I’ve not had a headache since 1975 when i was a substitute teacher for one day at Marblehead High School. I don’t say that to brag, but as an opening to discuss some of the realities of facing and living with suffering, primarily physical pain.
I am not someone who thinks it’s particularly virtuous to undergo pain if it can be avoided. I don’t think “natural childbirth” is necessarily more “natural” than labor and birth aided by some or another drug, potion, or whatever as long as the baby is not compromised. I would not be surprised if women in non-Christian (who did not bear the curse upon Eve) and premodern societies were happy to ingest whatever they could to minimize their pain.
Truthfully, if I am having dental work close to nerves, I’ll happily have Novocaine. For surgical operations let me shake the anesthesiologist’s hand. And yes, I’ve experienced other kinds of physical pain, some associated with the neurological damage of multiple sclerosis and some with the accidents and grind of daily living. For most of it, I manage without the need for any pain medication.
A good example occurred several years ago when I had an infection in my finger. I needed to have the wound lanced. I was offered anaesthetic for my finger, but I had a painting class scheduled following the procedure. Due to MS, it was already difficult enough for me to grasp a brush and, in addition, my finger would be bandaged. I asked the physician whether I would be able to paint that afternoon and he unwittingly paraphrased Mr.Tambourine Man, “your hand won’t feel to grip.”
I told him I would manage the pain myself. I relaxed and he began to cut. The pain, of course, was present, but I did my best to accept it and not enter internal commentary about its severity. I kept my body relaxed, noticing where and when I would tense, and focused on my breathing. The only difficulty was a nurse inquiring if I was okay. I insisted she be quiet and I’d be fine.
My calm and bearable pain was, I think, largely due to my conscious use of several principles applicable to daily living. First, of course, I relaxed my body based on diaphragmatic breathing. I did not resist the pain of the cutting, but was present with it. When we are fearful, our muscles tighten and that increases pain. I also know pain is influenced by personal, family, and social history. It is, to some degree, dependent on the situation in which it occurs. For example, soldiers report less pain when their injuries or wounds are similar to those of civilians because of their greater meaning-perhaps the cause or solidarity with fellow combatants. and sacrifice associated with it.
I also tolerated the scalpel because I expected a brief procedure, similar to quite uncomfortable diagnostics and interventions I’ve undergone. I also looked forward to painting later that day, a greater good than no pain at all with medication, for example. Few traditional paths toward consciousness suggests that we ought not to suffer, but we can learn to minimize unconscious or unnecessary suffering.
Physical pain is part of living, as Adam and Eve are told in Genesis. But, as I pointed out in my simple example, what amplifies our suffering is not the experience of pain nor even the wish to be free of it, but the attachment to that wish . There are simple ways of modifying much moderate pain which we might otherwise find intolerable. And certainly there are yogis and practitioners enjoying special techniques and traditions who seek to be free of pain.
Before spending a great deal of time and energy searching them out, it does well to remember this teaching story. Two friends, Bill and Bob, walk along a river bank when they see a third man cross over to the other side by walking upon the water. Bob is so amazed by such a display of what he believes is spiritual power that the very next day he leaves his old life to find a guru to teach him such a feat.
Twenty years later, Bill strolling along the river bank as before, sees his old companion striding across the river to greet him. “How are you my dear friend?”
“Oh, great friend of my youth, see what I have accomplished after so many years of study with my master. Abandon all and come with me to meet him.”
Apparently deep in thought considering this offer, Bill continues strolling with his dear friend. They come to a foot bridge which takes them across the river. “Ah, my dear one, I cannot accept your kind offer. What you attained after twenty years, by walking on this bridge, I accomplished in five minutes.” So, yes, sometimes for ms ache I just take Tylenol (anti-inflammatory).