Dealing with Pain
After breaking my back in Grenada, I was air-ambulanced back to the US for evaluation and treatment. I underwent two very invasive and intense surgeries to alleviate the damaging pressure on my spinal cord and to reinforce and strengthen the spinal structure. I was hospitalized for over two weeks, and a number of medical issues arose secondary to the injury and treatment. I’d never been hospitalized before, so every intervention seemed to me both bizarre and inflictive – even though most, if not all, were necessary. One particularly difficult situation arose (twice) because my blood chemistry just couldn’t keep up with all that my body was having to handle.
There was nothing and no one to blame. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. There was no better alternative. After only a short respite, I was beginning yet another round of intravenous potassium, a process universally described as very painful. I was immobile in my bed with the needle inserted into my vein, taped firmly to my already black-and-blue forearm. I looked at the bag hanging above my left shoulder. It was full and dripping very, very slowly. I knew from the last round that this drip was going to last a good half day – if they only gave me one bag. Most likely, they’d do two, and I’d be in for a good eight hours of it – piercing, grabbing, searing pain. I imagined it as a large black bird sitting on my arm, with fiery claws digging into my flesh, flames shooting in every direction as the burning red pain moved into and through my vein, radiating in every direction.
I was maxed out on pain medication, so there would be no relief coming from that quarter. I tried distracting myself with my imagination, with music, with John-Roger meditations, with my breathing. I cried, I tossed and turned. I clinched and released my fist. Nothing worked. Finally, I realized that no matter how hard I resisted or how much I tried to distract myself, I couldn’t make the pain go away. That drip was going to be there, probably for eight hours, whether I liked it or not, wanted it or not.
Okay, so how can I get through this, how can I endure this? I thought: maybe I should try to love it. “Love it all,” that’s what we’ve been taught. Oh, but this pain is so hard to love! But I’ve got to love it to make it go away. So I tried really, really hard to love it. I tried to love it more. Love it til it goes away.
But it didn’t work.
Then slowly, somehow, I began to get it: “Loving it” means without attachment, without control, without outcome. It isn’t “loving it” if it’s simply an exercise to try to make it go away. It isn’t “loving it” if my goal is to control it. “Loving it” is simply loving because loving is what there is to do, what there is to be. Loving has no separation, no It vs. Me. Loving is not resisting the pain, it’s being one with the pain.
OK, fine. But how do I do that?
I remembered the Meditation of Objectivity when John-Roger says if your nose itches, just let it itch. Observe the itch. I remembered my first yoga teacher, as we were lying in savasana pose, and a nearby train blew its whistle. She said “Become one with the sound that distracts you. Go into it. Become it. See yourself, hear yourself, feel yourself AS that sound, not separate from the sound.”
So I began with observation. I began allowing the pain, observing the pain. I saw it in vivid color. I began to notice the pulsating rhythm of the drip. I noticed that the heat and the clutch ebbed and flowed in that rhythm. I imagined a zzzshoooommmm sound with each pulse, and gradually the sound changed to a whiiiiissssshhh, and then a soft airy hummm. I did not TRY to change the sound, it simply changed as I observed. The colors got softer, and I let the colors expand throughout my arm, then my body. I started feeling my energy move with the pulse, not against it. No longer was I bracing for each pulse, no longer was the pulse something foreign, something happening to me. It was my pulse. It was me. It was not me vs. it, not even me and it; it was me/it all together. I became soothed, mesmerized, quiet. I relaxed into the rhythm, and the rhythm became my rhythm. I began to sense myself ensconced in a deep golden bubble of Light. I fell asleep.
Nurses and aides and technicians came in and out of my room repeatedly, waking me up each time to test, poke and prod me. With each wake-up, I once again began to feel the pain of the drip. But each time, I was able to move back into observation, and through observation, into surrender and oneness. Each time was faster than the time before. When they came into replace the empty bag and start me on the next four hours, I had a momentary “oh no” moment; but I quickly moved back into acceptance. I told myself that I was about to have more opportunity to practice surrender and oneness. And I did. I was bathed in that golden bubble of Light, and I rested in gratitude.
Now seven months later, my physical pain is very different – milder and more sporadic. My damaged nerves are slowly regenerating, and they wake up suddenly with pokes, stabs, pinches, burns, stings and twitches. The sensations are short-lived but sometimes intense – and they repeat several times in any given location before those particular nerves seem to settle down. I’m often heard to yelp “Ouch!” when it happens, but usually I can switch quickly from resistance to gratitude that the nerves are in fact coming back to life. I can breathe into the locus and let myself see, feel and hear the sensation through to its release. I say “welcome home,” to the nerves and relax into their process.
There are other forms of pain - less physical forms of pain – that I find far more challenging. When I’m in emotional pain, I'm a much slower learner. I want to fight the pain, banish the cause of the pain, punish the stimulus of the pain. Sometimes I remember that the key is to accept the pain, to surrender to it, become one with it. But sometimes I’m fooling myself because my real desire is to control the pain: accept it so it won't hurt. And of course, that doesn’t work any better with emotional pain than it does with physical pain. I need to keep reminding myself that the burn of the potassium drip released only when I released my resistance to it, only when I let go of control, let go of outcome, and gave it my full unconditioned awareness and acceptance. Only when I became okay with its enduring presence did I no longer experience its presence. Only when I observed it and embraced it as part of me it did I experience peace.
Of course, sometimes there IS an outer situation that needs to be addressed, outer remedial action that needs to be taken. But outer adjustments address only outer circumstances; they do not address the inner process of pain. And in that regard, I’m slowly learning that it doesn't matter why I hurt, that there's no story that softens it, no position of right or wrong that makes it go away. There simply is the fact that I’m hurting in the moment, and that I have the choice to resist the pain or embrace it. Just as with the drip, I can begin my return to peace and loving by simply observing what’s going on. Notice the sound and colors, the rhythm and flow of sensations. Let that dance become my dance. Breathe it in and breathe it out. If I start to judge or defend or explain or resist, embrace that too as part of the dance. Deepen my connection. Receive, embrace, and become one with whatever is. That’s what loving it is. That is loving because loving is what there is to do. Loving is what there is to be.