Lessons from Pain, Secrets of Healing (I)
A Meditator's Guide and Notes to Self
Brief aside: I ended my last post by saying that this post would be about the virtual world. I’ve since restructured my calendar of posts for the year, and instead decided to publish this one— that I originally wrote last year—now. You’ll have to wait a few more months for my thoughts on AI ;) Make sure you’re subscribed:
I recently went through an episode of back pain (thankfully now resolved) that inspired this post. I am fortunate that I don’t live with pain on a regular basis, but I have worked with those who have chronic pain, and am always moved and inspired by their fortitude. For example, my grandparents and their generation are models of good cheer and wisdom despite the many inevitable health challenges that come with living, aging and dying. I often wish I could face the difficulties of my life with that kind of grace.
As I went through the past few weeks of being in pain—managing it, trying to work my life and responsibilities around it, occasionally crying and cursing it and eventually healing from it—these are the things I was thinking and the ways I was counselling myself. Some of these ideas are flashes of insight that arose in the midst of suffering, when I was momentarily open and receptive. I intend this post as a ‘note-to-self’: advice mined from adversity, for my future self and for you, if you find it helpful.
Confusion and Clarity
One my teachers used to say that those who are recently bereaved see the world more clearly than the rest of us, as they have come close to death, and thereby to truth. Perhaps the same can be said of those who are suffering with illness or pain; clarity dawns from the wreckage. A cancer survivor I know said that the experience of her illness completely changed her worldview and all her priorities. It shaped her anew into a different kind of being, on a different life path. The first time I was bereaved it shattered my beliefs—and with hindsight—beautifully opened the door to the path of inner work I’m now on. There is a verse in the Radiance Sutras that captures the moment of destruction and turns it into a practice:
You are stunned, powerless. You thought you knew What was going on. Now you realize you don't have a clue. You are stopped in your tracks. Everything within your skin is shaking. Enter this shaking. Get curious. Look around inside with wonder. Unmind your mind. All the walls have fallen down— Go ahead and dissolve. The One Who Has Always Been, Who has seen much worse than this, Is still here. —Radiance Sutras 89
Being in pain also has the power to distort and pervert your thinking. One of the defining features of pain is disorganization. It makes your thoughts, your movement, your life, your emotions feel chaotic, precisely because it is an interruption of chaos into a previously ordered world. Pain disrupts the rhythms and routines of life, the everyday hidden structures of order and sanity that we don’t perceive until they are revealed by their absence. It narrows our focus to the point that we cannot see ‘the big picture’. In extreme cases almost everything else gets subsumed in the pain and the search for a way out of it. This is why it feels so isolating and alienating when you are in pain. Your world has shrunk and gotten stuck, just as your body has frozen into tension and can’t find a way to open up again.
How we each deal with pain and suffering is complex and unique; a result of our conscious and unconscious beliefs, how much support (resources, time and space) we have, and the nature of our character, among other things. Importantly, we have the power to choose our response. That is the hidden potential of the experience. Pain can be a transformative event in life, a catalyst for alchemical change in our bodies and our minds.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
—Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
What follows is a loosely organized collection of thoughts about the experience of pain and how to heal. I wrote it from the perspective of physical pain, but I am guessing it applies to other forms of pain too: emotional, spiritual, or mental. Let me know in the comments whether my thoughts spark associations, questions or feelings in you.
If you are in pain as you read this, my thoughts are with you. Please be gentle with yourself and take in whatever you can, in any way you can.
The first question that comes with adversity of any kind usually is: why? Why is this happening to me? Why do I have to go through this? It’s a million-dollar question with no real answer. While someone may be able to specify how (the mechanism or process by which) you got injured or sick, no one can tell you why. Why you and not someone else, why right now and not then, why this way and not another way?
There are many ways to think about the experience of pain. For example, you could see it as:
a punishment · from life, God, or some other force out there
a consequence · of something you did, or a choice you made
a message · from your body, your life or the world
a release, a de-tox, a letting go · part of the natural processes of being alive, or perhaps that process was impeded or corrupted and is now being restored with too much vigour
a transformation · manifesting both internal and external changes
an opportunity · to practice your chosen virtues: compassion, patience, forbearance, humility…or to make changes in yourself or your life
Often we believe more than one of these at the same time. While we are going through adversity, ideas, beliefs and thoughts tend to careen around our heads wildly like ping-pong balls, and we get no relief or space to try to understand what’s happening. My hope is that by laying out my own thoughts in the list above, you might find some order in your own. It might also inspire you to make your own list, map, or drawing to see if that gives you a glimpse of clarity and some inner space.
Practice Idea: Automatic Writing
Because pain can be so overwhelming, I find it really helpful to have an outlet for its energy. And since I often can’t move as well as normal when I’m in pain, my preferred outlet is to journal. There is something immensely cathartic about getting all the thoughts and feelings out of your body, down onto a page that’s external to you. Then you can look at them and try to make sense of them, or not—up to you. But at least they’re not swirling around inside and clogging you up.
