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Karen Faith: Research, Strategy & Creative

Reflections on a Pain in the Ass


Originally posted on the blog "Yoga, for the Moment" (RIP) on 4/5/2011.


My semitendinosis tore right at the top, under the sitting bone, a place that I use for almost everything. This is how I feel now.

I don't really like children. I know it isn't nice to say. And yes, to all of my friends with kids, your kid is without a doubt the exception. All the other ones, though. They make me nervous. They make me suffer. They just do whatever they want is the thing. They scream if they feel like screaming, and run when they feel like running. The littlest ones will tell you, if they see fit, that you look like a fat clown monkey, and the bigger ones will smash your windows in just to see if they can. They haven't learned all the things we adults know, like, how to lie about your feelings in order to make other people more comfortable, or, when it is appropriate to smash things and when not. (Hint: usually not.)

Kids ruin the game of pretend. And I don't mean their game, which they play honestly, and with clear boundaries. (Example: "Let's play pretend. You be a dinosaur princess robot and I'll be Justin Beiber, ok? Let's start. Wait, I'm not playing anymore.") Adult pretend is different in that there are no boundaries. We play all the damn time, which is exhausting and I want to just take my mask off for just one freaking minute,  but one of the things you aren't supposed to do in the adult version is call attention to the fact that the game is on at all. It should come as no surprise that this is something I take care to do as often as I can. Like now: We are playing adult pretend, guys. And have been for a while. Since when I don't know, but I would guess it is nearbout the first time we had to look unscared of a bully, or unhurt by a crush, the first time we had to act like we felt something we didn't, not for fun, but for real, because something was at stake. Here's a question: what was at stake? (I recommend asking someone who has stopped playing altogether. These people are typically over 75 and absolutely finished giving a crap. They are our elders and they are wonderful.)

I'm not implying that we should drop the facade and let it all hang out. My father, when I met him as a teen, I think I told you about that guy, a great mind corroded by a good brain, but I digress - my father told me that "manners" are the things that keep us from killing one another. Seemed dramatic at the time, but now I might agree. Most of us are nuclear reactors on sneakers, hot cauldrons of rage and shame, walking around contained by the structure of the game we are playing. Then kids come along and, by their sheer rawness of being, just fuck the whole thing up. The adult game is designed so that playing along strengthens the structure of the game, the way taking an online survey makes the survey "smarter," but kids are like, signing up for the survey and entering their honest answers. Which are the wrong answers. Kids don't help hold us together, they help break us open. They remind us of all the work we have done to put ourselves in character, all the pain we have packaged and placed aside in order to win friends and influence people, to get work and pass through security.

This morning at the cafe, a pair of teens from the school down the block came in early. It was just after 7, but even at that hour I could tell they'd just started to play only weeks earlier. They practiced holding hands and then practiced ordering bagels with cream cheese. The bagels went fine. Inside voices, please and thank you. The hands proved more difficult, hanging at the ends of arms that grew from uneven heights at uneven speeds, they couldn't meet to clasp cleanly. One had to lift, the other, slouch. Minimum requirements for verbal exchange and eye contact were satisfied. He paid. She thanked him. Her chair pulled up to the counter, and his chair pulled up to her side, pressing as much of his body to her as the rules allow in a cafe setting. She took tiny bites, left handed, as his touching arm and leg rendered her other half immobile. My heart broke open and splattered tiny pools of half-n-half all over the counter. What an intricate choreography, impossible to fake, impossible to not-fake, the way to behave around someone we like. Their earnest ineptitude shook me up, reminded me that this is all a game, and counter-intuitive to most. Some folks might be born knowing how to interact with others, how to love, how to communicate, how to show affection, but I'd guess it's the same number of people are born knowing how to compose metered verse. 

The wild thing is that kids learn most of the stuff they learn without being taught explicitly. They just figure it out. And while I don't have insider information on the way that other human brains learns, I've got plenty of insider info on mine, and one of the more active ingredients in my learning cocktail is pain. It underlines, highlights, boldfaces and italicizes exactly what not to do. I've been living the metaphor this week with my troubled hammy, as the ache in my ass-leg has offered me specific and vigilant guidance. A big thanks to pain! I am never without the knowledge of how I use my semitendinosis, and this knowledge has not only granted me an opportunity to expand my practice, breaking my habits and developing new skills, but it has kept me present as all heck in the ever-elusive now moment. Magical. (I'm being a bit of a cheerleader about it right now, but I'm assuming that you guys remember pain only works because it sucks, right? It is powerful.)

