Pain as a pathway to presence.
I haven't suffered many injuries. I can count on one hand the times that I've been really stuck in bed. But last Sunday, a searing sensation came out of nowhere, drilling into my shoulder-blade like a hot poker. Unresponsive to stretches and pain relievers, it steadily grew over 3 days before exploding across my shoulders, up my neck, and down my spine. It felt like all my nerve fibers were on fire and twisting themselves into a tight fist in the center of my back. I've never experienced anything more painful.
By Thursday, I was forced to just lay down. It's a strange feeling: admitting you can't move. Unaccustomed to being incapacitated, you will turn your head, nod, shift positions, raise your arms, reach for water, lift things, only to have your body remind you with a sharp whip-crack of pain that moving freely has ceased to be one of your body's talents. It's scary, frustrating, and most of all, it hurts!
Like most people, I'd make a terrible statue. I'm prone to restlessness, I talk with my hands, and I enjoy expressing attitude with my neck. It took many unwise movements for me to realize that I wasn't just exaggerating my pain level; it wasn't going down, and the only way to manage it was to lay completely still.
Harnessing stillness of mind.
So stillness, eh? I've been talking a big game about daily meditation as of late, but therein I'm usually referring to two easy-little-20-minute-intervals a day. But here I was, flat out, and forced into a state of total non-doing. Question: What's the opposite of doing? Answer: Being.
I couldn't escape into the realm of doing because I couldn't even watch a movie, or do the many holiday errands and chores on my list. The only thing I could do was listen, focus on my breathing, and observe my state of mind.
I took deep breaths and listened to an audiobook: Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. (I keep listening to these chapters over and over again because they are a meditation in and of themselves, and such a useful learning tool.) It takes such eloquence, wisdom, and grace to convey mindfulness in a way that awakens the reader. Tolle is so inspiring; he absolutely nails it. His wisdom and clarity cut right through the ego and speak directly to the soul.
In listening to The Power of Now while laid up, I realized that the incessant thinking that accompanies most of our lives causes us to exacerbate things like pain. Our thoughts continuously tell us the story of our ongoing life situation in an unnecessary way, for example, "OMFG this hurts, seriously, I am in so much pain." Well, your body already knows that without your mind providing any commentary. Thinking about your pain just fuels the fire and adds emotional turmoil to your list of problems. If we can't change the situation, then we must accept it.
The bountiful benefits of simply being!
Pain can be a gift that enables us to see what we commonly take for granted. Laying there, I stared at the things that I commonly walk right past: the Buddha statue on my night table, the view out my bedroom window. It was a reminder of how much more there is to appreciate other than the typical subjects of my mental focus. I also felt so deeply grateful for the kindness of others. As I tried to resist help, my best friend reassured me, "Sometimes you have to take care of someone you love."
A feeling of wonder and curiosity transpires when we really see something or someone, past the surface, to the essence. People and things you've grown accustomed to can reappear as new, in all their complex authenticity. We give others the space to be themselves when we cease to cast judgement upon them. We are awed by our blessings when we stop focusing on our misfortunes.
When we are present, what lessens: focus on the ego-driven experience of our life situations.
What increases: love, awe, openness, and appreciation for the simple state of being.
When I am able to carry less subtext into each moment of my experience, I feel less agitation, dissatisfaction, irritability, and all the other emotions that typically tell us that something is wrong. In the context of pain, consider these very obvious equations:
The present moment of pain + several days of pain = An overwhelming amount of pain!!!
The present moment of pain + nothing else = The present moment of pain. Manageable.
When dealt with one moment at a time, the pain wasn't as severe as it was when I added thoughts like, "Jesus, this has been going on for hours, days, I cannot take it anymore!!!" It's usually when you get panicked and fed up that pain becomes overwhelming, and it only intensifies as we freak out! Instead, the anxiety accompanying the pain completely vanished as I focused on letting the pain flow through me, taking cleansing breaths, and relaxing my body as much as possible.
Life is but a dream, sweetheart!
And then, something happened! Something I have had many glimpses of, but have only enjoyed for a few hours at most. The magical present just clicked into focus. Awakening came, and it stayed. I felt a sense of taking an easy, natural step right into sync with the universe, like grabbing hold of a handrail on a bumpy train, or catching the chair lift on a snowy mountain. Suddenly you're not just getting pummeled by life; you're riding with it like a surfer on a wave.
You know that feeling when you realize you're dreaming? You're suddenly fascinated with the dreamworld your mind has created. You look around, eagerly choosing which button to push, which door to walk through, whether to fly or to kiss someone: in short, the options seem endless and the experience itself seems fascinating and exciting. I think that is just how life should be.
I continued to feel this way for a full 48 hours. (Holy effing shiz that makes me so happy.) The feeling lasted through phone calls with family, at-home interactions, and continuing pain (which at least let me get back on my feet for the most part, after I got adjusted by a chiropractor). The pain still wasn't amazing, but everything else was so ridiculously much more fun! There were more laughs, more interesting conversations, my brain just felt freed, and I felt totally content just looking out the window, watching the snow fall. 48 continuous hours of total presence is absolutely astonishing to me: a major achievement for my practice and a clear sign that continued practice pays off.
If I keep putting money in the bank via daily mindfulness, maybe I can turn 2 days in to 3, and so on. The point, after all, is to make mindfulness the norm and unchecked runaway thinking the exception. What it takes is the full appreciation that the present moment is something truly beautiful that you only have access to right now. If your mind is anywhere else, you've missed it. See it. Breathe it. Feel it. Hear it. Be the present moment. The sense of peace and joy that arises from fully appreciating the present is more pure, pleasurable, and healing than any drug. It's free, and all of its side effects are incredibly positive.
I stayed in bed meditating by necessity on Thurs and Fri. I enjoyed a brief weekend voyage to enlightenment on Sat and Sun, aah! Today, I was back to work, my back still hurts, but I'm so totally inspired to continue practicing the following:
- to appreciate the impermanence of everything
- to listen and receive without judgement
- to give and engage authentically and without doubt
- to tell everyone I love that there is an escape hatch out of emotional overload and pervasive thinking