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What Pain Taught Me About Freedom

Updated: Jan 1, 2023

Writer: Erin Lee

This article was first published on LinkedIn on 2 January 2020.

Growing up in a relatively conservative culture, whereby almost every decision I made or every action I took had to be approved or answerable to an authoritative figure or a social ideology, I remember how much I used to crave freedom.

I loathed unnecessary criticisms, baseless judgments, and unfair expectations. My own personal time and space became sacred, and I indulged myself in an inner world of fantasy every chance I got.

My biggest dream was to be able to run away some day, to a beautiful place - perhaps a place I could call my own home - that would grant me full independence and the liberty to self-govern. I felt immense power just fantasizing about a completely unrestrained self, basking in this self-defined identity of being free.

I held on to this reverie throughout my teens, twenties and early thirties, and unknowingly allowed it to guide the course of my life - my work, my relationships, and my worldview. Of course, the world around me continued to function in an entirely different way, and I often wondered if the bubble I had wrapped around myself served to protect me, or sink me deeper into the illusion that I could be free.

The more I struggled with being controlled or limited, the more tightly I held on to my perceived need for freedom.

Getting to Know Pain

And then meditation happened.

Important discoveries often come to us in the most unknowing ways, when we least expect it, and when we do not anticipate. Upon parting with an almost decade-long corporate portfolio, I signed myself up for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, and went through one of the most excruciatingly painful experiences I had encountered in the first three decades of my life.

We were invited to sit for one hour without changing our posture, to practice strong determination in the process of observing ourselves. While the intention of the practice was definitely not one of self-torture, the over-achiever in me couldn't help but take up the "challenge" in its entirety, and for the full one hour I never moved an inch.

As the drilling pain grew exponentially in my legs and shot through the full length of the spine, I instinctively threw myself back into my bubble of freedom, hoping that my power of imagination would take me far, far away from the reality of the pain. But my bubble didn't offer the relief it usually would. If anything, the pain only magnified.

I was desperate to be free of this pain. I silently screamed over and over again in my head, My legs! My legs! Stop this pain NOW! as tears rolled uncontrollably down my cheeks. Even though I was certain I appeared absolutely unmoving and composed on the outside, the internal battle was raging. My bubble started to press in on me, challenging each and every byte of reliance on escape I had stored in my consciousness over the years.

Changing My Relationship with Pain

The meditation practice was all about self-observation, and the essence of observation is to pay attention without being caught up in whatever we are observing in the moment. When we observe, there is no need to do anything. We learn to take a step back and simply watch, with curiosity and patience.

Moment by moment, as I learned to observe my own body and mind, my muscles loosened and relaxed, my bubble started fading away, and the angry, relentless chatter in my head gradually subsided. The painful sensation was still there at my legs, but strangely it was no longer bothering me so much. For the rest of the hour, I sat with an ease I had never experienced before, even though I was in full confrontation with the reality of my experience.

Was I free? It certainly felt so. In the middle of deep turbulence, there was no room for escape, and yet freedom found me.

Insights into Freedom

It took me over thirty years and a somewhat intensive meditation experience to bring to light what freedom - a core value I had aligned my life with - truly means. Escape does not really bring freedom, much like how chocolate doesn't bring lasting comfort, or how working out at the gym doesn't increase our self-worth. And yet escape seems to be the only means to freedom that the modern world is currently encouraging. My struggle for freedom amidst pain was at best a form of distraction, and at worst, a multifold intensification of the pain.

When we don't like the pain we feel inside, we tend to seek out something outside of us for some relief, not realizing that the unpleasantness really comes from within. But when I chose to direct my attention inwards to gently observe my pain, I was able to find freedom in the pain right there and then.

Since then, I have been consciously reminding myself of this insight with almost every physically, mentally and emotionally painful experience that comes my way. From hectic schedules, professional blunders, ruminative thoughts and moments of self-doubt, to difficult relationships and the stress of being a caregiver, I practice turning my attention inwards, remaining mindfully aware of the pain that comes, learning not to invite it for a stay, and then watching it eventually change and fade away.

With each painful experience that arrives, the practice begins. And with each moment of practice, comes a moment of freedom.

Intentional Practice

​Today, freedom remains my top core value, guiding me in every decision I make. But I no longer regard freedom in the same way as before. Rather than running away, I intentionally choose to turn towards. Rather than wishing for things to be different, I learn to be at ease with what is. In the absence of futile struggle, there is freedom to be found in every moment of difficulty, and even in every step and breath I take. Without a doubt, this takes a lot of practice, but I am inclined to make this practice a lifelong one.


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