Wednesday, February 4, 2009

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional…”

Might it be that the comments of an ancient Buddhist monk could offer some direction to those of us working at CCRMC in these difficult times? The quote above is from an unknown monk, but it has been repeated often in the modern era by Thich Nhat Hanh, a modern teacher who has authored a book about pain and suffering (The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation, 1999).

So, you ask, “What does any of that have to do with CCRMC or my job?” Well…maybe upon further reflection….

In the last 6 months, I have felt great pain and I have seen much pain reflected in the faces of many (most) of my coworkers. Not the physical pain that often troubles our patients. Rather, the deep spiritual and psychological pain that one feels when the world is unsettled, risky, threatening, and uncertain.

Sometimes, the pain presents itself as a question:
“How will the economic downturn affect me?”
“Will I lose my job?”
“Can I pay the mortgage?”
“Will I have health insurance?”
“Will all of the work of my career be for naught as the County health system collapses?”

Sometimes, the pain comes forth as a feeling: anger, frustration, panic, anxiety, sadness, emptiness…

Sometimes, the pain is a behavior: arguments, mean statements, brusque actions, lackadaisical work, increased sick leave, problems sleeping, over-eating…

Sometimes, it merely festers. “Will it ever end?”

For the monk, observing the world in a very conscious way, life and pain live together at times. To live is to have pain at those times. The mother in labor, the child becoming a teenager, the adult losing a parent, anyone having surgery—pain comes with the territory and cannot be avoided. It is hardwired into life, just as the perception of pain is hardwired into our nervous system. It is inevitable…

However, the monk noticed that different approaches to the pain of life lead to much different responses to the pain. Some approaches can help us learn, others can trap us in suffering—the process of “holding” the pain in our lives on an ongoing basis. Sometimes, we all suffer with pain.

Holding the pain (suffering), means integrating it into our personality. In a very real sense, holding onto pain means becoming the pain that we feel. We become that pain as we tell ourselves stories about the pain that we feel. Suffering, or the absence of suffering, is all about the stories that we tell ourselves about the pain that we feel. Those stories can either hold the pain close, or send it away.

Stories in our lives attach meaning to our thoughts. We all hold a conglomeration of stories in our minds—and those stories provide us with our identity. The stories are the keys to meaning.
The young adult who blames a parent for all that is wrong—needing to have someone to blame in order to stand the pain brings the pain inside and prevents it from leaving. A patient who holds anger at a nurse, an employee who blames a supervisor for the frustration of the job—these examples and more hold the pain inside and cause what we call suffering. The suffering becomes an integral part of the meaning of that person’s life. It cannot go away as long as the story stays the same.

Suffering is a choice, a choice attached to a story about pain. It is a choice made either intentionally or subconsciously, that embeds our pain into our souls. A choice that gives us some identity, but it is a choice that costs us immensely. The choice to tell the story of pain to ourselves means that we cannot let it go.

However, we can “unmake” our choice if we desire. We can reframe our pain in a new story—a story that connects the episodic pain to learning and lets it pass like the pain of an immunization—helping us to heal ourselves.

The monk says that the option is ours.

So, I wonder if the thoughts of the Buddhist monk might help us all at this time......?

What do you think? What is your story about our times?

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