Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Pain Period

“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That's what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they'll go through the pain no matter what happens.”

- Arnold Schwarzenegger

While some may be surprised to see a quote from the Governator on a blog about mindfulness and awareness there is a simple spiritual truth that he expresses quite well in the quote above: whenever you are adopting a new habit there will be a period of pain that you need to suffer through. If you suffer through the pain, you win. If you don’t you lose. Simply trying isn’t good enough.

I could have chosen a quote from a Lama or Saint that says something similar, but I chose Schwartzenegger to illustrate how universal and far reaching this principle is, and how bluntly we need to deal with it. Whether you are lifting weights, changing your diet, learning to pick up chicks, getting through med school, writing a book, or taking up meditation there is a period of pain that you must suffer through as your body and mind adjust to the new habit.

Some people claim that everything is a matter of simple choice. One Guru that I met suggested to a student that obviously they loved smoking more than living longer because they still smoked. The same would probably apply to me. I must love junk food more than being thin because obviously I still choose to eat it. Sounds like common sense right?

The thing to remember about common sense is that it made people think that the world was flat. Common sense not always correct.

Changing habits is not just a matter of simple choice. The more you do something, the more your brain accommodates and craves it. If you eat a lot of fatty greasy foods like me, your brain develops neural connections to support those habits. Soon those connections get stronger and deeper and make you crave more of the same. Meanwhile the ones that don’t get used, the connections that deal with you eating healthier foods, shrivel up and disappear because they don’t get used. When you try to stop using the well worn pathways and start carving out new neural connections it hurts. Just as sure as muscles burning on a weight lifter, you must endure the pain.

Thankfully, there are a few methods that help us get through the pain period. Meditation is an obvious one. As I mentioned last week, if you can train yourself to recognize distraction on the cushion, you will eventually be able to recognize distraction at the drive through menu. Even better, if you have gone a bit further in your meditation, you have learned to recognize the essential emptiness of any thought of sensation. Even if you are experiencing physical pain, if you can remember to shift your awareness to that state, the pain can actually disappear or at least become a meditation in and of itself.

Hypnosis is another good method for assisting in getting over the pain period. A lot of pain in forging a new habit comes from what doctors call a nocebo effect; essentially the opposite of a placebo, you think its going to be hard and painful so it will be. This phenomena should not be underestimated. In some cases the nocebo effect has even caused death from cancer that the patient turned out not to really even have! Hypnosis is excellent at changing expectancy, so if you can see a hypnotist or learn a bit of self hypnosis it can help a lot in making your change less difficult.

Sometimes though, even if you meditate, get hypnotized, use NLP, repeat affirmations and creatively visualize your result, you will still have the pain to deal with. The pain can be physical, psychological or both, but the way to deal with it is the same no matter what the task: Suck it up bitch!

This is the point where you just have to buckle down, not give in and will your way through it. In times like these there is a mantra that I like to repeat to myself. It doesn’t come from a tantra or a sutra. It’s a piece of propaganda from the Unites States Marines:


I love that. The next time you are suffering the pain from trying to instill a new habit say it to yourself. It doesn’t make the pain go away, in fact it puts it front and center. Rather than letting it creep around the edges of your mind making justifications as to why it’s ok to give in just this once, it shoves the spotlight on the pain and provides a role for that pain: it is the sign of your progress. Whether you are learning to run 15 miles a day or sit in meditation for 30 minutes in the morning, the more you do it, the better you get. The same neural connections that make the bad habit hard to give up make the new one easier to maintain the more you persist at it. Just get through the pain period.


  1. I used to do a "pain meditation" when I was much younger, and really into martial arts. I got the idea after seeing Terminator 2, and learning why asian tea cups dont have handles.

    When asked if he felt pain, the Terminator said "I register damage." as an affermitive. Asian tea cups don't have handles because if it is too hot to hold it is too hot to put into your maw.

    The meditation was pour myself a hot cup of tea, and hold the tea cup with both hands while focusing on the fact that pain isnt pain, it's just a record of damage. As such, I was able to learn to endure quite a bit of pain. I also scalded my hands more than once. Two lessons learned there! Dedication I have! Common sense.. less so.

    As someone who's dealt with serious physical injury, I tend to fire back at my Marine Corps aquaintences that sometimes pain is your tibia leaving your body. ;)

    Though I totally agree with the ideal, one must have more sense than yours truely and not be too Spartan about it, otherwise we end up with scalded hands.

  2. Bodybuilding actually incorporates a lot of magical and meditation techniques. Many people are surprised by this, and a lot of bodybuilders might be surprised if they're told that their mental techniques contain this kind of thought.

  3. All forms of combat also incorporate techniques that have valid lessons, and by no means just by their opposites, in spiritual work.

    Hence the close relations in many paths between the warrior and the mystic.

    If I might make so bold as to presume that Mr S has something of a combative nature, it's not surprising that he possesses a lot of the wisdom that belongs to that state: he's had a chance to develop it as a career, and explore it.

    And I imagine those Spartans at Thermopylae knew a whole HELL of a lot more about focused attention, stilling the ego's fears, and being in the moment than a whole roomful of aspiring Reiki novices, be they never so still and committed to their studies! ;)

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  5. I found your blog this morning 1 week after I quit smoking. It was helpful. Serendipity!