Just to be clear, I’m not a masochist or a sadist or anything like that. I curse as much as the next guy/gal when I have high levels of pain. But I also see that pain has a redeeming feature: it pushes me to shut off the never-ending discourse in my mind and listen to my body, if only for seconds at a time.
When last I wrote, I was sick with a chest cold. It took a month for my body to fight that dreadful cold virus, and I thank my lucky stars I didn’t get bronchitis. I wrote that I couldn’t take any meds for the cold virus. Now here is the reason:
Today marks five months exactly that I have been on the journey of being pregnant. It is a wonderful and challenging journey. It seems that just about every week I have another pregnancy-related ailment with which to contend. About a month ago I started to have a lot of pain in my butt. It was keeping me from getting a good night’s sleep and the intensity had me almost in tears. I suspected it could be sacroiliac joint dysfunction so I visited my physical therapist. She confirmed my suspicion and gave me some tips for reducing the pain: walking like Charlie Chaplin, sleeping with three (yes three) pillows between my knees, and sitting with my knees far apart. Within a few days, the pain subsided substantially, and I am really thankful for that, but I’m also thankful for being highly attuned to my body because of the pain.
How often do we really sink into the everyday sensations of sitting, standing, walking, and rolling in or out of bed? I have practiced mindfulness meditation for over a decade and yet I am often not present to the minute sensations that occur while I’m carrying out these basic movements. When the sacroiliac joint pain was intense, I was fully aware of every slight feeling involved in each movement: lifting a foot, the shift of weight from one foot to the other, balancing, swinging my legs off the bed and touching the soles of my feet to the floor, and the “apex” of sitting in which I let go and trust that the couch or chair would support my bottom. How often do I take these movements for granted?
Darlene Cohen has written about the wisdom of being attuned to the body. For example, she wrote in “Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain“:
It’s inherently sane, real, to be connected with and aware of the physical and sensual aspects of our activity as well as its purpose. It is an expression of sanity to be so intimately connected to our activity that we can allow a broom to sweep us just as we sweep the broom, that we can appreciate the relationship we are having with the broom. By giving our daily movements our full attention, our minds have a chance to unfold, revealing psychic space around pain, space around frustration, space around everything. This kind of space is always there in our psyches, available to receive us…We develop the ability to turn at will to The One Who Is Not Busy by noticing very simple experiences: the sudden whiff of fresh air when we step outside onto the porch; the sudden dimming and narrowing of space when we step inside a building; the warmth of a mug of tea cupped in our palms; the instant of palpable satisfaction from placing a heavy cup on the table–when we perceive the precise meeting of two flat surfaces. These are real experiences of being alive; we usually ignore them as mundane, but they are the ways we can know The One Who Is Not Busy. When we are connected to The One Who Is Not Busy, our activity itself expresses our deepest unobstructed nature.
The essence of Cohen’s point is that when we are highly attuned to the “simple experiences” of our bodies, we develop more awareness of our true vitality, of the life that pulses through our veins, and of our dynamic interactions with the world around us. If we open up to its power, pain can usher us through mental barriers that often keep us from being present to our true vitality.
Now I’m not saying I want a lifetime of pain! In the past few weeks I have had abdominal pain from lots of gas. I think that my uterus is pressing against my stomach and intestines. Sometimes I wake up to gas pain in the middle of the night. I’ll be the first to admit that I feel really annoyed when anything wakes me up, especially pain. So I’ve tried to figure out which foods are contributing to a build-up of gas. I already have a long list of no-no foods (no need to advise me to stay away from gluten and lactose, they are on the list). And what I’ve come to is that there are some foods that are best to eat in the middle of the day and of course, it helps to eat five or six small meals instead of three big meals. All that is to say that I’ve found ways to reduce the abdominal pain and there’s no shame in that. I learned about my body.
There are some moments in which the pain wakes me up to the experience of really being in the here and now, and there are moments in which I deliberately choose actions to reduce the pain, and then I watch closely to see if my choices had any effect on the pain. Both kinds of experiences are important. Both bring me a sense of really being in my body–wholly embodied. And that is the one thing I like about pain.