Springingtiger's Blog


Mindful of My Pain

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There is a saying that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. I have of late managed to secure for myself several sources of pain. Some months ago I dislocated my right thumb, mere days after slicing into it with a mandolin, it still objects to excessive pressure. A couple of weeks ago I sprained my left ankle only days before managing to pop my shoulder out of place and then, equally painfully, back into place. My doctor says my back and hip pain is sciatica and my knees still have the unfortunate tendency they’ve had for years to occasionally go sideways instead of forwards and back. I have used painkillers when necessary (I’m no Stoic) but they bring with them their own problems. However I prefer not to suffer and so I am gradually bringing my pain into a beneficial relationship with my mind.

The few people who habitually read my blog will know that I am very fond of referring back to the est training, I shall do so again. When I did the est training we were taught a method for easing or even disappearing pain by fully experiencing it. It was much later I learned this to be an exercise in mindfulness. What we had to do was locate a pain in our body, observe it and describe it. We were not to use abstract terminology or value judgements, but had to be precise in our description of the pain as we visualised it. For example ‘My pain is nine out of ten, it is a band stretching from my lumbar vertebrae out to the iliac crest on either side, it is about an inch below my skin, it is sharp and hot, it is yellow like molten gold, it is making a noise like a combination of buzzing and scraping fingers down a blackboard.’ After each observation we then described it again noting any changes that had occurred. And then again and again until the scale of the pain became manageable.

I had forgotten about this exercise until recently, assaulted by so many concurrent pains and unwilling to be dependent on painkillers, I started reading ‘Break Through Pain’ by Shinzen Young. At the same time I started reading Will Johnson’s ‘The Yoga of Mahamudra’ as a follow up to something else I had been reading. Both books addressed the problem of pain in very complimentary ways and so now I am using my pain as a tool to facilitate self-awareness.

The technique I am using consists of four parts. The first is to be aware of my posture and keep my body relaxed and balanced and my spine vertical. This allows my vertebrae to be supported by the others upon which they sit and reduces the effort needed by my muscles to support me. Apparently this also allows the energy in my body to flow in its proper channels without impediment. Whatever it may or may not allow mysterious energies to do it does provide a relief from pain and an awareness of my posture and muscles.

The second part is effectively the mindfulness exercise described earlier. But also a general mindfulness of my body and constant adjustment. So if I become aware of tension in my sjoulders I relax them. It involves scanning my body, being aware of the sensations within, adjusting and moving on. It is important not to resist the pain. As Werner Erhard used to say, “Whatever you resist persists.” and that is certainly true of pain. Instead dwelling on the pain and allowing it to freeze me, I have to enter into it and experience it objectively and without judgement. I don’t explain it and certainly don’t make up stories about it; hypochondria is more dangerous than pain.

One of the symptoms of resisting pain is stopping the breath, we do this to suppress feeling. Another thing we do is to tense our muscles to immobilise the site of the pain. Even when pain is acute I have to continue to breathe, in fact I have to focus on the pain and breathe into it, experiencing it fully. The strangest thing is that when I do this while fully experiencing the pain I find I can actually relax my muscles and the pain becomes more manageable. It is not always easy, but as soon as I notice myself locking and resisting if I let go and relax the overall discomfort subsides and I can focus dispassionately on the pain itself.

The final part is to be gentle in my transitions. That is to say to stand up, sit down, lie down, in fact to make every movement mindfully and with full awareness of what is happening in my body. It means being in balance as I move and using my awareness to be kind to my body as I move from one posture to another.

I am learning to be grateful to my pain. Not only to my pain, but to all the sensations in my body. The taste of my food, the snow on my face, the sound of my keyboard, the recording my wife is playing in the next room, my tinnitus, the flickering light, each thing comes together to lift me out of my limited concept of myself and blends me into the wholeness of everything around me.

Pain is not a bad thing, but something to use respectfully. It is a signal to be aware of our body and to care for it. But it is also a door to a world of unlimited experience. It is early days for my experiment in mindfulness, but so far I am well pleased with the results I’m getting.

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1 Comment so far
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I’m much impressed with your awareness and commentary. Aligning the spine is my line of work. In Alexander Technique, the student learns to aim upward through the spine and free neck, aligning and lengthening the spine.

Comment by Robert Frost




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