Everything was going smoothly when BAM! My body brought me to a screeching halt. I was having a really nice day. I had driven myself to a small coastal town that I love, Pt. Reyes Station in Marin County, California. I sat outdoors at my favorite café and ordered my favorite salad. I went shopping and bought myself a candle, and a shoulder bag made of beautiful floral fabric. On the drive home I noticed slight twinges down my left leg. Hmm, I thought, sciatica, I’m sure it will stop once I stop driving. But the twinges grew stronger and more frequent.
By three in the morning, I felt sharp nerve pains shooting through the outside of my left foot—rhythmic pulses that fired in succession. My body clenched all over in a tight fist. Why was this happening to me? I hadn’t experienced pain like this for many years. I had a history of lower back problems, which involved a serious operation that resulted in two titanium discs in my lumbar spine. (You can read about it in Finding Venerable Mother). That was over fifteen years ago. I have had a few flare-ups since then but always seemed to recover with time and patience. I always seem to forget that my back is vulnerable to flare-ups and when it happens it’s as if I’m experiencing it for the first time.
If you’ve ever dealt with chronic pain, you will probably recognize some of what transpired that night. The problem isn’t my body, the problem is my mind. I don’t like being laid up, and patience isn’t one of my virtues. My mind is a big worrywart. About 4:00 am in the morning when I can’t sleep, I have to promise my mind that things are not falling apart. It’s true that I am falling behind in my writing, unable to drive, and missing my friends and my morning exercise for a time.
I can really go to extremes with my dire predictions. What if I need major surgery? What if I am stuck in the four walls of my condo forever? What if I’m never able to hike again with the wonderful group of women I hike with every morning? I’ll lose muscle tone; I’ll get out of shape and go into mental decline. Sigh. The hazards of the mind. As Anne Lamott says, “My mind is a neighborhood I try not to go into.”
Due to my recent experience, I asked my teacher, Venerable Dhammananda on the recent episode of Casual Buddhism what kinds of things we can do to relieve chronic pain. As we age many of us experience chronic pain and, especially after age 60 our bodies wear down. Some parts like our knees and hips can be replaced, but other parts are not replaceable.
Venerable Dhammananda suffers from chronic nerve pain in her feet. In her case it has something to do with her brain that sends out the wrong signals. She has to take medication twice daily to relieve the pain. The beautiful part is she can function by holding her pain in balanced awareness. The mind and the body are so inextricably connected that it is hard sometimes to separate one from the other. When she can see that the pain is in her feet and not in her mind, the situation improves. For example, she said, “Right now I am focused on our conversation in Casual Buddhism.” She is really spiritually advanced. Many of us are not so aware, but with practice, we can learn to balance our awareness.
This is certainly true for me. I have experienced a state of balanced awareness. I live near the ocean and when I sit by the sea, I am relieved of the mental and physical pain I am feeling even if just for a few hours. Watching the subtle shifts of the swells in the water calms my mind. It takes practice, but we can begin to help ourselves and improve our moods considerably by learning how to shift our awareness of being out in nature.
Another thing that helps is to shift our focus on someone who brings us hope. For instance, when I am really feeling low, I imagine being at Dhammananda’s temple in Thailand chanting with the other women—that always fills me with joy. Perhaps there is a person in your life who inspires you.
One last thing Venerable Dhammananda reminded me of is that it doesn’t help when we talk about our pain because people can’t do anything about it. She says it sends out a “negative vibration.” The other day I watched my friend’s eyes glaze over when I begin to go into too much detail about my treatment or my symptoms. Better to focus on the other person, ask them how their day is going, something as simple as that.
Holding our pain in balanced awareness is a practice and that is not easy to do especially when we are in pain. For me, spending time in nature, and finding hope and inspiration are two ways to reduce pain and stress. What is your experience? Do you know someone or do you suffer from bouts of pain? What helps you? I welcome your comments.