The other day, a client mentioned that she was keen to keep a pain journal.
I asked, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to keep a pleasure journal instead?’
She said she wanted the information recorded so she could answer the doctor’s questions about origin and onset of discomfort.
I asked, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if the doctor asked about origin and onset of comfort?’
She just stared at me.
But here’s the thing. Yes, of course, pain. We all have it. Some of us have it worse than others. Some of us think we have it worse than others, which probably means we do. And some of us have it, ignore it and then suffer more when it gets worse.
We also have pleasure. All of us. Some of us have it more than others, mostly by choice. Some of us think we never have it. And then someone points out that we’re smiling, and we remember.
So what if we shifted our perspective? As a yoga therapist in training with my superb teacher, Gary Kraftsow, I’ve learned to seek doorways that will guide my clients back to an experience of joy. We’ve got a bunch of dimensions, as humans. Joy is not to be confused with pleasant sensations. They’re distinct, but related. Joy is the source, I think, of pleasant sensation. And also an effective remedy for pain.
Guess what the body feels when we experience joy?
Think about it. How about those times when you’ve hurt yourself, and then laughed? Or when your heart breaks, and you notice beauty? Our joy is a deep well. From it, we can draw pleasure, awe, wonder, inspiration, connection. Good love draws on joy and replenishes it.
Our pain body is an alert system. It’s advising us of an imbalance that requires correction. Like an alarm on the machine. If we address it appropriately, the machine resumes its functioning. Miraculous! Plus we learn a thing or two about the cogs and pulleys keeping us going.
But if we focus on the alarm instead of the underlying problem, well, shit, the alarm just gets annoying. It gets louder. It seems to be the only damn noise in the whole building. Can someone shut this thing off? The whole neighborhood frowns at us. We wish we could move out.
Pain is as we do with it. If we accept its purpose—to send a message—it will quiet down. If we accept its foundation—a transient imbalance in the machine—we won’t have to suffer its presence. Instead, we can cultivate an attitude of appreciation towards it. For alerting us. For sending us a message. For reminding us that listening in to our bodies is our duty and our privilege. For confirming our own power: that we’re the ones best-placed to oversee, manage, and maintain ourselves, if we honestly accept our responsibility to do so.
Weirdly, so many of us want to bullshit ourselves. To pretend like we take care of ourselves when we don’t. To outsource our self-care. To cede our power.
We have choice when it comes to pain. And we have responsibility.
We can focus entirely on the negative stuff. The pain itself. The way we hate it. The way it bugs us. The way it victimizes us. The way we feel like we’re the only ones ever to feel so horrible. And the pain, in that chronic condition of complaint, will reward you with its own chronicity.
Or we can remember how to smile. Even with pain. We can notice where pain isn’t and smile at our good fortune. We can offer kindness to others and feel our happiness when they receive it. We can experiment with kindness toward ourselves and feel the deeper, ecstatic joy of that. We can remind ourselves that we love, and that love is our treasure that multiplies in its distribution. And while we do, we can take care of our pain appropriately.
Complaining is a pattern. Patterns love reiteration. With chronic complaint comes neural networks that habituate the recitation of the negative. It becomes easier to complain than to find a way out of the negative situation. And with the ongoing complaint, the discomfort goes on.
So practice the converse. Create a new pattern. In the yoga tradition, this is called pratipaksha bhavanam. I call it the ‘practice of turning frowns upside down.’ Second chapter, 33rd verse of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: ‘vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam.’ Or, ‘when negative thoughts present themselves, cultivate their opposite.’
In other words, that frown? Flip it! It’s the best yoga inversion out there, I swear. When practiced regularly, those old habits of wah-wah-boo-hoo-me become sort of silly. Where do they lead us? Away from any understanding of our bodies and our emotions, that’s for sure. What if, instead, we cultivated a willingness to look inside? To engage in introspection and interoception? To learn how we create joy and experience its sensation? To realize our simple fortune of life?
What if we chronicled all that? The origin and onset of a sweet life?
Today, I hiked with a student. I shared a favorite trail. Together, we smelled the blooming chaparral and watched the flowers seek the sun. My heart swelled to see his awe. My well-worked legs felt strong and capable. My body was grateful for a rest in the afternoon and a sensation in my knee reminded me to go easy through the evening. Today was a good day. (Cue Ice Cube.)
Imagine if we all brought journals like this into our doctors?
May you, and Ice Cube, create joy every day.