Note: the following is an excerpt from my latest e-book, Everyday Joy: Or, How To Be Happier and Healthier, and Party All The Time. This article also appeared on The Huffington Post.
IN LATE NOVEMBER OF 2008 I spent the majority of my days sitting cross legged on the cold floor of a meditation hall in North India. I was living in the woods outside of a tiny mountain village called Dharamkot, surrounded by cedar trees and mountains and little else, attending a meditation retreat for the first time. Like many other areas of my life, when I first became interested in meditation I decided to dive in headfirst, signing up for a 10 day silent retreat during which I would be totally cut off from the outside world, and meditating for somewhere north of ten hours per day. It was intense, especially for one with limited experience with meditation beforehand.
After the first or second day of the retreat, my legs began to numb each time I took my seat on the floor of the meditation hall. By day 3 this numbness was replaced by a severe pain shooting up the left side of my body. The practice required sitting as still as possible, so I was determined not to shift my position to ease the pain overtaking my left leg.
I can be a stubborn individual. When I set my mind to something my resolve to see it through is unwavering, and I was committed to this meditation; I was committed to maintaining perfect posture, and stilling my wandering mind, regardless of my discomfort.
But on that particular day all I could focus on was the pain. My body simply wasn’t used to sitting on the ground for hours at a time while trying to remain motionless. The teacher did mention that, should the pain become unbearable, students were permitted to shift their position, but I wasn’t having it. I was going to do this meditation thing right, dammit, pain or no pain.
The pain grew worse. I began to sweat and curse myself for signing up for such a crazy experiment. I became agitated, edgy, and miserable. I proceeded to fantasize about how incredible it would feel to get up, and relieve the unbearable cramps I now felt throughout the lower half of my body. What bliss, I imagined. What absolute bliss.
“I can walk outside and massage and stretch my legs and breathe in the cool, clean mountain air and it will feel wonderful,” I thought. “I might even go to bed early… It’s insane that we have to get up at 4:45 every morning. Absolutely insane.”
The throbbing continued, only now it felt like my whole leg was swelling up and vibrating to the rhythm of my heart beat. It was a bizarre and dramatic cocktail of pain. I wasn’t sure if I had signed up for a meditation retreat or some Indian prisoner of war camp.
My sweating grew worse.
“This place is a prison,” I thought. “It’s like the world’s most mellow, enlightened prison. This is hell, this sitting on the floor for eleven hours a day… Fuck this. This is ridiculous…I’m going outside.”
I was just about to cave — juuuuust about to get up, and get the hell out of that hall in order to take a walk and ease the pain in my legs — when it struck me:
I can decide to observe this pain.
Right now I’m choosing to react to it, but I don’t have to. I can just observe it, like a doctor might observe a patient.
Because this pain isn’t me. And this pain isn’t bad or miserable or anything—this pain simply is. It’s just physical sensations. I’m deciding to freak out over it, but it’s completely unnecessary. Right now I’m letting it have power over my mood, but it doesn’t necessarily have that right—I’m offering pain the power to dictate how I feel. I can strip pain of its right to impact how I feel. Maybe I can strip pain of its power by not reacting to it.
I’m bigger than this pain. So maybe I can just watch it, rather than react to it.
My meditation practice at the time was all about observation—observing my body’s natural pattern of respiration, as well as the physical sensations that cover my body—but I didn’t really appreciate or understand it until that moment. In that moment, I had a revelation.
Even in the midst of intense physical pain, we can choose not to react to it. Real pain doesn’t come from the actual physical sensation of discomfort—real pain comes from our aversion to that discomfort. In other words, the way we react to the pain is far worse than the pain itself. What is truly painful is our usual response to pain.
A deep sense of equanimity came over me, and I remained completely still. I remained totally present to the discomfort that had overtaken my left leg, only now I wasn’t reacting to it. I began to watch it, as one might observe a painting in a museum. “Oh, that’s interesting,” I thought to myself. “Now it feels like my leg is buzzing, when before it was throbbing. Interesting. Interesting.”
I stopped sweating and panicking and cursing myself, and I remained still. The pain no longer bothered me, and I carried on with my practice. Eventually, the pain began to fade, then fade some more, and then it was gone. Like all things.
