In a sense I think that we are all trying to find peace. We week to find peace within ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves — the two are entwined.
We often hear the word peace nowadays. This is because peace is a state we strive for globally in the face of threats that are often purported in the media. There are fewer who seek the polar opposite; people who appear to welcome violence, war and other destructive states. This can only be because of wrong perceptions of the world resulting in wrong thinking and wrong actions.
In terms of chronic pain, perhaps we can say that we strive for a state of peace. This is an idea that came from a conversation with a learned friend some months ago. It was based upon thinking about the ‘opposite’ of pain, which cannot simply be pain free. When we are pain free, we are not thinking ‘I am pain free’, instead just acting, thinking and perceiving as a blended trio within each moment. To find peace seems to be a good place to start overcoming pain.
What is a state of peace?
By definition, peace means ‘quiet, tranquility, mental calm, serenity; a state of friendliness’ (Oxford Dictionary). Consider how we feel and think when in pain. We are suffering, fighting, surviving, emotionally turbulent, living the storm of physical sensations and the turmoil of the thoughts and feelings about these sensations. The former appears to be a good place to be in comparison. There is however, one issue, and that is the effect of resistance to what is happening right now.
Resistance itself causes great suffering. Not wanting to be here, instead wanting to be there. Not wanting to look like this, instead wanting to look like that, are two common examples. This is being non-acceptant and fighting the present moment. But it does not necessarily seem natural to do anything else other than resist. Why would you not want to feel better? Look better? etc etc.
This is an issue of desire and the grip that it can have upon us that causes suffering. The problem is that if you are strongly focusing upon how you want to be and resisting how you are or what you have, you are missing the opportunity that exists now. This is in the form of acceptance, which is simply acknowledging and being open to what is happening right now without resistance. Accepting what is happening right now relieves the suffering and allows us to take the right actions to find peace. These actions can only happen now because now is the only real moment. Thinking about what you might do or what you did only exist in your (embodied) thoughts. Concrete action can only be in this moment.
By being present we can find peace. This emerges from simple practices such as mindful breathing and mindful activities that mean you are present, aware, open, insightful and accepting in a compassionate way.
Where is peace?
There is only one place that we can find peace. That is within ourselves. I recall a pertinent moment a few years ago when a friend said to me ‘I hope you find peace’. It is something we appear to look for, yet we don’t need to look because it is right here. We simply need to create the conditions for peace to emerge and be felt. Does this mean no pain? No, not necessarily. Can you feel pain and be at peace? Yes, absolutely. And in this state, the pain transforms and our suffering eases. So, when we find peace that was already there, just overladen with our day to day fears and worries, the pain rents less and less space. Then we can concentrate our efforts on living well, which is the way to overcome pain.
How can I be present and find peace?
Everything that ‘happens’ does so now, in this moment. It is called being present and we can be fully aware, attending to this moment to gain all the rewards. To be present we can start with a few simple practices:
1. Take our attention to our breathing, even just 4-5 breaths, and do this regularly through the day ~ set a reminder
2. Fully attend to what we are doing, whatever that may be. ‘An unhappy mind is a wandering mind’ was a recent study title. We are happier when we are attending to what we are doing in this moment.
You may also choose to regularly practice mindfulness and other meditations such as metta, or loving kindness meditation. The formal practice each day develops our ability to accept, let go, be open, be tolerant, gain insight into our own and others’ thinking. In so doing, in the wake of the practice comes a sense of peace and calm that deepens in time. There are well described healthy benefits of regular mindfulness practices yet it is important that we practice for the sake of practice and not to ‘become’ something else. This is a challenge but you will recall that trying to be someone else or be somewhere else creates resistance. By far the best way to begin practice is with a teacher but there are some excellent apps and videos aplenty on you tube; for example Thich Nhat Hanh, The Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Ajahn Brahm, Jon Kabat Zinn.
Pain and peace
Pain is as complex as any other lived experience. It involves the whole person, their biology, their consciousness, their past experiences and their genetics to name but a few factors — it is complex! Equally as complex is pain relief that involves all the same factors. Where we feel pain is not where pain is ‘generated’, instead this is where there exists a perceived threat.
Regular readers of modern pain science literature will know that pain is related to being threatened or potentially threatened, acting in the name of survival. The location of the pain is really a projection of all the biology involved with protecting us, emerging in a specific place where we are compelled to attend. If there is actually an injury there it seems to make sense. Often in cases of chronic pain there is no obvious injury or pathology. This is because pain and injury are poorly related. Despite this, the pain felt is the pain felt. Pain cannot be seen so we must listen to the person as it is the individual who feels the pain.
“Pain and injury are poorly related
Existing under a state of threat results in a range of thoughts and behaviours that can be combatant in nature. Consider what we have said about peace. To find peace we must be acceptant, open and demonstrate compassion towards ourselves and others. If we ‘fight’ the pain, we are only fighting ourselves. Creating a sense of peace allows us to choose to focus on the actions (e.g./ exercises, re-framing our thinking to reduce fear, socialising, practicing mindfulness, gradually becoming more active, and many more) that create the conditions for living well.
Overcoming pain is an active task. The person needs guidance, motivation and support but the to begin with the basics to sustainably move in the desired direction. This includes a working knowledge about (your) pain with skills and practices to use day to day, moment to moment. The new knowledge about pain creates a sense of safety rather than threat, peace if you like. This clarity that emerges from understanding pain means that the person can truly focus on what they need to do to get better. This starts with thinking like the healthy person who is living well: ‘what would they think and do here?’ you can ask yourself, before doing exactly that, albeit with certain limitations at the start. These limitations can and will be worked upon: ‘can I?’ turns to ‘I can’ and ‘will I?’ turns to ‘I will.
From a place of peace and clarity come right perceptions about oneself and the world. To find peace is to find it in oneself. It is there and may need uncovering. When you do, the world looks to be a different place. One that is far less threatening and one in which to thrive and to live a meaningful life.