Community Drop In Group 6/16/20
I’ve been listening to many people describe a certain kind of anxiety in these challenging times
that is starting to make me think of chronic pain.
Instead of chronic physical pain, many people are experiencing chronic emotional pain, which of
course physically hurts in the body.
I have a beautiful article by longterm mindfulness practitioner Darlene Cohen, called One Button
at a Time, and I often share it with people working with chronic pain. Everything she says in this
article about learning how to live well, even with the debilitating pain of rheumatoid arthritis,
feels really useful for dealing with chronic emotional pain as well. Her basic approach is to
always see beyond the confines of the pain and strengthen herself by an appreciative practice of
opening the eyes, heart and mind to see all that is present in a given moment—not just the pain.
So I want to share from her words of wisdom today.
Cohen had been a serious Zen meditation student for a number of years before developing
rheumatoid arthritis. Initially, feeling “overcome by unremitting pain,” she thought she had
wasted all those years with meditation practice. Meditation was suppose to help with just such
an occasion but at first it seemed a failure instead. Yet, it didn’t take long for her to find out that
she was wrong. She began to uncover numerous ways practice did support this new life with
pain. She says:
First of all, though ravaged by pain and disease, my body was deeply settled. ... My body had
been developing the tremendous stability associated with regular sitting practice.
So even though she was “overwhelmed and consumed by the pain,” she found she was able to let
go, surrender into what she calls the “physicality” of the moment— meaning opening to all of
the physical felt sensations present in any given moment. She says,
I discovered that wherever I looked, there were experiences other than pain waiting to be
noticed: here is bending, here is breath, here is sun warming, here is unbearable fire, here is
tightness. All these perceptions were fresh and fascinating.
Fresh and fascinating even when not all pleasant. What she learned was opening to a wide array
of sensations gave her a powerful means of being with the unpleasant. But it takes a kind of
dedication to keep widening the scope when the pain is challenging:
If it any given moment I am aware of 10 different elements—my bottom on the chair, the sound of
cars passing outside, the though of the laundry I have to do, the hum of the air conditioner, an
unpleasant stab of sharp knee pain, cool air entering my nostrils warm air going out— and one
of them is pain, that pain will dominate my life. But if I am aware of 100 elements, those 10 plus
more subtle sensations – the animal presence of other people sitting quietly in the room, the
shadow of the lamp against the wall, the brush of my hair against my ear, The pressure of my
clothes against my skin – then pain is merely one of the elements of my consciousness, and that is
pain I can live with.
This widening of perspective is very useful. Our survival minds want to send us into tunnel
vision where problem is the only thing that can occupy any mental space. If I am in a life/death
situation, I probably want problem to be my full occupation. But if I am trying to live daily life,
then only seeing problem and not anything else means a daily living hell instead.
Clearly, having the mind space to be aware of a hundred different sensations present in a moment
involves practice, training and patience. As she says, it was through her extensive sitting practice
that she cultivated this skill. That depth of practice might feel unattainable in these times, but in
reality times have always been hard. There is nothing unusual in this human experience of
challenging times, and people for eons have been learning how to do the practice and training
necessary to shift our experience away from a survival only mode of just getting by and to
greater resiliency and well-being in the midst of the difficult. If we stick with the intention of
compassionate practice, put in the time and right work, this shift will happen for us as well.
Putting in any time in formal practice, even just 5 - 10 min a day, starts to make a difference if
we do it with a deep intention of persistence, goodwill, compassion and letting go. That formal
practice begins to change the quality of our day. As Cohen says:
With such a mind, life becomes richly textured. Consciously putting a cup on the table and
feeling the flat surfaces meet becomes a rare, satisfying, “just-right” kind of experience.
Washing dishes is not just about getting the dishes clean; it’s also about feeling the warm, soapy
water soothing my arthritic fingers. Doing laundry, I can smell its cleanness and luxuriate in the
simple movements of folding, a counterpoint to my complex life.
This is not about someone having rarified good conditions present in life to be able to take this
kind of time to notice. This is her learning to do this in the midst of serious pain. As Cohen
For people in pain, tapping into this wisdom beyond wisdom is simply how to survive. When we
have nothing left to hold onto, we must find comfort and support in the mundane details of our
every day lives, which are less than mundane when they’re the reason we’re willing to stay alive.
This is the upside of impermanence: the shiny uniqueness of beings and objects when we begin to
notice their comforting presence. When preferences for a particular experience fade, the myriad
things come forward to play, shimmering was suchness. Obviously, flowers and trees do this, but
so do beer cans and microwaves, they’re all waiting for our embrace. It is enormously
empowering to inhabit the world so vibrant was singularity.
She notes that after living with this condition for 30+ years that she never enters a room without
looking for what sources of comfort and ease might be there – always noticing not only the
recliner, or the pillow, but also the light from the window, a homemade vase or the muffled drone
of the air-conditioning— all sources of potential comfort and pleasure.
She’s learned to bring a sense of companionship and friendliness to items like her toothbrush, her
her dishes, her spoon, and her car. She finds that by taking notice of the supports around her all
the time, not only is she better able to manage the pain, but life is just more interesting, rich and
full, even in the midst of pain. The practice hasn’t magically made her pain go away, but it has
freed her to live a life that has joy and meaning even with the pain.
How might this kind of appreciative mindfulness support you? Do you have a habit of gliding
over what’s good in your life and focusing only on what’s hard or unwanted? What happens
when you draw from the heart to broaden what you see with your eyes in any given moment?
I set down last night to watch a Netflix show with my daughter, and really took in the beauty and
sweetness of this moment— not just being with her, but also the sweet cat curled up between us,
the fact that we had a TV that was working and Netflix, after a long pause actually opened, that
some people in Canada had bothered to make this wonderful show about Kim’s Convenience
store and the family that runs it, that we have my mother’s old red couch that is so comfortable, a
roof over our head and a floor beneath our feet keeping us dry and warm on a rainy cool evening.
When we learn to pause and open our eyes with the strength of our hearts, we start to see into a
sacredness present in every moment. Mindfulness teacher Chris Cullen talks about the
interdependence of eyes and heart. He says, the attitude of the heart defines what the eyes will
be able to see.
Darlene Cohen is pointing to an attitude of heart that helps reveal supports all around. It is using
the strength of the heart to open our eyes to an appreciative wonder of what is here. This is all
basic grounding practice that helps clear our minds to function better in our lives.
And by practicing this kind of basic, but sacred, re-grounding moment by moment, we come to
know the wisdom beyond wisdom that allows us to live a life with joy and meaning right in the
midst of our pain as well.