When I was training in Laban movement a few years ago, one of the practices we used regularly after movement was automatic writing. Essentially you set a timer for anywhere from 2-10 minutes, and write whatever comes to you without filtering or stopping. If you don’t get words, you can also draw or doodle. The content doesn’t really matter, the point is to discharge or express without inhibitions.
The energy in the room when we were all writing was crystalline in its potency, especially since we had all just been moving together, and then smoothly dropped into profound, inner awareness. It was like connecting with another dimension. Sometimes when time was up, people would still be writing away, mesmerized by their own subconscious flow. If you look it up, automatic writing tends to be associated with spiritualism and things like channeling mediums, probably because it was popularised by the Surrealists and psychoanalysts in the 19th century. I think of it as simply a way to ‘unlock’ the gates of the subconscious mind and express whatever is in there in a tangible form.
Pain is, of course, both conscious and sub- or unconscious in nature. Earlier I described it as chaos erupting into order, but another way to put it could be the unconscious erupting into the conscious. Often, even when we (consciously) give ourselves time and space to recover physically, we don’t allow ourselves to feel all the (subconscious) feelings that come with being hurt. Automatic writing can help do that, so that those feelings don’t get in the way of healing, and instead can be processed out of your system.
Making sense of it all
Each of the beliefs I listed above (and any that you come up with yourself while journalling) are ways that you are trying to process and make sense of what’s happened to you, why you’re in pain. They are manifestations of your search for meaning in this experience; because intuitively or instinctively maybe you know that it is the experience of meaning that helps us endure, and gives us strength to overcome difficulties. In the words of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor:
Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.
It is not wrong to search for meaning, but neither is it always possible to arrive at a satisfactory answer. It is the search that counts, and that brings value to all aspects of life. In spiritual communities there is a danger of it being too easy to come up with a why. Whether you believe in karma, God or anything else, pat responses can bypass and even suppress rather than support one’s true, inner search. Meaning cannot be found by learning a formula for cause and effect, or being told how the world works. It is a felt experience that arises out of living your life and meeting your circumstances in a way that draws out your innate and unique wisdom.
This is why it feels insincere and irritating when someone tells you ‘it’s your karma’, or ‘your illness is a message from God’, etc. While they may have the best of intentions, that is their meaning and not yours. You have to find your own, and once you do… it might be best to avoid going around saying such things yourself ;) In all seriousness, I find it works better to transmit your experience of meaning through your presence rather than your words, unless someone actually asks you for your advice. Or you can write a blog post like me and hope it doesn’t come across that way!
Ultimately there is no right or wrong way to conceive of any experience, including pain and adversity. Like I shared in my post on emotions, it is up to you how you frame it. The point is that you can choose to direct your thoughts and your beliefs towards a framework that brings you hope, keeps you sane and resilient and connects you with wisdom and grace. Doing this in the midst of adversity is one of the hardest and bravest ways to respond to life, as well as being the most crucial.
My sense is that re-orienting your thinking and your emotions is part of the key to healing from pain. As we know, body and mind are one, and the process of becoming diseased as well as of healing from illness occur simulataneously in all layers of our being. In my own case, I have found that many times after a period of sickness or injury, my thinking or feeling about some issue changes, or becomes clearer. There is a running joke in my family that whenever I get back pain, it’s time for me to think about changing jobs ;) Sometimes in periods of illness, I can feel the disentangling and the re-organisation on a physical and psychological level at the same time. I notice it clearly when I’m meditating while ill, or after a deeply restful sleep or nap. It’s a bit spooky, but it reinforces to me the power of the mindbody connection. If you’re interested in exploring this idea further, I would recommend the book Your Body Speaks Your Mind, by Deb Shapiro.
Another book on this topic that I have not yet read but is on my list is Pain is Really Strange by Steve Haines. It’s part of a series of books about things that are Really Strange. Steve is a bodyworker in craniosacral therapy and TRE®, so he brings deep embodied wisdom and therapeutic experience to the table. Plus his website is beautifully put together and worth checking out just for that reason.
Thank you for reading. In my next post, I will be sharing 5 ideas that have helped me meet pain with openness and courage. They are: space, rhythm, receptivity, breath, and hope. Following that I will send out a healing meditation that you can use when you’re ill or low on energy, or even when you’re recovering from a lot of activity and need a space to recuperate. Stay tuned and subscribe if you haven’t already:
If you found this post meaningful (pun intended), please feel free to share with friends. And let me know in the comments or by email what you thought of it.
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Love this Vaishali! Really beautiful article and the meaning we attach to the events of our lives have the ability to create or destroy. Victor Frankl’s book and message has impacted me profoundly and I appreciate the insights you share in such a wise and vulnerable way.
I am inspired by your spiritual and somatic-focused Substack and am excited to subscribe. I think you may enjoy mine, which features yoga poems from my manuscript, A Poem for Every Pose, and would love to invite you to subscribe to mine. If you are interested, here is the link: https://coriefeiner.substack.com