A good friend recently asked me, “What does it feel like to embrace the pain?”
It’s an interesting question to ponder, and one that I wouldn’t have had an answer to before Ultraman Canada. For all other events in my life I’ve fought the mental, emotional, and physical pain, gone to battle with it in an attempt to hold it at bay, or hopefully fight it away.
Other than recently, the only time I haven’t waged war against the pain was once, while in the depths of depression, when I no longer had the energy to hold up the mask of who I wanted to be, or show to the world. In an instant the backpack of it all fell off my shoulders: I stopped fighting, not because I embraced anything but instead out of forced surrender. Quite literally, I only had enough energy to breathe; not even one breath at a time, but rather just to watch an inhalation, then watch to see if an exhalation would happen. The burden of holding an identity and taking things personally surprisingly, but freeingly, crashed to the floor. Depression didn’t suddenly disappear for me at that moment; there was a lot of work, time, and support needed for that to happen. But there was a very poignant shift.
During Ultraman, a similar shedding occurred, although different in the timeframe and life-integration. I did a lot of internal work this spring while living at a cabin in the woods. It brought me more into the focus that each step *is* the journey, versus steps *on* the journey: I carried this perspective into the three-day ultra-endurance event. Right from the start I was focused on, and committed to, being present. The immensity of what I was about to take on was too much to grasp: the only thing I could do was take small bites at a time without focusing on the entire pie, let alone the finish line. Of course, the logistical planning and preparations were complete, and I’d turned it all over to the incredibly skilful, talented, and thoughtful hands of my crew, Dan & Alex, trusting them fully. Even still, I was the person who had to face the fear of 515 km’s of swim, bike, run.
Throughout day two, the quads ached, but that soreness became, in a way, a friend. When I started the run on day 3 I focused on getting into that same space—feeling the throbbing in the muscles as the pistons just moved—nothing more, nothing less. It was an art of simplicity. However, partway through the double marathon, I felt out of touch with my body. I got distracted by the uneven road surface, the traffic, the noise of my crew car behind me, the overwhelming information about the course in front of me. Fortunately, I realised what was going on and told my crew that I needed 10 minutes on my own (1 min walking while eating & drinking + 9 minutes of jogging in silence with nature). During that time I re-focused into my body, feeling for the sensations that I knew were there. I longed for the pain; not because it was pain but because it was the overarching sensation—in that moment—that I knew was present and that connected the mind & spirit to the body. I needed to feel connected because that was how I was using my mind to move the body. I wanted to feel connected because that’s where the endless energy of solitude within resides. If I couldn’t feel the sensations I knew that the experience would be less than satisfactory and that the body would stop because there was nothing to direct the symphony.
As I reconnected with the kinaesthetics it was like breathing fresh air. There was peace, and an experience of being complete. Again, this wasn’t because of the pain, it was thanks to a connection to the sensations and movement of the body. In this case, the awareness experience happened to be pain and tiredness, which normally are something we try to avoid. But the intensity of the kinaesthetics took the experience to a new level. It was as beautiful as a rose is divinely fragrant.
I knew then what it means to embrace the pain.
It has nothing to do with the pain itself, at least not for me. It has to do with being present with what is, and in being an active, responsible, committed, and integral person in Life. Sitting in meditation each morning is very similar in connection, although different in the manifested experience.
Siddhartha points to the koan of striving and avoidance when he quietly talks to himself:
“What is meditation? What is leaving one’s body? What is fasting? What is holding one’s breath? It is fleeing from the self, it is a short escape of the agony of being a self, it is a short numbing of the senses against the pain and the pointlessness of life. The same escape, the same short numbing is what the driver of an ox-cart finds in the inn, drinking a few bowls of rice-wine or fermented coconut-milk. Then he won’t feel his self anymore, then he won’t feel the pains of life anymore, then he finds a short numbing of the senses. When he falls asleep over his bowl of rice-wine, he’ll find the same what Siddhartha and Govinda find when they escape their bodies through long exercises, staying in the non-self. This is how it is, oh Govinda. …Now Siddhartha also got some idea of why he had fought this self in vain as a Brahman, as a penitent. Too much knowledge had held him back, too many holy verses, too many sacrificial rules, too much self-castigation, so much doing and striving for that goal!”
~Hermann Hesse, “Siddhartha”
In other words, it’s not the pain itself, or any practice that’s important. As Siddhartha points out, it’s the death of all that, and instead just being with what is that gives rise to life, that is Life.