In pain? Don’t make it bigger than it is

I am about to step into this freezing alpine lake in the mountains of East-Kyrgyzstan. A group of Russians are watching. I have no other choice then to do a few strokes in this glacier pond. In my head I am thinking: Why did I commit to jumping into this lake! I hate cold water! I don’t want to feel this. I contract my muscles and my jaw tightens. This is going to be horrible!

Then I remember: Gaston, it’s just a physical sensation! Don’t make it bigger than it is through your mental stories. I take a deep breath and step into the icy lake. And suddenly the experience was cold and unpleasant but bearable. Once I let go of the mental drama, it wasn’t too bad really…

This and hundreds of other unpleasant physical or emotional experiences in my life helped me come up with one of my most frequent internal mantras in times of discomfort or emotional pain:

“Remember, It’s just a physical sensation!”

Whether I just had a lousy coaching call, received bad news from an organizational client, had a terrible night of sleep or hurt my back while climbing, this sentence always teaches me a valuable lesson:

Let me acknowledge and allow the unpleasant physical sensation, but then not make it bigger than it is.

In Buddhism, it’s sometimes referred to as not adding a second arrow. In times of suffering or unpleasant experiences, especially physical discomfort, a first arrow hits us. It’s the actual bad event, which can cause real pain. These ‘first arrows’ include both physical and emotional pain and hurt.

By the very nature of being human these physical sensations cannot be avoided. We all get our share of physical discomfort and we all experience the wide range of human emotions including many unpleasant ones. By living life, we will receive first arrows.

Now, the first arrows in our life are not the major cause of our suffering, struggles and frustration. It’s the reaction to these first arroww that causes most suffering in us and others. It’s the way we judge, resist and add to this first arrow that is the real problem. This includes the meaning we attribute to the pain. The way we blame ourselves our others and create mental worries and anxieties about the first arrow. That is what we call the second arrow. The first arrows in life are unavoidable. The second arrows we can practice to minimize. As Tara Brach puts it: Suffering = Pain x Resistance.

I am always intrigued how Jon Kabat-Zinn started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979 with a group of people that had tried everything to deal with their chronic pain and nothing really worked. He took these patients and taught them mindfulness techniques to observe and be aware of the pain, but minimize the suffering associated with it.

He didn’t necessarily help them reduce the actual physical pain (i.e. the first arrow). Instead he helped people change their relationship to pain by opening up to it and paying attention to it with as little judgment as possible. Body scans and meditations were some of his main tools. The suffering these patients experienced reduced drastically after regular mindfulness practice. Once you distinguish between pain and suffering, change is possible.

So back to our day-to-day lives. Whether that team member just put in their unexpected resignation, or you just sprained your ankle and can’t run for weeks anymore. Whether you delivered a presentation that was not up to your standard or had 2 hours of sleep due to those noisy neighbors. Just take a split second and be aware of the first arrow. Ouch, this hurts! Either physically or emotionally. Take a deep breath. Then recognize what is going on without adding blame, worry or drama.

Especially with emotional pain, we know one thing for sure: It won’t last forever. It will change. I will guarantee you! Again, if any of you readers ever had an emotion that lasted and never changed, please write to me 🙂

So we can allow those sensations to be there. We observe them and don’t add any other arrows through mental stories or dramas. Or at least, we try to minimize the second arrows. Give it a try!

And even if you forget and noticed you made the situation much bigger than it actually was through your own stories, blame and dramas, give yourself a break. Perhaps even a smile. Because the fact that you realized was a moment of mindfulness. Understand that it is not about being perfect at this practice. Avoid adding that third arrow by judging the fact that you added a second arrow!

Good luck!

Mindful regards,

Gaston, Coach, Asian Leadership Institute