If you have ever spent a winter on the Canadian Prairies, or a reasonable geographical facsimile, you’ll know that the temperatures can elicit an immense amount of physical pain and mental anguish. But, as a kid, I seemed to be able to endure those weeks of daytime highs of -30C. Many times, we grabbed our skates and headed to our neighborhood outdoor rinks for hours of free ice time. The fun would always end abruptly when the boots came off at home and the feet began to warm. One would think this to be a welcoming experience, but au contraire, it was excruciating. The thaw created a burning sensation, much like one would expect to feel if you had simply stepped barefoot onto the coals of a fire to warm your toes.
I also broke my arm as a youngster, which is a common injury; however, what was not common place was my response. My class was going camping the next day and I wasn’t about to miss the trip. I decided the best triage included wrapping my arm in a tensor bandage, drinking some water, and going to bed. During the trip, my girlfriends helped me dress and undress, etc., and I participated in as many activities I could manage. When I arrived back home, I had no range of motion in my forearm whatsoever. I was taken to the hospital and it was discovered that I had broken both the ulna and radius in my arm. The doctor would have to re-brake the bones (as they had already started to set in the misaligned spots) and cast my right arm from the fingers to the underarm. This was to be my state of being for an entire summer. True story.
I look back at these events when I think about pain and wonder why I could seemingly bite the bullet on many occasions. I think a large part of my ability to face pain has to do with how my body reacts, which is something that I believe was never really in my control; a possible, genetic predisposition? The other tough stuff comes from my socialization. I didn’t grow up in a gushy family; you fall down, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Whether or not this “refrain from validation” is an appropriate parenting technique is debatable, but it taught me that there was no point in whining and telling myself stories about my sorrowful predicament. Thus, my mental processes regarding pain were being altered and, unbeknownst to the young me, I was starting on a journey of recognizing the power of our thoughts on our health and overall wellness.
However, a specific injury and subsequent recovery is considerably different from chronic, long term pain. Chronic pain requires an approach that helps to change the perception of pain and the brain’s response to pain. In most cases, pain is measured by medical professionals based on what they can see with their own eyes, on a CT scan, X-ray, or MRI, but what’s causing the pain is not always visual. Take my thalamic pain syndrome in my right arm as an example. What’s more is the burden mentally. Chronic pain sets in motion a cycle of mental and physical anguish that can be unrelenting.
Approximately a month after I was home from the hospital after having a brain hemorrhage and subsequent stroke in September of 2013, I returned to my meditation group. Our usual routine includes 25 minutes sitting meditation, 10 minutes walking meditation, and then another 25 minutes. Afterward, we share and discuss a reading. I was worried; I was still weak and feeling out of sorts, how would I manage for the first hour? I felt all the discomforts, both physically and mentally, for the first ten minutes; I had a headache (as usual) and I still had a strong disconnect with my surroundings. But, somewhere along the way I realized something: my headache was gone. Furthermore, my body felt centered, focused, and energized. I had done so much thinking about therapies, medicines, possible surgeries, death, my children, etc., that I hadn’t taken anytime to “be”. I hadn’t paused to breathe deeply and embrace all that life was presenting.
Here in lies the crux of mindfulness meditation: it changes our perception of, among many items, pain. I have heard many people state that if they sit in silence they will simply focus on all the negativity in their lives and what they could be eliminating from their to-do lists, which will simply make them more stressed. I acknowledge the impression they have formulated, but it is not accurate. Meditation does take work, but it is the kind of work that reaps benefits and is time much better spent than the ensuing logorrhea that can develop through our recusant story telling.
Don’t get me wrong. I still feel pain and I still complain from time to time. The difference may be in the fact that I try not to hang on to the thoughts streaming in about the pain. Through breath work, mindfulness, and meditation I am able to reduce the pain and the emotions, such as anger, sadness, and anxiety that can accompany the physical discomfort. What’s more is that this approach to health and wellness does not have to cost a lot, if anything. There are articles on the internet, YouTube videos, books (check out your local library and I really recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, Full Catastrophe Living), and you may be able to find MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) courses in your community, or groups that practice mindful meditation. What’s more is that it doesn’t have to require a lot of time and, really, can be done anywhere. Even sitting on the commode can be a mindful experience!
Yesterday, I watched Jon Kabat-Zinn’s interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. I laughed when Jon Kabat-Zinn stated, “We go, go, go, and then we die. How much of our time here was spent fully present?” Unfortunately, we cannot be present if we are always raging, avoiding, and even talking.
In my quest to be a judicious writer, it is important for me to re-state that I attach much weight to a holistic approach to health. I still take Gabapentin for the thalamic pain, but I have weaned from 900 mg a day to 300 mg. I rarely take anything else for pain. However, I wouldn’t beat myself up either if my situation changed and I needed to increase or change medications. This is the beauty of mindfulness, the loving kindness and compassion we can learn to demonstrate not only to others, but to ourselves, which is essential to our physical and mental wellness.