This experience changed my life. This experience altered the way I respond to pain and discomfort of all kinds. I cannot overstate the value that that sweaty leg pain in Dharamkot brought to my life.
Pain—any kind of pain—isn’t what we think it is. Pain isn’t nasty, or awful, or scary, or disgusting, or unpleasant, or powerful—these are just words we attribute to our aversion to and attempted avoidance of the pain. Pain is just pain. We are the ones who ascribe meaning and significance to it; without this, pain is impotent.
For a period following my experience at the retreat, I experimented with this discovery in a variety of fashions. I would pinch my arm until it bled in order to exercise my ability to observe pain. I would contort the lower half of my body in all sorts of uncomfortable positions in order to practice. I would try to think of the most painful and uncomfortable conversations and interactions of my past, and play them out in my head over and over again, going deep into the shame, guilt, and embarrassment I once felt.
You don’t have to take it that far to recognize your own ability to observe pain. Instead, just try this:
Make a conscious decision to observe, and party through your pain.
That’s it. Just make up your mind.
You have the ability to interpret, and respond to, any experience in life in whichever manner you choose. No matter how painful or undesirable the experience, you have the power to decide how to react, or not to react.
You will face real and intense pain throughout your life. You will experience enormous losses, debilitating setbacks, and serious hardships of every sort. You have probably already experienced real pain.
But the party goes on. Life goes on. No matter your situation in life—no matter how painful your current reality—you have the ability and the right to enjoy yourself. You have the ability, the right, and—I believe—the responsibility to party, even in the midst of hardship and pain. Because you are alive.
You are alive. And no person, no event, and no thing has the right to impede on your ability to enjoy yourself. The Beastie Boys got it wrong—you don’t have to fight for your right to party. You always have it; it is always an option.
The question then becomes: HOW do I exercise my right to party in the midst of hardship and pain? How can I enjoy myself even in the midst of enormous setbacks and debilitating losses?
You can decide to challenge, and eventually shift your perspective on those events and circumstances.
Most of our greatest learning as humans comes from painful experiences. Pain is perhaps our greatest teacher about the world, about others, about ourselves. Pain gives us new perspective about our own strength; pain builds us up. Pain forces us to test and strengthen our party muscle. Pain teases and taunts us, as a good-intentioned sports coach might, until we are bigger, better, stronger because of it. Pain is our ally; we should love pain.
Pain isn’t easy, but that’s the point — it isn’t supposed to be easy. Whether we lose our leg or lose our girlfriend, pain forces us to grow, and become stronger people. If pain were meant to be inviting and delicious it would be called “pina colada” or something like that, but it isn’t. It’s pain, and it is an essential and enlivening aspect of our humanity.
We wouldn’t know pleasure without pain. For most of us, pleasure is easy—whether we’re sitting at the beach with a loved one, or watching the game on a Sunday afternoon, pleasure is nice. Pleasure is fun. But how could we recognize it without pain?
If life were nothing but pleasure it wouldn’t be pleasurable. We would take it for granted and soon it would become tedious, like a bad dream we couldn’t wake up from. We would all try very hard to seek out pain just to know something different. And when we couldn’t find it, suicide would become the next logical step in order to escape such a predictable, mundane, and unchallenging existence.
As humans we constantly seek variety, and pain is a crucial course on the menu of life. We wouldn’t be humans without pain—life would not be life without it—-and we can choose to deal with it however we want.
We each have a choice. We can be afraid of pain, nervously anticipate it, and try to avoid it all costs, or we can choose something different. We can accept it. We can embrace it. We can observe it. We can do whatever we want with it; that is our power. Pain is not inherently good or bad—pain simply is. We decide the rest.
And thus we can, if we choose, party through the pain. We can decide:
“Yes, pain is present, and I choose to accept and observe and party in the midst of it, because I can respond to it however I want.”
Anyone who chooses to observe, rather than react to pain, discovers a wonderful secret: you strip pain of its power in the process. Pain is no longer intimidating; pain is no longer painful, and thus, our freedom expands. Our ability to party grows stronger.
So welcome pain, observe pain, don’t be averse to pain, and don’t fear pain. Pain is. That’s all.
Make the decision to party through your pain because it is the best option, for yourself and for everyone around you. Because when you decide to party through your pain, others see that they can party through theirs, too.