Leaning in to pain is a thing, and we should embrace it

I'm sitting cross-legged before a monk, offloading my woes. There's enough time. I'm here for five whole days without children, work or any distraction. Even mobile phones are contraband. Bloody hell!

I've signed up for the Embracing Change program at Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary Thailand. They get their fair share of separated people here, like me. Separation is right up there with the death of a loved one as the sort of major, life-altering calamity that brings people to their knees.

“With perspective we appreciate how tough times have shaped us. Yet try telling us that when we’re in the thick of it.”Credit:Shutterstock

What I learn from my monk, Rajesh – who is technically no longer a monk but a Life Enhancement Mentor assigned to me for my stay – is that the trick to easing suffering is to suffer. "If you're going to suffer, suffer properly," he tells me. I start to wish I'd chosen the detox program instead.

Rajesh goes on to teach me "the art of suffering properly". I take notes. I need to as it's something most of us are not so good at. We are instead "adept at the game of avoidance of pain and suffering". But running, Rajesh warns me, keeps us stuck in spiralling patterns of despair and hopelessness.

The art is this: when pain arises, mild or otherwise, go within. Pay attention to "escape routes" – those things, such as scrolling through Instagram, bingeing on Netflix or downloading to a friend, we all do to distract ourselves – and resist. Stay in the discomfort and wait for it to dissolve. Which, I'm assured, it will. Ninety seconds, tops.

"You may not be responsible for causing the pain," he says soothingly. "But be responsible for ending it."

This might be news to me but it's a movement of sorts. Leaning into pain is a thing. Something wise people have practised for aeons but most of us have been too busy avoiding to notice. We are taught these days to think positively, to cajole ourselves out of our distress before it takes hold. Yet spiritual masters prescribe a healthy dose of wallowing to get to the other side. As spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle says, "You need to say yes to suffering before you can transcend it."

Sarah Wilson suffers well. The author of First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, her memoir on anxiety, writes candidly about her dives into darkness as being the catalyst for her most profound realisations. "You can resist this discomfort, find the flies unbearable, give into the resentment, torture yourself," she writes of a long hike. "Or you can bunker down and sit in it. And when you do, something happens. You enter a slipstream of movement and calm non-thinking."

Another master sufferer is author Glennon Doyle, who has mined deep despair for personal elevation. "Pain knocks on everyone's door. If we are wise, we will greet it and say, 'Come in, sit down, and don't leave until you've taught me what I need to know,' " she says. "I've learnt that when I run from pain, I bypass transformation.

" We get it in hindsight. Looking back on the heartbreak, the job loss, the absent father and far deeper challenges besides, we can usually redefine it, given time, to glean the profound offerings within. With perspective we can appreciate how tough times have shaped us. Yet try telling us that when we're in the thick of it. Try staying in the thick of it. Next time, I do.

The day came like any other. But by mid-morning I was rattled. A series of let-downs, plans gone awry. At first I revert to default, powering through my to-do list. Anything to deflect from the rising anguish. Then I recall Rajesh's words – and attempt to suffer properly.

I crawl back into bed. At noon. I've never done this before, except when I'm sick or that time I had depression in my 20s. I put the phone in the other room so I can't call anyone and I stay with the angst. Until school pickup. I put on a happy face there.

Only it's not an act. I do feel better for it. For allowing the feelings I usually flee from. It's this that will make me whole.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale January 27.

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