Nowhere to Go

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

There's a natural human reaction to pain and discomfort. When I'm in the midst of something I dislike, my brain typically tells me something like, "Hey dummy, this sucks. Stop?"

And this reaction has gotten us pretty far. We're about 200,000 years into this adventure—with (hopefully) many million years remaining. But aside from the looming existential threats facing our species, most of us don't have to worry about survival anymore.

We've outgrown the need for much of the evolutionary alarm bells that play on our minds when we sense danger. I find myself habitually opting for comfort in the face of pain or at least the threat of it. And when the pain and discomfort sneaks its way in, which it always does, my ego rushes to the scene and frantically points to the closest exit.

But I'm not sure that pain is as bad as my brain makes it out to be.

Last year, I went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat near Dallas, Texas. For 10 days I didn't so much as make eye contact with another person outside of brief meetings with my teacher. We did absolutely nothing but meditate. And initially, I was excited to be there. It was my second silent meditation retreat, and I came away from the first experience having made more personal gains in a few days than I'd made in years. But this time was different. While my first retreat was no vacation, this second one felt like a Buddhist boot camp. And I didn't want any part of it.

The meditation periods lasted as long as two and a half hours, and the teacher encouraged us to sit perfectly still in the cross-legged position for the entirety of it. My body was wound up so tight from a lifetime of anxiety that my knees were just about level with my ears. My hips screamed with pain after just a few minutes into each session. For the first few days, I squirmed and readjusted constantly, and I wondered if I should just quit and go home. Without the distractions of the world, time moves like molasses. 10 days might have well been an eternity as far as my hips were concerned.

But I stuck with it, and after a few days my focus increased. I began to notice the subtle energy of my body with pinpoint accuracy. The experience is hard to describe without coming off like a nutjob. Even recalling it now makes me wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. Simply from paying extremely close attention to the sensations, a pleasant tingling sensation would move along and within my skin. And when the pain in my hips would inevitably rear it's head, I paid mind to just the sensations. I allowed the stories about the pain to pass, and I just felt what pain was like.

And I realized that it wasn't that bad. When compared to the nice tingling feelings that I felt elsewhere in my body, I saw that the pain really wasn't that different. What really hurt was the suffering that came when I got lost in thinking about pain. When my monkey mind politely asked, "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, GET YOUR LEGS OUT OF THIS PRETZEL," I tried my best to treat the words as simply noise. And when I failed, and I believed the paint to be signal, that's when I really suffered.

During these 10 long and hard days, I got a taste of what it was like to separate pain from suffering. The two don't have to be paired. And as I began to realize that, I started to embrace the pain. I'm glad everyone in the meditation hall had their eyes closed, because they would have saw me grinning like a dumbass from ear-to-ear.

My framing around the pain changed. I saw these sensations as an opportunity to rewire my brain. Instead of meeting pain with aversion, I welcomed it. And each moment where I could smile with the pain put me one rep closer to building a new habit where pain doesn't necessitate suffering.

But old habits die hard. I've had to relearn this lesson again, and again, and again. I'm still learning this lesson. I wish insights into the true nature of mind could be put into unwavering practice upon recognition. But this isn't reality—at least not mine.

The hardest part for me has been understanding that freedom from suffering is never far away. It's not found on the peak of some arduous climb. It's right on the surface, waiting to be noticed. It's the natural state of the mind, even if I might only glimpse it for a second at a time. Unlike most challenges in this life, the goal here can be found without going anywhere at all. Because freedom was here all along. I just need to remember. And remember. And remember.

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