Pain is Empty

Before you read this post, please note:

1) Sometimes I have the urge to write things that are more metaphysical than “scientific”, and if you do not enjoy this type of writing, then you probably won’t want to read this post. If this is the case, stop reading now and find a more valuable use of your time. 

2) The following post is highly influenced by the teachings of nondual emptiness, about which I’ve been reading a lot lately. If you want to learn more about nondual emptiness, start here.

3) This post is an exploration of how emptiness relates to our interpretation and reaction to pain. Pain being something we, as dancers, are quite familiar with. Or are we…? 

4) No pictures in this post, sorry. But here’s something fun to look at in case you were expecting visual entertainment: <—- (click the link I promise you’ll like it!)

Ok, here’s ONE picture that is kind of relevant. Especially if you like hotdogs…

Annnd now you’ve been sufficiently warned of the nature of the content to follow. You ready?

Pain is empty.

Empty meaning that pain has no inherent, independent existence.

Pain, like every other thing that exists (and even like all the things that don’t exist), cannot exist on it’s own- It’s existence is dependent on the existence of other things. There must be something to experience the pain (you, your brain/body), as well as something that lead to the experience of pain (a swift kick to the shin, and said shin-kicker, for example). So, pain’s existence arises codependently with acute trauma, or overuse, plus you must exist to experience it.

What about our perception of pain? Pain, and all it’s subdivisions (tolerance to, reaction to, description of, etc), is an incredibly complex and fascinating thing.

If you think about pain as an empty thing (having no inherent, independent existence), it seems so insignificant. So then why do I, and others in the business of holistic body-care, care so much about it? If pain is empty, why should I worry (sometimes at night, in my dreams, fo’ realz) so much about keeping people pain-free? Why is this what I have chosen to do everyday? Why do I keep the pain of others constantly on my mind?

I no longer think it’s necessary to be so obsessed with one empty thing (remembering that ALL things are empty, dependent, inherently non-existent).

Both the pain and the being IN pain are empty. If I do decide to obsess, it should be in equal amount for both the person and the pain. As per the words Dr. Perry Nickelston coined, and should serve as a mantra for us all, “Stop chasing pain“. I can appreciate this more now realizing the empty existence of pain.

Why chase an empty thing? Why chase ANY thing?

I have made the mistake of thinking  first and foremost about the pain, and not the person, but they cannot be separated. One’s existence is dependent on the other, flowing together, so as the person changes, so too does their pain.

I can no longer fool myself into thinking that I can prevent or take away someone’s pain. Their cause of pain is beyond my control, but I can help shape them, the empty person, who has allowed their existence to depend on mine. And together, codependently, we will create change. And with this change the pain will change. Not disappear, but change.

But without pain, would that person be the same? Is my empty existence more influenced by my perception of my pain than I realize? Do I bring further physical suffering  upon myself simply because I acknowledge it? By recognizing it’s existence, albeit empty (dependent on MY existence), does that exacerbate my experience of it?

I know first-hand how pain symptoms can become part of a person’s identity. How many times have I, and my clients, used the words “broken”, “fixable”, “dysfunctional”, “sore” to describe the state of their existence…

The truth is these states could not exist without them, the individual. Pain and the person arise codependently.  We bring all our suffering upon ourselves, and the state of our existence depends, too, on our suffering.

You could interpret that as saying that we should ignore our pain, but that’s not what I mean. I’m just realizing now that sometimes I obsess too much. I allow my perception of pain to interfere when it need not to. I perceive it to be more important that it is. Pain is fleeting, empty of inherent existence, if you let it be. If you can let it flow.

There’s this thing  we call a “pain tolerance” which people assume is either high or low. A pain tolerance exists as an empty thing (surprise). It’s existence is dependent on the person in pain, and the situation that brings the pain. Without these variables, there is no tolerance to pain, and no pain either. There both is and there isn’t pain at all times. 

Have you ever forgotten you were in pain even though you were, at the moment, acutely injured?

Pain both exists, and doesn’t. It depends on you, and on the cause of the pain. In this case of forgetting your experience of pain, the injury is still there, but you’ve been distracted and forgotten it. Because the existence of pain is empty (not inherent, dependent), it can both exist and not exist at the same time. But you will remember the feeling of pain soon enough, for comfort is empty, too. Exists always and never.

That things can both exist and not exist at the same time is still a strange concept to me. The term “emptiness” sounds negative. Sounds unpleasant. But it’s not. Just empty. Emptiness implies that two dependent things cannot be separated. Mind/body, pleasure/pain- They both exist as empty things, dependent on each other to exist.

Dependence was once a negative term to me, too, because I take pride in thinking of myself as independent. But if dependence and independence really exist as nondual, empty things, then I must be resigned to both. Both dependent and independent.  Flowing constantly from varying degrees of one state to the other.

Everything flows. Panta rei…

Back to pain. If pain both exists and doesn’t exist simultaneously, be comforted. You’re not broken.

Even while you are feeling pain, you are also not in pain in many other ways. Your pain will pass. It’s not a part of your inherent existence, for you have none- Everything is dependent on another thing to exist. Do not mistake your pain for your identity.

To remove the temporary state of physical pain, trust is important. Trust that what you are doing is working. Remember that pain is both dependent on the one experiencing it, and the external factors causing it. Both factors are empty. Perhaps the external factors are gone, but you haven’t yet decided to release the pain. You haven’t forgotten it yet. In this case you’re needlessly bringing suffering upon yourself. We’ve all done it.

But remember, too, that you don’t need to fear pain, because pleasure and all of pain’s opposite sensations are just as real, or empty.

You don’t need to fear falling, for there was never anywhere to stand.

Dancers have mastered the art of forgetting pain. We work through it, through it’s empty existence. But this is not healthy for extended periods of time, which I and my dancer peers are liable to do. Everything must flow- Ignore pain for too long, and you will have to face it for equally long.

Don’t ignore pain, but don’t become obsessed with it either. Recognize it’s empty existence- it’s dependent existence. That it is not inherehently a part of you. And don’t be discouraged.

But also take care of your body. Take measures to prevent injuries. Become strong. Realize that pain cannot exist separately from the absence of pain. One is dependent on the other. And by realizing this you won’t have to suffer- You CAN feel it all simultaneously.

We easily get stuck in patterns that lead us to believe that our existence is dependent on pain. These are the people that think they are broken, and need to be fixed. This is me, right now. Trying to talk myself out of it.

Repeat after me:

I recognize that I will always experience both pain and non-pain. That pain is dependent on my existence, and that my existence, to a certain extent depends on pain, but also on pleasure, comfort, and happiness in equal amounts. And if I can convince myself that my existence was once dependent on my being in pain, to the point that it became part of my identity (“how are you today Monika? Oh you know, less sore today than usual”), then I can convince myself that my existence is dependent on happiness too.

So, knowing that both pain and non-pain are empty, dependent things, make the choice to not validate your existence by your suffering.

If you are experiencing physical pain, remind yourself that pain and non-pain exist simultaneously. You can choose to let the pain overcome you, or you can remember that non-pain is always there. The great difficulty we face is that things we perceive as negative are always more overpowering, more distracting.

No one ever says, “Sorry, I was distracted by my HAPPINESS and COMFORT”. But maybe I should start…

You are not your pain. But you are also not your happiness. You are empty. You are dependent. Like the existence of everything else. I still think you’re special. I think I’M special. But we can both special and non-special simultaneously, remember? Accept it and be free.