I recently returned from a very healing month in South India (the adjustment to Brussels has been tough, I’m not gonna lie!). It was great being offline and out of touch for a while because it gave me the chance to focus on myself without distraction, allowing me to get back in touch with my body and what it has been trying to tell me the last couple of years.
The past few weeks have also brought me several occasions to reflect on what we collectively and individually give our power to, through things as diverse as gurus and ashrams (more on that in another post), bitcoin, social pressure, business legalese, the media and – particularly compelling in my case – pain. Indulge me for a moment if that seems like a stream-of-consciousness ramble; it does all tie together at some point, although maybe not by the end of this blog.
I wrote about my dalliances with pain in another blog over two years ago, and in a number of insidious but admirably creative ways, pain has been a very persistent master and guru that I have resolved to exceed using the wisdom of what I teach, as much for my own personal relief as for my need for proof of the merit in what I’m offering to others.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll keep using the word pain to tell this story, even though I definitely find it helpful to avoid labelling sensations too specifically (as we learn to do in mindfulness practice). Abstracting from the label of “pain” allows us to experience sensations differently and even less intensely, but this is difficult to describe in writing without sounding precious.
Near-constant pain is preoccupying and eventually curtails daily activities and pleasures. Chronic pain continues long after the body has healed, and can even exist in the absence of any medical reason, such as in amputated limbs. So where does pain, or any other so-called bodily sensation come from?
The mind memorises and perpetuates the unpleasant sensations which are repeatedly triggered by unresolved emotions, stress and trauma lying buried beneath our conscious awareness (and which may or may not have arisen at the same time as a physical event such as an accident). Acute pain is a strong signal of injury or other tissue damage and lasts until the body’s natural pain relievers, endorphins, kick in and lessen or block the pain signals to the brain.
Chronic pain is also real, without a doubt, but the cause is not in the body. Despite a great deal of scientific evidence to this effect modern medicine is slow to shake off its myths, and continues to perpetuate ideas such as “herniated discs”, arthritic deterioration and similar diagnoses are the source of pain, leading to unnecessary interventions like the hip surgery I had been proposed. In fact, many people have these types of conditions without any discomfort at all.
The mind is powerful, which is why mastering it is the primary and central focus of Yoga and Buddhism. As my hero, the late Dr. John Sarno explained through his decades of work on healing from pain, the experience of chronic pain acts as a defence or a distraction from negatively perceived emotions: it is more socially acceptable to acknowledge back or neck pain than to face more “anti-social” emotions like rage, anger and resentment.
Through my mindfulness practice, I noticed over the past couple of years that the strong sensations would intensify when I was in a hurry, under stress, angry or frustrated about something. I became acutely aware that I was also anticipating pain during certain movements which I unconsciously connected with my injuries, like climbing stairs or getting in or out of a vehicle, for instance. I caught myself fearing the pain a split-second before I would make a move, and realised that it had become a programmed response and self-fullfilling prophecy.
So I went back to the basics (as taught by Dr Sarno) and started writing out every fear, anxiety and painful emotion I could think of from any and every stage of my life. As I was journaling this, the pain would noticeably subside. Whenever the pain would flare up I would reflect on what could be bothering me or disturbing my peace in the moment. What am I worried about? How am I feeling, really? I was determined not to be controlled by this pain any longer.
I quickly got to the point where I could do this in real time and be able to overcome the pain in nearly all circumstances. Even if the pain were triggered again, it would be less intense and dissipate faster than before. By the end of my time in India, I was feeling better than I had in a long time. And then I came back to Brussels.
“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
~ C.S. Lewis
For many years, I have been keenly aware that I really don’t thrive in Brussels. Trying to be pragmatic, I have continued to do my best to make it work for me and my children by travelling as often as possible to visit the people and places that nourish me, as “topping myself up” in this way helps me find a certain balance when I’m back home. But it has become increasingly clear that this is no longer working.
Within a couple of days of being back in Brussels, the pain started flaring up badly. Once again I was waking up at night with the stabbing pain I hadn’t felt in weeks. So I grabbed my pen and started writing down every emotion and stress I could identify, whether or not they had been explored before. As soon as I wrote down something that resonated with me, my pain would subside, and I have once again come back to the place where I can play the game of naming the disturbance in real time. But the message is clear: it’s time for a major change of scene.
During my time in India, my morning and evening walks at the edge of the Arabian Sea were a wonderful reminder of the ebb and flow of life. The sea would encroach on the beach seemingly at random, sometimes reaching the treeline and at other times pulling back to reveal a 150-meter deep sandy beach, bubbling with crabs and seabirds. Intricate, mesmerising designs appeared moment to moment, briefly reflecting the designs we see elsewhere in nature, adding to the overall harmony of the experience. Change is what nourishes life.
“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you should prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.”
~ Robert Louis Stevenson
Nothing is permanent, neither pain, nor pleasure. It’s deeply empowering to remember this as often as possible, and to live in this way. We live in a time of profound change and we need to release old patterns, just like the seashore, adapting to what is best for us as we move forward in life. Notice to whom and what you give your power, and question whether that is working for you. Take back responsibility for whatever is keeping you from thriving, and open yourself to the big changes that are coming in the new year.
With much love and light as always,