On working with physical pain: The first and second dart

I couldn’t pick up my son on his first birthday. We were in Sicily celebrating with his grandparents and cousins, aunts and uncles. It was a joyous occasion in every way except for the stabbing pain that extended from my middle back to beneath my left shoulder blade and the dull ache I felt down my left forearm into my hand. Like a knife in the back and a sharp whack on the old funny bone.

Not this, I thought. I can handle my life right now – juggling my nutrition practice and the need to take 3 weeks away from it, the constant and unpredictable changes of a one-year-old, and starting to get over the death of my beloved cat a few weeks earlier. But I have as much as I can hold.

This cannot be happening. NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. Stop it right now. This isn’t fair. You can’t be serious. Haven’t I suffered enough? I need gelato! I need a drink!* I need drugs!**

    * If you don’t know already, I don’t drink anymore but at times I come close.
    ** Pills were never my thing but I would have paid cash money for relief in pill form even if it was potentially harmful. Nerve pain is no joke, people.

You name the tantrum-y or escapist emotional response and I tried it on for size. And the more I resisted the pain, the stronger it got. Physically – because I was bracing and guarding against it, causing contractures and fasciculation from my neck all the way down my left side to my hip. And emotionally – because I got attached to the memory of the pain at its worst, not allowing myself to notice or really feel when it varied somewhat or eased up for a brief time.

When I recognized how my reaction to my pain intensified my experience of pain, I remembered the concept of the first and second dart. In Buddhism, it is generally said that suffering is a normal and inevitable part of life. Bluntly: we are born, we age, we get sick, and we die. No one gets out of this, no matter how rich, beautiful, or indeed healthy. This is the first dart.

The second dart is how we respond to the first dart, essentially the suffering of suffering. And I don’t know if you’ll agree, but I can attest that the pain of the second dart is usually waaaaay worse than the first. For example, the second dart might include feeling badly about our pain, or anxious, angry, sad, or despondent – feelings we can work with and ultimately even change.

We have little to no control over the suffering of the first dart, but surprisingly a great deal of control over the second.

Once I saw what I was doing to add to my physical and emotional pain, I tried to bring my awareness to my actual pain – the first dart. To allow myself to lean into it, to feel it’s texture, how it changed from spiky and sharp one moment to tight and burn-y the next, how it waxed and waned slightly given my position and the time of day. When I found myself guarding against the pain, I tried to consciously relax that part of my body. Even if the original pain was brutal, it was less sharp and scary when I wasn’t adding to it. I also began to question some of my automatic thoughts and beliefs about my pain: why did I think I was entitled to be pain free? When a medication gave me partial relief, why could I not appreciate that? Could I cheer up and appreciate the many wonderful things in my life while still experiencing pain? Why did I long to just get rid of the pain, seemingly at times at any cost? Could I expand to accommodate the presence of pain in my life?

I wasn’t always able to do this, of course. In the mornings, when I awoke to my baby crying for me and I couldn’t bend over his crib to pick him up the pain surged and swelled and with it my intense anger, helplessness, and feelings that my body had betrayed me.

With a little time I got better at reducing the pain of the second dart and my subjective experience of the pain became a little less severe. With that habituation came some real sadness and feelings of resignation. But it also brought about a great deal of compassion – a new appreciation for and awareness of people living with pain. Spinal surgery ended up relieving my nerve pain but I continue to work with the issues that arose during this period of my life. It’s changed me and how I look at things.

Learning to lean into our actual experience without resisting it or trying to change it is a lifelong process, but it’s one that brings unanticipated benefits, gentleness, and compassion.