09 February 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: Resistance

Seventh in a series.

It took me a long time to learn what Eckhart Tolle meant when he said:

The [suffering] that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is.  On the level of thought, resistance is some form of judgment.  On the level of emotion, it is some form of negativity. (The Power of Now, page 33)

The purpose of this series of posts about Tolle's book, The Power of Now, is to relate what he has to say about suffering, our minds and egos, and the present moment to life in chronic pain.  And what Tolle says about suffering and how we bring it upon ourselves has possibly even greater relevance -- or, at the least, urgency -- when we are in physical pain.

NOTE: Tolle tends to use the words, "suffering" and "pain" interchangeably.  For myself, and for the purposes of clarity, I like to keep them separate: suffering is what we cause ourselves and is mental or emotional; pain happens with illness or injury and is physical. 

So, back to the quote above -- specifically, what it means if you are living with chronic pain.  If the suffering we cause ourselves is some form of nonacceptance, a kind of unconscious resistance, isn't your first reaction to say, "Damn right!  The [whatever form of chronic pain you have] is killing me and I hate it.  I do not have to accept this pain."  That's natural, in the way it's natural to snatch your hand back from a hot burner.  Our ingrained survival habit is to flee or get rid of the pain, and there are all sorts of bodily responses that go along with that habit, including adrenaline rushes and muscles that leap into action.

But.  In the case of chronic pain, just because it's natural doesn't mean it's good for us.  These natural and inherited responses to pain become problematic with chronic pain because although perfectly understandable, they cause more pain.  I have written about this vicious cycle in several other posts, but in this and the next post I am focusing on the two forms of resistance as Tolle talks about them: thought, which is judgment; and emotion, which is negativity.

Tolle does not say that thinking and judging are bad in and of themselves.  But when they are habitual and unconscious, they take over our perceptions and bring us suffering.  Thus, when we have chronic pain, we judge it and in judging it, make it worse.

When I worked with recovering addicts, they would share about the trouble they caused themselves when they "got all up in their heads."  I like this phrase as a way to relate to suffering.  When I am all up in my head about a migraine, my thoughts go something like this:

"Oh, no.  This is not good.  It's coming, a right-side migraine, the worst.  It's already pounding.  Another day curled up on my bed with the blindfold on...how will I walk the dog?...and there's nothing to cook for dinner...can't go to the store now...starting to feel sick and how can I take the medicine on an upset stomach?"  I could go on with this, but I'll spare you.

The more I think like this, the more tense my muscles become in response to the mental stress.  The more tense my muscles, the more pain in my shoulders and neck, which makes the migraine pain worse.  And there's more.  As I think in this way, I become anxious, my stomach becomes more upset, my heart beats faster and that makes my head pound more.

So, I am all up in my head and the pain that I am judging so harshly and thinking about so obsessively is worse than it was before I started all the thinking.

It's time to learn to stop obsessive thinking and to re-frame the judging of the pain.  Meditation, meditative breathing, and practices such as yoga and chanting are my tools for halting obsessive thinking.  The resulting calm and quiet mental state is perfect for re-framing the judgment, although usuallyit's not needed because the mind is still.  But re-framing, if needed, would go something like this:

"A migraine."  Deep, slow breath.  "First, walk the dog, then find the blindfold, remember the glass of water."  Deep, slow breath. 

Pain felt in a relaxed body and mind is much easier to take than pain felt in a tense, upset body and mind.  It's as simple as that. 

The next post will be about emotional resistance to pain.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment link, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.


  1. Excellent post. Thank you.

    I've been trying a similar approach suggested by Tara Brach, a Buddhist teacher. She says that when pain or another "negative" situation is presenting itself, she repeats to herself: "This is how it is right now" or simply "Yes" (with a positive energy) - it isn't intended to be a statement that says the situation/pain is okay with you, but it is the present reality, and the best way to move into it is with all of the positive energy you can pull together.

  2. Sue, I like Tara Brach's teachings, also -- loved her book, "Radical Acceptance."