Pain as an Unexpected Teacher

This past week, I finished a 12-week fitness challenge I entered into with a collection of other people at one of the places I work out.  At the celebration on Thursday, we partied and learned who won (the two who won “most pounds lost” and “most inches lost” were truly deserving and inspiring) and cheered each other on one last time.  It was nice to see everyone all fresh, clean, and dressed up!

I was pleased with how I did — I am definitely making progress towards my goals around muscle strength and definition — but finishing the challenge isn’t what I’m writing about today.  It’s about something I learned towards the beginning.

I started going to this new gym/studio in January after running into my former boss from my days teaching cardio kickboxing.  She looked great and was really happy with her new gig teaching fitness at this other place, so I decided to check it out.

I took her “barrefusion” class.  Barrefusion is a combination of ballet barre work, Pilates, callanetics, and the best torture methods invented by the CIA to make people talk.  I’m kidding only a little here. Using just our own body weight (or 1-2 pound weights for arms) we pushed every major muscle group to the point of burning, shaking fatigue … over and over … for an hour.  I thought I was in great shape before I took this class, taking smug satisfaction from regularly beating out people 20 years younger than me — of both sexes — in various athletic endeavors.  Now I was the one quivering, sweating, and grunting to hold a half pushup — after holding a plank for at least a minute, then going into pushups, then pulsing at another half pushup for ten reps.  I had discovered the unknown territory of “can’t”, my triceps on fire.  Meanwhile, the well-toned, well-off women around me  — some much older — were holding their own.

I have never been in so much pain voluntarily as I have in barrefusion class.  Not when running races, not when boxing, not when lifting weights, not when doing yoga, not when dancing (even when I injured myself) and not even when doing “no pain no gain” high-impact aerobics in the 80s.  Even some of my experiences with involuntary pain –a severely spasmed colon in high school comes to mind — pale in comparison to barrefusion.  Especially when it comes to working the quad muscles of the thighs in barrefusion, I have never felt such searing fire in my body.

And this is how pain came to teach me.  One day in class — yes, I kept going to barrefusion and even paid good money to do so! — we were working on our quads.  I was trying to manage going from a position where I hung from the barre in front of me, my legs at right angles with thighs perpendicular to the floor, then taking my seat all the way to the floor, then back to a right angle multiple times, then repeatedly pushing my pelvis and thighs up and forward to the barre while also raising my heels off the floor. I became fascinated by my pain.  I began to wonder why it was so awful.  Was my body giving me a message I needed to heed about my tissues getting ready to burst or tear?  Was my body in danger?  Was any part of me?

I suddenly realized I was not in danger.  I realized that the pain was so awful not only because of the physical sensation, but because I was afraid of it.  I was afraid (at an instinctual level) that my body was in danger.  I was also afraid of the damage I was doing to myself — that I would be so sore the next day I’d be unable to walk.  And I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it through the pain.  I was afraid I couldn’t do it.

Suddenly the pain shifted.  I realized the physical pain was being fueled by fear — including fear about a future that didn’t exist!  I found myself able to endure more than I thought I would, just by this realization.  And the next day I wasn’t even that sore.  My fears had been in vain.

I read about another woman’s similar experience with pain in a profound book by psychologist Kathleen Noble called The Sound of a Silver Horn: Reclaiming the Heroism in Contemporary Womens’ Lives.  One of the women profiled in the book, Melia, talks about the transformative power of pain she experienced during childbirth:

My first child was born without anesthesia…and there is a stage called transition in which you just think you’re going to lose it or die or something…The pain is so tremendous.  I remember feeling like I would snap or just start breaking things, or if I had a gun I would start shooting people because the pain was so intense.  I’d never felt that way before. But just when I thought I was snapping from the tremendous pain I switched to floating; I detached from the pain, I dissociated. It was a decision. It’s hard to remember when you’re in tremendous pain the power you have in just making the decision ‘I cannot take this anymore; I have to do something now to survive.’ … This didn’t involve the intellect … It involved the ability to make a decision…I was able to do this, to change an extremely negative experience into something very spiritual and empowering.  I really felt heroic afterward.  All my inferiority because I’m a woman left.  I could do this, I did this, I gave birth…Really, for the first time ever I felt equal  with [my husband].  Before, he was the doctor and I was his little nurse.  He was the man.  Now I was his equal.  It was really powerful. I always use that as my model now.  I know that everything I’m doing now is difficult, but not like childbirth.  Nothing. Everything else is minor to me.

