Two – learning to live with pain that will not easily abate or go away is possible.
Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people have discovered that living with pain is a process. A minuet of sorts, maybe not to the tune you would have chosen if you were entirely in charge of how things unfolded in your life, but nevertheless workable in some wonderful and very freeing ways, especially if you are willing to do a certain amount of work yourself.”
Early on in my career as an RA Superhero, one of the most regularly repeated pieces of advice that I often used to hear was “learn to get used to the pain.” I used to take these words to heart, but only partially. I mean, I was young…much younger than some of the people that I was speaking with. Certainly, many of the new advances in medical science would prevent me from having to experience such a life of chronic pain and disability. I only had to find the solution, that perfect mix of prescription medication, and my life would be different.
At that time, I was open to learning about how I could get used to the pain…but only under one important condition: my pain had to go away soon. It definitely could not last forever!
“Our usual options when faced with situations we don’t like and wouldn’t want anyone to suffer from are twofold. As we just saw, we can turn away from them and try to ignore them or escape from them as best we can. Or alternatively, we can get caught up in obsessing about our troubles endlessly and feel victimized.
Either way we might, as so many people do, turn to familiar resources at our disposal to dull the pain, such as alcohol or drugs or food or TV, even if those coping strategies don’t work, are addictive, or have terrible consequences that may make our lives worse in the long run. We might also get into the habit of being irritable, gruff, and angry a good deal of the time, out of our own pain and frustration. Or emotionally withdrawn from other and from life, distant, cut off, in a state of perpetual contraction of both body and mind.
None of these coping strategies make for much happiness and ease of being. Grinning and bearing it isn’t much fun. And blaming all our troubles on the pain doesn’t actually make anything any better, as we usually come to see at some point or other. This can just further compound our frustration and even despair.”
Sometimes, I wish that I could return to that period of time, when I used to really hope and believe that the pain would one day go away. But looking back, I now realize that maintaining these thoughts for such a long time actually did me more harm than good. That’s why, since this past January, one of my most important personal goals has been the following: stop turning away from the pain, and figure out instead how to turn towards the pain. Allow myself the opportunity to see what I might be able to learn from the pain.
“We will be learning from life, and one of the things we will be learning and experimenting with is that even the pain itself–perhaps what we sometimes feel is our worst enemy–can eventually become our teacher, and ultimately our ally and friend, if we can learn to listen deeply to it.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been listening on a regular basis to Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief: Guided Practices for Reclaiming Your Body and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Over the past few years I’ve read and listened to many other books by this same author, who is one of the leading individuals in the study and practice of mindfulness based stress reduction. I’ve enjoyed and been helped by all of these books, but if I were ever told that I could keep only one of his books, I would definitely stick with the one that I mention above.
Even though my disease activity was quite low during the past two weeks, I continued to listen to the mindfulness meditations from this audio book. A couple of days ago, I caught myself actually thinking that I couldn’t wait until my next flare, so that I could practice much of what I was learning. Was I actually looking forward to a flare, I shockingly asked myself. No, that might be pushing things too far. But I was, in fact, looking forward to the next opportunity to apply what I had been learning (which would probably correspond to my next flare.) For the first time in my life, I felt more ready than ever for the inevitable upcoming flare. I felt prepared.
I was ready.
“There is a third way of dealing with painful experiences, a way of being rather than of perpetual doing and forcing. One that involves neither turning away from painful experiences nor becoming overwhelmed by them. That third way is the way of mindfulness, the way of opening to and befriending our experience, however strange that may sound. We do this by turning toward what we most fear to feel, and opening gradually, over time and only to the degree that you choose, to the full range of our experiences in any given moment, even when what we are experiencing is highly unpleasant, aversive, and unwanted.
You could think of it as putting out the welcome mat for what is happening, because whatever it is, it is happening already. Any attempt to turn away is really a denying of your situation, which doesn’t help much, and succumbing to resignation, a sense of being defeated or to depression or perhaps even self-pity, will clearly only make matter worse. If we take the turning away route, we will be turning away from the opportunity to learn from what the pain has to teach us. If we taking the turning away route, even though it may seem simpler when we are in a depressed mind state, we may never find openings, new possibilities, new beginnings, new ways of being that are available to us, right inside our own circumstances and our own mind and body. We might not discover that we can become stronger and more flexible in the face of whatever it is we are dealing with. Discover new options for relating to what we are carrying, which is the root meaning in Latin of the word to suffer.
The approach of mindfulness, of turning toward and opening to our experience, even when it is difficult, can readily lead to new ways of seeing, including new possibilities for coming to terms with our situation in the moment, whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not. This is called resilience, an interior strength that we can cultivate through practice. A way to live, and live well, with what life offers up for us.”
I got the opportunity to put my new found skills to work sooner, rather than later, as I entered into a severe flare late yesterday afternoon. For the first time ever, I looked at my pain right in the face. I wasn’t being challenging; my approach was more inspective, with a dash of curiousity. I took the opportunity to see, feel, and experience things that I had not been able do so before. (Usually, in previous flares, my thoughts were occupied with images of fear, anxiety and escape.) I paid attention to the moment; instead of telling myself that I was going to be okay, I told myself that I was okay. Before I knew it, I sensed a ‘snap’. I recognized the exact second when my flare started to break. It was a completely new feeling for me, and it felt wonderful. I let my flare come, I experienced my flare without judgment, and I let my flare pass.
“We’re not trying to force anything to be other than it is, only hold it in awareness. Out of that, the pain and our relationship to it can change profoundly.”
Up until a few months ago, the thought of turning towards my pain was one of the scariest things I could imagine…so much so, that the mere thought would immediately trigger anxiety attack. When I made the decision at the beginning of this year to stop turning away from my pain—to stop hoping that it would just all go away tomorrow—it was still a little scary…but it felt like the right thing to do. I’ve been on this new path for some months now, and I don’t exactly know where it’s going to take me in the end, but a couple of things are already clear: I did made the right choice, and I am on the right path.
My relationship with my pain is changing. It’s changing for the better…and I couldn’t be happier, even despite the fact that my pain hasn’t gotten any better, and it certainly hasn’t gone away. It’s here to stay, and I’m accepting it into my life. I’m getting to know it as I’ve never done before. I’m finally allowing myself to listen to my pain, and—most importantly—to learn from it.
All of the above quotes were taken from the following audio book:
Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief: Guided Practices for Reclaiming Your Body and Your Life
Mindfulness can transform pain. Over the past three decades, Jon Kabat-Zinn has clinically proven it. Now, with Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief, the man who brought mindfulness into mainstream medicine presents for the first time on audio his original practices for using conscious awareness to free us from physical and emotional suffering. This long-awaited two-CD program begins with an overview of how mindfulness changes the way our bodies process pain and stress. Listeners will learn tips and techniques for working with the mind and embracing whatever arises in our lives, however challenging. Then Jon Kabat-Zinn leads us in guided meditations drawn from his pioneering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) methodology to help us work with and find relief from chronic pain, everyday stress, and emotional challenges, as well as to read and act appropriately in the face of acute pain. “Mindfulness can reveal what is deepest and best in ourselves and bring it to life in very practical and imaginative ways–just when we need it the most,” explains Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief gives us a ready tool for overcoming even the most extraordinary difficulties.