Esalen Meditation Retreat, Part 1 – Pain

This weekend I went to a much-needed and most amazing retreat at Esalen, in Big Sur, California. The retreat was on The Heart of Buddhism, and was led by Noah Levine and Vinny Ferraro. It was my first time at Esalen, and the experience was so much more than I thought it might be. Instead of writing about everything in one post. I will break it up into separate posts.


During one of the dharma talks, it was mentioned that pain is normal. Pain is a part of life, just as happiness is. It’s unavoidable in that it will appear, but it is our choice to suffer from it. When it comes to emotional pain and painful thoughts, many people place a lot of energy in trying to resist the pain. In various ways, we try to convince ourselves that we should not be feelings this pain. In doing this we place a barrier between pain and ourselves, hoping that we can create some kind of safety. It takes a lot of energy and attention to do this.

But pain is natural and normal. Although we may temporarily keep it at bay, there is a good chance that there will come a time when our defense against pain is distracted, just enough, so that the pain itself comes crashing in, with all the force we have been using to hold it back.

So there is a choice. We can choose to try to resist pain now, and feel it later, or we can choose to not resist pain, and allow it to flow through. Easier said than done. Believe me, I know. My fear in doing this has usually been that the pain will consume me. That I will get dragged down to a place that I cannot get out of. What I am just now realizing is thatin, the past, I didn’t understand pain itself.

As I sat and heard the simple statement of “pain is natural”, my mind began to wonder where I lost this lesson. How did I associate pain as an unnatural experience? It was then that I realized that as a child, I learned that pain meant I was wrong. If I broke a spoken or unspoken family/social rule, I received a verbal or physical lashing. It was painful and the message I received was “You are wrong”. If I fell and hurt myself, or cried because someone hurt me, somehow it was my fault. “Why were you running?” “Why do you let them treat you that way?” It is no wonder than I (and so many of us) begin to associate pain with a sense of being wrong.

Naturally we try to avoid unwanted pain. Our bodies are designed to avoid pain, because pain is natural. It is our psyches that lose that understating and learn that pain is unnatural. For myself, when I have felt pain (emotional/physical/mental), I come at myself with heavy critical thoughts of being weak, broken, and a failure. However, this a conditioned belief, and I am slowly understanding that this is not so.

Although I more recently have been able to practice allowing pain to be present and pass, having the understanding of my historical association with pain has really softened my heart towards myself. I can forgive myself for being so hard on me. For believing that I was somehow wrong and damaged for experiencing pain. In essence, through allowing pain to pass through, I am re-parenting myself.


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