Listening to pain

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

Early in my meditation teacher journey, I was asked to collaborate with my local NHS Community Prevention & Engagement Team to run sessions for young people living with chronic pain. I’ve been doing this for almost 2 years now and there is something very different about these meditation sessions that I love.

For a start, we are not gathered to meditate and for most of the session, we are not silent. Young people discuss their lives, their challenges, their successes, the support they can access, and I am silent, and listen. Only towards the very end of the session, I guide them in a meditation.

Although sometimes I can’t be there for all the session, I make it my mission to not just turn up for the meditation at the end. I listen, and allow myself to wonder what is needed today: if a body scan to just be, would be good today, or would a light bath be a reminder of the healing that is possible, or shall we simply breathe and regulate the nervous system, or shall we visualise going on a walk, something that for the moment, some of us can only invent. Eventually, the meditation for the day bubbles naturally to the top and I go with it.

It helps that I do not teach one type of meditation, I love all types of meditation and have called on them all over the years, to calm my chattering mind, soothe my raging anxiety, open my damaged heart, give energy to the over-exerted being I am, or bring the light of faith to the rubble where my idols fell. I have many decades of journals stored at my parents’ house that document listening to and putting words around my pain, long before anxiety, depression, mental illness were words that could be said in polite society.

I am grateful to these young people, and all young people of the 21st century who do not hide their pain, who articulate it, share it, give it shape, and unapologetically call for understanding, and a world shaped to hold our vulnerabilities.

A while after the journals, I came across active listening when I trained as a co-counsellor in the early 90s and learnt to support and be supported to work though emotions unlocked by the power of unconditional positive regard. It was transformative, and the power of active listening – of giving temporary, undivided, supportive attention to another – stayed with me for years on a path of personal growth.

More recently, I trained as a coach and now often practice listening to understand what I hear, and to connect with the emotions in what is said, and in me too. My hope is that to listen to the brave words of these young people is in itself a powerful act.

So once the session, brilliantly facilitated by one of the NHS community engagement team, comes to an end and before I launch into a meditation, I reflect back how what I heard that has brought me to choose a particular meditation, putting into action what has worked for me: listening to pain, establishing trust, and practices of well-being. This moment of quiet integration of all that has been shared brings closure till we meet again next month.

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