Buddhist monks on a roller coaster

Fear, not pain, creates suffering

“Pain is not the enemy. The fear of passing through pain is.”
Pia Mellody

“According to Buddhism, it is our fear at experiencing ourselves directly that creates suffering.”
Mark Epstein, Thoughts without a Thinker.

Last year, I went to a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, during which I had one of the most intense and transformative experiences of my life. It started with my realization that I was completely disconnected from my body sensations. I could feel very little of my body, and what I could feel was displaced, several inches away from my body. It took a few days to get my body sensations back and to the proper place.

When I came back to my body,  I started experiencing more and more physical pain. As I meditated, I realized how much of my pain was created by my fear of experiencing pain, by the tension that I created in my body to avoid feeling pain. In the end, I was so exhausted I gave up, and I decided to just be with it, whatever the experience was. I remember coming back from a conversation with my teacher and telling to myself in anger “I’ll do what you suggest, but this had better work!”

And it did work. Suddenly, two days before the end of the retreat, something happened. It was as I had gone through a very dark and scary tunnel and come out from the other side (it literally felt that way, something like a birth). The realization that I could deal with my pain was surprising and spacious. And I understood that is fear, not pain, that creates suffering.

Now, I realize that I have to do the same, this time for my psychological pain. I continue to remind to myself, every time I get hit by sadness or when a sudden surge of pain hits me and I feel tears burning my eyes, to stay with it, no matter how afraid I am to be there and to feel what I’m feeling. I try not to distract myself or to move away from the feeling, and it’s hard, because it’s such an habit for to move away from pain without even realizing it. It’s hard also because my pain often visits me when I’m surrounded by people (there is nothing like my subway commute to make my pain surface, perhaps because I cannot distract myself so easily, perhaps because of the people I see and feel around me).

Even with my limited success, I can feel something changing, a subtle feeling of coming back home. I have tiny moments of  kindness toward myself, of appreciation of my life and of the people around me, and I feel just a little less foreign in these streets.