Embracing pain, difficulty can be freeing
October 26th, 2011
08:16 AM ET

Embracing pain, difficulty can be freeing

Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman are the authors of “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” published by Rodale.

Shortly after the British mountaineer George Mallory disappeared while attempting to climb Everest in 1924, a journalist asked why the team had continued with their assault on the summit on that fateful day.

“The price of life is death,” replied one of the survivors.

That single sentence sums up the human condition more than any other. We are here on this earth for a short while, experience a panoply of bittersweet emotions, and then depart. We forget this at our peril.

Virtually all of us avoid thinking about pain, suffering, failure, loss, and death as much as we can, for as long as we can, usually until it is too late. While this is entirely natural, it carries a high but largely hidden price. For if we cannot face up to life’s difficulties, then we cannot deal with them effectively. Such “aversion” closes down the mind, reduces creativity, and leaves behind a deep-seated sense of fear and caution. And paradoxically, not facing up to them also runs the risk of dulling our awareness to all that is wonderful about life, in all of its tingling beauty.

The late Steve Jobs, a keen devotee of mindfulness meditation, realized this. In 2005 he told Stanford University graduates: ‘Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – all these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Whenever we’re faced with a difficulty – whether it’s the stress of a job, illness, exhaustion, or malignant sadness – it’s only natural to try and push it away. We can do this in myriad ways, such as, endlessly churning through previously failed solutions in the mind’s eye, by ignoring it, or burying it under a pile of distractions.

But sooner or later there comes a point where these strategies no longer work because we either run out of steam or the difficulty we’re facing is truly intractable. When we reach this fork in the road, we have two options. We can carry on and pretend that nothing is wrong (and lead an increasingly miserable existence), or we can embrace a different way of relating to ourselves and the world. This different approach is one of acceptance of ourselves and of whatever is troubling us. It means turning towards it, befriending it, even if we don’t like it, or it fills us with fear and dread.

For many of us, the idea of “acceptance” is heresy of the first order, but this initial reaction stems from the frequent inability of individual words to convey true meaning.

Can mindfulness help manage pain, mental illness?

Mindful acceptance, which arises from the full conscious awareness engendered by mindfulness meditation, is subtly different to the usual passive flavor of acceptance.

Acceptance in the context of mindfulness is not the passive acceptance of the intolerable. It is not “giving up,” nor is it resignation or spinelessness. Neither is mindfulness anything to do with detachment.

Instead, acceptance is a pause, a period of allowing, of letting be, of clear seeing. Acceptance takes us off the hair trigger, so that we’re less likely to make a knee-jerk reaction. It allows us to become fully aware of difficulties, with all of their painful nuances, and to respond to them in the most skillful way possible. It gives us more time and space to respond. And often, the wisest way of responding is to do nothing at all.

Paradoxically, taking action in the conventional sense is often an automatic reaction that will simply force us to endlessly repeat past failures. It’s not proactive at all. And remaining a slave to our automatic reactions is true resignation to our fate.

In short, mindful acceptance gives us choices.

Of course, such acceptance can be extremely difficult to attain. In our book “Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World”, we detail the “Exploring Difficulty” meditation. This short meditation encourages a different approach to dealing with life’s problems, one that is endorsed by the latest advances in psychology and by neuroscience in general.

If you bring a difficult situation to mind the natural response is to fight it or flee. The Exploring Difficulty meditation bypasses this reaction by asking you to briefly bring a difficulty to mind – and then observe how the body reacts. Often as not, the heart will begin pounding, beads of sweat may appear, the body might start to tingle, some parts might even begin to ache.

Why do we ask people to observe the body when it’s their minds that are suffering? Firstly, recent developments in psychology have shown that stresses and strains in the body can drive negative thought patterns. By observing such stresses, they tend to dissolve away of their own accord and so sap the momentum of negative thoughts.

Secondly, it puts a thin sliver of space between the meditator and whatever is troubling them so that they don’t become further entangled in their difficulties. It also helps people realize that negative states of mind tend to flux, so that they come to understand that anxiety, stress, and depression are not permanent features of their lives. For many people, this is incredibly liberating.

The exploring difficulty meditation is central to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which was developed by our team at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and Toronto in Canada. It grew out of the inspiring work of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMass Medical Center near Boston.

The eight week MBCT program not only helps people face up to the worst difficulties in their lives but has also been proven to help relieve anxiety, stress, depression and exhaustion in numerous clinical trials in America and elsewhere. It’s so effective that it’s now one of the preferred treatments for depression recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

There are countless solid psychological reasons why we should face up to life’s difficulties. But perhaps the best reason of all is the one which originally motivated Mallory and countless other explorers.

When asked why Everest should be climbed, Mallory famously replied: “Because it is there.”

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