“Pain Don’t Hurt.”

When Patrick Swayze’s Dalton shows up at the hospital with a gaping knife wound in his side (in a spot similar to where Christ was speared by the Roman soldier. HMMMM…), Kelly Lynch’s Doctor Clay prepares to stitch him up. She asks if he would like a local anesthetic and he turns it down.

“You like pain?” she asks him.

“Pain don’t hurt,” he replies.

At first blush this sounds like lunkheaded macho bullshit, like a lot of what you find in the movie Road House in general, but it’s actually profound. And it’s deeply wise. It’s just some of the wisdom that Dalton displays (“Nobody ever wins a fight,” said in the same scene, is pretty great as well, if undercut by the whole entire motion picture).

The line recalls one of the great lines in Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence, still in his English clothes, lights a cigarette for another officer. After he lights the cigarette he looks at the match, and lets it burn down, gazing into the flame. Finally he reaches out and snuffs it with his fingers. The other officers are startled, and one of them tries to recreate the trick.

“Ooh!” he cries out, shaking his burnt fingers. “It damn well hurts.”

“Certainly it hurts,” Lawrence says softly.

“Well, what’s the trick then?” the officer demands.

“The trick, William Potter,” Lawrence says. “Is not minding that it hurts.”

Dalton and TE Lawrence are saying the same thing, one perhaps more eloquently than the other. What they’re talking about is our relationship with pain, which will always be there, and how we can choose to not turn that into suffering, which doesn’t have to always be there.

There will always be pain, as it’s a natural and important part of life. You need to feel pain so that you don’t do tremendous injury to yourself, or if you have done tremendous injury to yourself you need to feel pain so that you don’t make it worse. And as a middle-aged man let me tell you that not only is pain natural, it’s eventually almost omnipresent – I’m hitting the age where I wake up in the morning and wonder if that ache I feel is just for the moment, or if it’s my new normal.

But we live our lives as if pain is something that can – or should – be avoided. Our relationship with pain is very bad, and we are afraid of it and we do whatever we can to get away from it. And it’s not just physical pain; in the 21st century we likely endure far less physical pain than our ancestors did, but we likely endure more emotional and mental pain, and we spend LOTS of energy in avoiding that.

Most of our bad habits, our self-destructive traits, the ways we hurt others, all of these come from the desire to avoid pain. Even when we’re chasing pleasure we’re trying to avoid pain – we’re trying to avoid the pain of the pleasure ending. It’s why we eat too much chocolate or drink too much booze.

Pain is there, and will always be there. But our negative relationship to pain is what causes us to suffer. To acknowledge our pain – emotional or physical – as an experience and to not get hung up on hating it or recoiling from it, is the first step to no longer suffering from it. Dalton understood this – hurting is different from pain. Hurting is about how to react to pain. For Dalton, pain don’t hurt. Or, to Lawrence, he doesn’t mind the pain.

That sounds lofty but this is available to you. I’ve experienced the phenomenon of ‘pain don’t hurt’ in both emotional and physical pain situations. The first step – maybe the hardest step – is to dislodge judgment from how you experience things.

This is very hard, but it’s something I learned to do in my meditation practice. Something I was taught was that as things arose in me while meditating I should label them one of three ways: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. There’s a lot that is worthwhile in this, but I want to focus on how it relates to suffering. By taking all of the things I experienced – physically and mentally – and putting them in these three low-key baskets I was able to see them more clearly.

See, when I feel physical pain I often jump to how much I hate it and how bad it is and how I can’t stand it. I put all of these things on top of the pain that tense me up and freak me out. But when I look at the pain as ‘unpleasant’ rather than ‘horrible’ or ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘I’m going to die’ I can get a better look at what’s really happening. I’m removing all this extraneous shit I’m piling on top of it. I’m robbing the pain of some of its emotional power.

When I realize it’s unpleasant I no longer need to recoil from it. I can calmly examine it, and this is where the good shit happens. I can acknowledge it (“Yes, foot, I hear what you’re saying”) and I can explore where it’s coming from and I can non-judgmentally accept that it’s there. And what happens next is that it truly loses its power.

Again, I am telling you this from experience. Two years ago I had a very bad tooth infection. It woke me up in the middle of the night in screaming pain. I didn’t have pain killers in the house and I didn’t want to go to the emergency room for a toothache, so I needed to do something. What I did was I sat and meditated and I focused on the pain. I didn’t ignore it or push it away, I looked at it. I saw what it was, I understood what it was telling me. And slowly, the pain didn’t vanish – the tooth still hurt! – but my relationship with that pain shifted. There was still pain, but that pain was no longer the overriding experience I was having. It was just one experience among many. It had become workable and manageable. Pain didn’t hurt.

I do this same thing with my mental pain, which is actually harder than the physical pain. The act of relaxing and slowing down seems to help physical pain in general, so meditating for a moment works just as a relaxation technique. Mental pain, though, can really ramp up when you relax and slow down, especially if you experience Generalized Anxiety Disorder, like I do. This illness looks for the slow moments in which to propagate, and sometimes when I meditate it can really show up in full force.

But the key, again, is to change your relationship with the pain. So I acknowledge and I see it and I don’t push it away. I don’t hold on to it – that’s another mistake we make all too often – but I also don’t shove it away. I accept it and feel it. It’s hard, just as it’s hard to sit with physical pain and feel it and accept it, but when you do that you feel the pain’s hold on you loosening. It is still there, but it doesn’t hurt the same way because, again, ‘hurting’ isn’t about the pain, it’s about your relationship with the pain.

I’ve heard stories about master meditators who can sit and have one arm massaged, the other arm poked with needles and not react to either, acknowledging them as experiences either pleasant or unpleasant. Disengaging from your reaction to pain is incredibly useful, and while difficult, it’s something that can be done in the heat of the moment. But it’s also only the first step. See, once you’ve disengaged yourself from recoiling from unpleasant things, you need to work on no longer reaching for pleasant things, since that brings a whole different – more subtle and yet more all-encompassing – suffering with it.

If I ever get to that part, I’ll let you know. But in the meantime, I finally understand why pain don’t hurt.