Pain is unavoidable. We inhabit a system that is engineered to become wonky, cranky, and otherwise uncooperative over time. We know this conceptually but not when and how it matters. Why me? What now? tend to be our responses when the body fails us – as it inevitably does. In case you think this is only a problem for aging folk or those afflicted with strange hard-to-diagnose illnesses, it’s not. Athletes injure themselves. Random acts happen to young and old alike that leave them having to reshape not only their bodies but their mental attitudes towards their entire life.
Joy is unavoidable too. We have a resilient system that is subtly wired to sense into experiences that nourish and sustain us. We don’t know this in the definition of sensing joy; we hope and believe it will be true some day – if we’re really good, work hard, and check off all the boxes that we think entitle us to joy. And it’s not just aging folk who do that. In fact, the older you get the more you begin to see that it’s not the boxes you’ve checked off that brought you joy in any lasting way.
And then stuff happens. Like illness. Random events. Unplanned halts. Stuff. And in our frustration and anger we turn onto the machinery because we see our bodies as just that – the CanadArm of our mind. It is interesting to realize that until pain hits us, we don’t fully see how over-identified we are with what our body is. When we become unable to do the things we once took for granted, we lose our identity of being capable (because of the body), strong (because of the body), competent (because of the body) and so on. Pain of injury and illness is unavoidable. Suffering or stress arises when we feel we’ve lost our identity as someone capable, strong, and competent. However, pain is an important message from our body to pay attention; when we resist hearing it we get caught up in a deep suffering about who we are and all our fears about self, others, and the future.
There’s a mindfulness approach based in Buddhist psychology that teaches a dis-identification with these ideas of who we are (because of the body) or that we can only be who we were (with the body we had). This is not the same as dissociating from our body although under extreme stress and high levels of pain a dissociation can happen. “Dis-identification” is a process of seeing that our definition of who we are, if only based in external concepts is very, very limited.
“I am not my body” simply means there is so much more to me than just this physical container, biological process, and mental state. By extension “I am not my pain” means these sensations do not define who I am, they are not a mark of my character or potential.
This is important. We can sense the pain, discomfort, and even the frustration, sadness, and loss of our current situation; then we take the next step of turning towards it to see that these are sensations and not something that defines us. (This is also a powerful mindful approach to emotional pain.) And from that joy is accessible because it is also present as part of our experience.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a pain management training taught by Vidyamala Burch and Singhashri Gazmuri at the beautiful Garrison Institute. The program is called Breathworks (because breath works!) and, of all the training programs I’ve attended, it is the most clearly set out and well-paced teaching in pain management. As you might have read in other parts of this blog, I have been in partnership with fibromyalgia since 1998. I am grateful every day that I have been able to work (crazy hours – do as I teach, not as I embody), travel, practice my meditation at long retreats, and otherwise live a vibrant life. Breathworks offered me additional insight to this partnership I have with my bodymind.
- Pacing – set a timer to ring every 20 mins. Stand up, breathe, stretch for 3 mins. Repeat.
- Check into your body. What do you sense? Are there echoes of stress?
- Be kind.
- Be disciplined – not just with the pacing but also with discerning when to move into the pain sensations and when to step back.
- Experience leads us to the soft edges and hard edges. Can you tell the difference?
Burch and Gazmuri are wonderful teachers who fully embody they practice and their craft. If you need inspiration, read Burch’s story of her severe injuries and her journey to where she is now. There are also online courses and I highly recommend these two books: Living Well with Pain and Illness by Vidyamala Burch and Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman’s excellent book You are not your pain: Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-Being—An Eight-Week Program.
Pain management is actually a misnomer. What we are cultivating is expectation management.
And finally, let go of that belief in happy endings; there are only happy beginnings in each moment we stop resisting the reality of our pain.