I can relate.  I remember vividly how one of our challenge coaches, Lea — who has her own super-inspiring story about how she changed her health and life for the better — shouted at us one night during a grueling spinning (stationary biking) routine: “This is about being OK with suffering! It makes you stronger AND it gives you confidence from knowing that you CAN!”

Amen.  And yet we are usually given an opposite message, to the tune of: “This hurts! Make it stop! RIGHT! NOW!”  We are encouraged to end pain as quickly as possible — others’ as well as our own.  There’s a reason why; our reptilian brains are wired to pay acute attention to pain and resolve the problem as quickly as possible, which is a good, and evolutionarily advantageous response when it comes to physiological distress.  But perhaps not so advantageous when the situation goes beyond physiology.  Culturally we are encouraged to be comfortable and happy all the time.  While visiting the Labor and Delivery unit in the hospital where I work, I once remarked to the nursing manager about how suprisingly quiet it was, even though every bed was full.  Her response: “We do a very good job of pain management here.”

Removing all pain from our lives removes opportunities to grow, to triumph, to learn of what we are capable, and to find our inner s/hero.  In fact, pain is a feature of what author Dan Pink calls the drive to mastery.  In his eye-opening book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink identifies mastery —  the desire to get better and better at something that matters — as one of the three key elements of intrinsic motivation.  And, as he puts it, “mastery is a pain.”  He writes. “Mastery — of sports, music, business — requires effort (difficult, painful, excruciating, all-consuming effort) over a long time (not a week or a month, but a decade).”  And, he continues, effort gives meaning to life.

Once again I realize I have been lazy and didn’t know it.  One of the weaknesses of being better than average (smarter, stronger, healthier, richer etc.) is that we don’t often learn how to learn.  We don’t learn about the payoff involved in sustained effort because so many things come easy.  I realized I have been singing the same tune I sometimes criticize others for singing — “I can’t because of my DNA”, or “it just doesn’t work for me”, or “I’m different”.  I was wrong.  I have been humbled by people like my friend “M” whose fierce commitment and tremendous discipline, even in the face of negative family pressure and financial limitations, have enabled her to completely transform her diet and her body in the last eight months to the point of being ready to run a 5K race with me in two weeks.  And now I, too, am seeing the results of my pain  — muscles I believed were just genetically weak or getting old are now much stronger, and visibly larger.  And all because I worked at it — really hard.

I was telling a work colleague some weeks ago about participating in the challenge and about how excruciatingly painful some of my workouts were.  Over her salad and stuffed halibut she leaned towards me and asked, “Well, why the heck do you do it, then?” I paused in my reply then, but now can say with more confidence that it helps me grow, it gets results, and it teaches me important lessons about life and about myself.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that not all pain is equal and that pain can also teach the power of discernment.  The pain of bone cancer is not the same as the pain of childbirth.  The pain of someone sawing off my leg to torture me is not the same as someone sawing off my leg to remove life-threatening infection and gangrene.  Perhaps one might approach them similarly from a spiritual perspective, but the different contexts might call for different responses.

Spiritual teacher Thomas Hübl talks about the difference between “creative friction”, which pushes us to our limits and allows us to take a step and grow, and “destructive friction” which is stuck, heavy, and limiting, like a swamp:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCsBeVVshFU

I believe friction is a form of pain, and gaining the ability to discern whether a certain discomfort (friction, pain, etc.) has creative, generative power or destructive power is essential to growth and happiness.  Some of us shun all pain entirely while some of us seem to be addicted to it.  I have shunned most physical pain until now, but in the past I was addicted to emotional pain.  I equated emotional pain of any kind as normal, necessary, or adding value to a relationship.  I no longer believe this to be true, as I now recognize the difference between the not-OK pain of hearing abusive belittling and the OK discomfort involved in receiving loving feedback, for example.