Kids do as they wish, they chase their whims and feed their urges until it hurts. Sometimes that pain is inflicted by the actions themselves, and sometimes by those certain others who feel obliged to help them by hurting them a little. And I'm not trying to say anything about spanking or whatever, because, seriously now, as much as I get the idea you should never hit a kid, every time I meet one that has never been hit, I question that idea. But that is not my point here. My point is two fold, or three fold. We'll see. My point is that number one, we are all playing pretend, containing ourselves in order to be accepted/loved/respected/productive. And number two, we learned to do that because at some point it hurt too much to not do it, which might mean that all of our good manners and kindnesses are essentially a complex (and ill-fated) effort to protect ourselves from suffering. Now I know that I'm not the first person to say that even our most generous behaviors are selfish at their core, but that's not really all I'm saying. I'm saying that when we grow up, pain doesn't work as well to help us. 

If pain were flawlessly effective, we wouldn't do things that hurt more than once. Just imagine, if people learned lessons the first time. We wouldn't still be on nuclear power, I bet. Or drilling offshore. Or addicted to drugs and porn and donuts. Things would be different. Whether we have become accustomed to pain, or scarier, become comfortable with pain, the fact remains that pain-avoidance as a primary motivation is inadequate. It doesn't just leave us with a limited capacity for generosity, but with little room for our own pleasure. Some pains prove pretty healthy and helpful, not to toughen us up, but to extend our comfort zone, the way that, in yoga, we endure the pain of stretching to lessen the pain of sitting, while others are a sign of harm and indicate a cue to exit. How are those pains different? I don't know how to explain that, though I spend most of my classes trying to. It is a thing we learn by experience, and that experience, unlike "toughening up" which shuts down the senses in order to bear the unbearable, is a practice of awakening and refining our senses in order to discern what is to be endured and what is to be modified. 

I have to tell you up front, the practice of extending our antennae and listening, taking more in, actually intensifies the pain at first. Or it seems to, which is the same thing. It even makes things hurt which didn't hurt before. To use an example from music, say you are walking down a noisy street and you hear someone playing the violin a few blocks down. You decide it's good violin playing, because it's more pleasant than street noise. But say you aren't on the street. Say you are on the jury for an orchestral audition, and you hear 13 skilled violinists play the same excerpt one after the other. Which one is the best? You can't tell. Only someone who listens for years and years can tell. We've got to spend lots of time listening. And time takes time.

The bad news, as applied to my music example, is that when you spend years and years learning to discern great playing from excellent playing, good playing becomes unlistenable. Bad playing induces illness. Really bad playing, however, can become an exquisite delight, when coming from a place of sincerity, the way that film grads love Troll 2. I can't explain that, really. To take this back to pain discernment, becoming more sensitive can mean that paper cuts feel ever-present, headaches morph into shapes and colors and sounds, and that, I don't know, being bitten, let's say, being bitten hard, feels transcendent. The discriminating nervous system has a multi-channel pain threshold. Of course, I've only been using physical pain examples, but the big hollerin dogs are the heart and brains pains, every time. No question.

This week my adult pain-discernment mechanism has been overwhelmed with input and unsafe for navigation, so I've had to do a kind of elimination diet thing where I stop doing everything I was doing in order to get my bearings. My antennae are way out. My awareness is way in. Kids are freaking me out left and right, not in the usual way, but in the way that I suddenly and freakishly understand them. The babynugget next to me is screaming right now, in the cafe, and I want to say, "YES, girlfriend. I hear you. Scream for me, too." I don't feel bad, actually. I feel awake. Buzzed, even. I feel as though my consciousness has shifted and tuned in to a different frequency. It's not unlike being stoned, come to think. I'm not pain-free but I have been able to separate the pain experience from suffering, making it less like being skinless and more like being lit from the inside, a look that doesn't mix well with grown-up role playing games, but I've decided that's alright, because what is at stake? From what I can tell, nothing that isn't guaranteed to disappear anyway. For now, I'm still on board. For the game, for the game overthrown, for the screaming and the spacing out, for the teens and the geezers, for the bites and the violins. The whole deal.