Carol Webster, June 2022
It might seem impossible to do anything about pain, but there is a practice that shortens
the time of transition and reduces pain.
We have transitions every day. Every hour. Actually, every second. An inhale transitions to an exhale. We transition from asleep to awake in the morning and from awake to asleep every night. We transition from hungry and empty to full and satisfied with meals. It is so common to transition that you’d think it would be easy. But for many of us, transitions are hard all day every day. “I can’t fall asleep.” “I can’t wake up.” “I don’t know what to eat.” “I can’t stop eating.” And so on.
What is transition?
When changes are big--even happy changes--it can be very challenging.
Change of job. Change of relationship. Moving to a new house or apartment. Adding a pet. Adding a child.
And when big changes are considered negative it seems even more challenging. Divorce, death, being fired and a devastating diagnosis are examples.
Resistance is pain
During childbirth there is a stage called transition. It is the most intense part of the process. Physiologically, the baby is entering the birth canal. If the baby doesn’t get stuck, it is not long before the baby transitions from living in water to living in air. Mom’s body is designed to open incredibly wide to allow that change. It is seriously intense.
I chose to avoid calling the sensations of childbirth “painful” and instead call it “intense.”
Is that just semantics?
Pain—the kind of pain that causes suffering—is caused by resistance to what is.
There is a natural resistance to change especially if it is intense or viewed as negative and/or outside of one’s control. It might seem impossible to do anything about pain, but there is a practice that shortens the time of transition and reduces pain.
What is this magic bullet?
When we become aware of resistance, we can choose to relax and accept the moment as it is. We can wait for the change to be complete and be aware of the probability that we will tense and resist again.
During labor and delivery—especially during transition—my job was to be so aware and present in my body that I wasn’t caught off guard with “sudden intensity” that I had no control over. A labor contraction is an involuntary muscle contraction that rises slowly, peaks then wanes away. The pattern is repeated again and again.
The abdominal wall muscles begin to tighten up, they get increasingly tighter (more contracted) until some peak moment when they slowly start to relax. When peaks are low I could almost ignore the contraction, but as the peaks get higher the tendency is for every muscle in my body (the ones I have control over) to tighten up too. If I am not paying attention a peak can seem to suddenly be there and it takes my breath away with its intensity. When I’m paying attention to the rise, I am also scanning my other muscles and consciously breathing and releasing those muscles. Through several hours of labor, and especially during transition, this takes my entire attention and focus. It is hard work. That is why it is called labor!
At impact of a fall or car accident, the amazing body automatically tenses muscles to protect against the impact. It is common for muscles to over-contract and then it can take days to heal from the cramped muscles.
Emotional pain can be similar. Our muscles can contract and our breath taken away when we hear news we don’t like, or when someone says something hurtful to us. Likewise, the body reacts when I do, think or say something hurtful. For example, have you notice how your jaw can clench and you stop breathing when you get angry?
And so we practice. We practice noticing. We practice being aware. We practice breathing. We practice relaxing. We do this practice when we are not under stress so that when stress comes we can notice the automatic resistance (which causes pain and suffering) and allow it to release each time it comes.
The Holding Space Practice and Ashtanga Yoga are both practices to help us with transitions big and small, wanted (birth) or unwanted (death).
It is when we feel least like practicing that the practice (of the past and the one you can do right now) matters most.