be intense, I trusted that my meditation and yoga practices would help me to “go with the flow.”
When labor began I was rested and ready. Knowing that resisting the pain of contractions only made them worse, I relaxed with them, breathing, making sounds without inhibition, letting go as my body’s intelligence took over. Like any animal, I was unthinkingly immersed, instinctively responding to the drama unfolding through me, riding the pain as a natural part of the process.
Then, suddenly, something shifted. When my son’s head started crowning, the pain level shot up. It was no longer something I could breathe into and let surge through me. This much pain has got to mean something is going wrong, I thought. My whole body tightened, and my deep slow breaths turned into the shallow, quick breathing of panic.
Like every aspect of our evolutionary design, the unpleasant sensations we call pain are an intelligent part of our survival equipment: Pain is our body’s call to pay attention, to take care of ourselves. Yet, intense pain, even when it’s part of a seemingly healthy process like birthing, is alarming. When I reacted with fear, I added onto the unpleasant sensations the feeling and belief that something was wrong. Rather than Radical Acceptance, the reaction of my body and mind was to resist and fight the pain.
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While fear of pain is a natural human reaction, it is particularly dominant in our culture where we consider pain as bad, or wrong. Mistrusting our bodies, we use “pain killers,” assuming that whatever removes pain is the right thing to do. In our society’s cultural trance, rather than a natural phenomenon, pain is regarded as the enemy. Pain is the messenger we try to kill, not something we allow and embrace.
At that point of intensity in childbirth, I was fully at war, pitted against the pain. My midwife, used to seeing fear and resistance in response to pain, immediately assured me. “Nothing’s wrong, honey… it’s all completely natural, it’s just painful.” She had to say this several times before I could let it begin to sink in and, in the midst of the burning pain, the explosive pressure, the tearing and exhaustion, remember again to breathe deeply and relax. It was just pain, not wrong, and I could open up and accept it.
Whenever we react to pain with fear and view it as “wrong,” we set in motion a waterfall of reactivity. Fear, itself made up of unpleasant sensations, only compounds the pain—now we not only want to get away from the original pain, but also from the pain of fear. In fact, the fear of pain is often the most unpleasant part of a painful experience. When we assess physical sensations as something to be feared, pain is not just pain. It is something wrong and bad that we must get away from.
Often, this fear of pain proliferates into a web of stories. Yet, when we are habitually immersed in our stories about pain, we prevent ourselves from experiencing it as the changing stream of sensations that it is. Instead, as our muscles contract around it and our stories identify it as the enemy, the pain solidifies into a self-perpetuating, immovable mass. Our resistance can end up creating new layers of symptoms and suffering, since when we abandon our body for our fear-driven stories about pain, we actually trap the pain in our body.
When, instead of Radical Acceptance, our initial response to physical pain is fear and resistance, the ensuing chain of reactivity can be consuming. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat our pain. This same process unfolds when our pain is emotional—we resist the unpleasant sensations of loneliness, sorrow, anger. Whether physical or emotional, when we react to pain with fear, we pull away from an embodied presence and go into the suffering of trance.
Yet, we need to realize that being alive includes feeling pain, sometimes intense pain. And, as the Buddha taught, we suffer only when we cling to or resist experience; when we want life different than it is. As the saying goes: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
When painful sensations arise and we can simply meet them with clarity and presence, we can see that pain is just pain. We can listen to pain’s message and respond appropriately—taking good care. If we are mindful of pain rather than reactive, we do not contract into the experience of a victimized, suffering self. We can meet whatever presents itself with Radical Acceptance, allowing the changing stream of sensations to simply flow through us without making any of it wrong.
From Radical Acceptance (2003)