By Gerald Stribling
Pain, physical pain at least, has always struck me as funny.
Your pain is not funny, but mine is. It’s the only way I can explain my tendency to laugh out loud whenever I am in acute pain. I figure it’s one of those mis-crossed neural pathway things, so that when I should be wincing and yelping, I’m laughing my ass off. There is no opposite effect, that is, when I see something funny, I don’t moan like I was in pain. I come by this honestly enough: my mother laughed her ass off from VJ Day to Derby weekend, 2010.
She was the ultimate audience, and half the reason I can write humor today is from racking my brain thinking up stuff to crack my mother up. Back in the 70s during the peak of the “streaker” fad, I streaked my mom. I wasn’t sure how streakers were supposed to act, so I just ran prancing through the house in my tighty-whities, making noises like a chimpanzee. She laughed her ass off.
She knew I wasn’t a real idiot.
Pain has been with me a long time. I’ve been dealing with arthritis and fibromyalgia—I don’t want to belabor the point, but I live with pain, and have for decades. It’s when I crash and burn that I get the giggles. One time a drill instructor punched me in the stomach during Marine boot camp. I bent over, laughing like crazy, so he swept my legs out from under me and kicked me a few times in the ribs, but he quickly lost interest in me because I was still laughing.
I’ve fallen off cliffs, torn my ACL, broken my jaw, flash-fried my butt, been hit in the head with a falling coconut, and fallen off my bicycle more times than I care to think about. I am a walking disaster area. The Marines were smart to give me a job that didn’t require guns, but they trained me well enough so that I’ve been playing with guns for decades and never had an accidental discharge. I have a bunch of hobby guns locked up in my gun safe, and its safe to say that I’ve dropped at least half of them.
Pain is equated with suffering. But how can I be suffering if I am laughing? Suffering, according to Stephen Batchelor, is reactivity, and it is through non-reactivity that people learn how not to suffer so much. Throughout the broken jaw ordeal I made it a point to be as pleasant as possible through the wiring shut of my jaw and subsequent oral surgeries. It’s only pain. There is pain; it’s not, “I have pain.” Pain is a fact of life for clumsy oafs like me.
But the laughter is autonomic; it’s like using the “F” word when you bash your thumb with a hammer. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt.
I have a modest tolerance for pain, but I’m not Superman. Meditating on the sensation of pain is a way to deal with it: observe it, and realize that your pain is no more or less than anyone else who’s ever slipped on wet leaves and crashed face-first into a limestone curb (which is how I broke my jaw). Meditation releases endorphins, your body’s natural analgesic.
Besides, watching yourself knit up can be entertaining.
Of course there is severe chronic pain, and for that there are opiates. But if there is light at the end of your pain tunnel, you have to be wary of the potential for opiate addiction. You don’t want to end up being a zombie.
Buddhism acknowledges and analyzes physical pain as a part of a broader field of suffering, which includes:
- mental anguish, birth, aging, illness, and dying
- the changing nature of all things
- general dissatisfaction with life
The Mahayana furthered the understanding of dukkha, the Buddhist concept of suffering:
- samsara (birth, death, rebirth)
- sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair
- association with the unbeloved (aversion), separation from those you love
- not getting what you want (source for the above: Wikipedia)
The author of the Wikipedia article I am presently plagiarizing ended his piece with some surprisingly succinct advice: one overcomes dukkha through the development of understanding. It’s kind of like cognitive therapy: the better you understand your craziness, the less crazy you will be. If you understand suffering, you won’t suffer so much.
It takes detachment to deal with physical pain, just like it is necessary for the process of trauma recovery. You can’t detach from a toothache, nor can you separate yourself from the ghastly things that may have befallen you. The principle of change allows you the comfort of knowing that the dentist will cure the pain. Dealing with mental anguish is trickier. Detachment means draining the emotion from the trauma. By observing your trauma through insight meditation, you work hard to separate your emotions from what happened to you. This results in higher self-esteem, and freeing your mind from despair so that you can invest your emotions elsewhere, in positive ways, without whatever-it-was intruding and spoiling the party. It takes strength of mind, and you can meditate your way to strength of mind so that you are in control of your thoughts and emotions.
There is no bingo-bango-bongo-I-saw-the-light associated with Buddhism. Whatever you’re looking for in your practice, inner piece, mental focus, freedom from fear, they can be achieved only through hard work—the process of looking inward.
I asked an old war hero how he dealt with the trauma of battle. He didn’t hesitate: “You just can’t let yourself think about those things,” he said. I then asked him where he got his strength of mind. “I don’t know,” he said, “I guess some people are born stronger than others.”
Then one last question: Can you learn strength of mind?
“It’s a quest,” he said. “Eleanor Roosevelt said that enduring something bad makes you that much more ready to deal with the next bad thing that comes along. I mean, look at Robert Downey, Junior, he’s Iron Man now.”
I asked him how he knew about Iron Man.
“Read him in the comics when I was a kid, dumb-ass.”
Editor: Dana Gornall
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