Discerning between generative pain and destructive pain is as important to living a rich life and fulfilling one’s potential, as learning to endure generative pain.   As the saying “your current safe boundaries were once unknown frontiers” implies, growth requires courage — and pain.  But knowing one’s limits and being self-compassionate is vital as well.  I am a much tougher cookie now than when I started the fitness challenge in January, but there are days when my quads just need me to back off a little.  I listen.  After all, I’m in this for the long haul and I need to nurture my relationship with my one constant companion – me!

Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain. ~Joseph Campbell~

What has pain taught you?  Please share a comment below!

In lak ech!

~Jaxsine!

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5 responses to “Pain as an Unexpected Teacher

  1. It is so ironic to read your post this evening, Jaxsine, since I was just sharing with my husband a reflection I had this afternoon about differentiating the types of fear in my life. For the first 8 years after leaving my parent’s home I was almost obsessed with overcoming any fear I had, often putting myself in physically and emotionally dangerous situations. I thought that by facing fears, I would overcome them, but I just became desperate and exhausted. Then I met my husband and as I became more comfortable, I switched to avoiding pain – choosing a job and social life that were numbing. Soon after, I was overcome by depression – a sense of hopelessness and lack of direction that luckily led me to therapy. After 2 years with my counselor, we finished our work and I found that during that time I had taken on some tremendous challenges – faced fears I had been avoiding, but found that through facing them I was able to develop parts of myself I had always wanted to change. And those parts I developed became gifts that have led me to a successful and fulfilling career.

    I really relate to your journey with different types of pain as I reflect on my different fears. I now see there is a helpful fear that keeps me from damaging my body, heart, or blessed stability, and then is another fear that keeps me from unearthing who I am – as the old saying goes “fear of our own brilliance.”

    • Hi Nancy! Thank you for your thoughtful and generous comment. I’m glad my post provided some insight for you, and your sharing adds texture to my understanding as well. I think one of the (potential) rewards of aging and gaining wisdom is the ability to find a middle way — a balance among extremes — which seems to be what both of us are describing. It can be tempting to take on pain or face fears foolishly in an attempt to prove something, or to avoid some form of responsibility? (Then again there’s also the piece about the prefrontal cortex not being fully formed until we’re 25! 🙂 ) Perhaps the same avoidance of responsibility is at work when numbing out? Maybe both are ways of being a victim? I think for me maybe it was. Kathleen Noble talks about the importance of gifted women not hiding out (e.g. in a relationship) although it’s so tempting and socially sanctioned to do so (and be a victim), unlike being a Shero or Warrior! We women certainly are not lacking in role models for victimhood and hiding out. Anywho, I believe as we evolve it’s important to not throw out the baby with the bath water — we shouldn’t necessarily get rid of “baser” instincts or responses, but perhaps mitigate them and be more mindful. Please keep reading and commenting!

  2. Sorry for my delay in commenting, Jaxsine.

    Love your journal entry over pain being a teacher. It certainly got me thinking A LOT about some of my own fears of excelling at some of my own training sessions as well. Some things I have not give “my all” because I was afraid of tripping or hurting myself to the point where I held back. I feared hurting myself and looking like a total klutz.

    Good thing I was always vocal about it when my trainer asked me, “How do you feel?” or even recognizes the look of hesitation in my eyes to which she would always reassure for me to “believe ” in myself. Some things took me weeks or months, but I am getting stronger and her words have always been like pure gold to me. It’s a good thing because I still “hear” her words play in my mind every time I am at the gym and do some strength training on my own. When I cleared my mind and believed that I could do it, then it started happening. Wow! What a difference! She’s soooo right! 🙂

    So, yeah….I totally understand what how you’ve described what you’ve learned in your challenge. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

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