The pain I was in last night was the type that leaves me shaking and on the brink of blacking out. The pain meds I have make me dizzy, barely able to stand, and frequently end in me vomiting them up. I've been having headaches for weeks and haven't quite been able to pinpoint this new ache. I have assumed it was a heat induced headache and keep drinking more water, but it had been getting steadily worse. At some point yesterday when I was feeling into the pain, I recognized that the location of it was traversing a nerve pathway. Indeed, I seem to have a new kind of nerve pain, this one cutting through my skull and radiating down my neck, through my throat, into my shoulders. Lovely!
So I got another opportunity to practice with pain, and thought I might share it's messiness. The pain and practice have been such an incredible learning experience for me through my illness, and given that all human beings are subject to extreme pain, some on a daily basis, I thought it would be worth it to share what I'm learning.
First I just have to say that I owe my ability to practice with pain to my dear, strong but incredibly sick friend, Deanna. When I met her and we became friends, she was the one who was sick. But given that my mom had died from MS when I was 16 and I had cared for her during her illness, I wasn't shy about being close to people who are ill. Deanna and our friendship as Dharma buddies began through our dedicated practitioners sutra study/practice group. We connected quickly and deeply, perhaps we've known each other for lifetimes. I thank God/dess/Divine for her, still, daily, for when I became seriously ill, her experience with illness and great pain was a lifeboat for me. I knew the extremity of pain Deanna is in on a daily basis, and yet her willingness to experience her life as it is, with compassion for herself and others, with a depth of love that holds the whole universe and a perseverance that I think still befuddles her, if she was managing, I knew everyday that I could hold on another day.
Sometimes all we can do is hold on to life for one more moment. But that's all it actually takes to keep going. I have spent countless days in extreme pain and fatigue, my 3 and 5 year old home alone with me, me responsible for their meals, their entertainment, their squabbles, etc... I can easily become crushed with despair, should I go into future thinking. Instead, as much as possible, my practice floats us through our days. "Just this moment," I tell myself. "It's like this right now."
Last night was noting "its like this" through the scream of white noise, everything becoming extremely painful. It's like my brain becomes ultra sensitive to every unpleasant sensation and threatens to flood and shut off. I note the arising of panic over what happens if I die by myself tonight in my apartment. Action 1 - text dear friend to ask if they can come over and stay the night.
Action 2 - call another dear friend to help me remember I'm probably not dying, and so that someone does know if I black out. That helps. I eventually have to get off the phone to dizzily stumble to the toilet to puke from my pain pills. I get up, shaking and sobbing, and note, yes, life is like this sometimes. My eyes are blood red from crying both from the pain and from deep gratitude to be alive. I remember that this too will change, as everything does. My friend arrives. We talk, I eat a little and find ground through the non-painful aspects of my body. Eventually, I am a far cry from where I recently was. This morning I woke up a bit groggy but free from pain. The relief of being free from pain is enough to bring me even more tears.
When I'm in debilitating pain, I remind myself that all sensations are constantly changing. I open to the pain, knowing that nerve pain itself cannot kill me. I remember that each moment of attention is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. I open to the unpleasantness of pain, and attempt to simply note "unpleasant sensations - everything is impermanent, this too will pass." If the pain is very extreme, then I try to bring my focus to a part of my body that is neutral or pleasant.
The pull of the unpleasantness of pain is very strong, so it can be hard to stay there at first. But as an example - when I have pain in my head, I try feeling the bottom of my feet instead. The reality of our mind is that it can only sense one thing at a time. And we become the thing we sense. Pain can be relentless, and we can practice with it, but to remain balanced (because focusing just on the pain can easily just make it worse) I try to feel the instants of attention to other parts of my body, because those brief moments can be brief moments of sweet relief. Once I have any tiny opening of mental space at my disposal, I attempt to use it to cultivate love for myself and for all of the people enduring these conditions. I honor my body, that it is not me, not mine, not myself. It is a vessel of life which belongs to the Earth, and thus it is subject to birth, decay and death. This is not our fault, this is not our doing. This is how it is.
When I don't identify with my body, not myself, it can become my teacher. I hear it tell me to slow down and relax. This mind will beg "How the hell am I supposed to relax when I don't even know where I'm going to live, how I'm going to survive if I don't get disability..." etc etc etc. =) I have plenty of things to worry about, we all do. But I know worrying about anything doesn't help me. Instead of suppressing worry, I try to see it arising and hold it with compassion, "Yes I know, you feel scared about your future, you are doing everything you can though and that is enough" and then let it keep floating by. Or, let it go, and watch it arise again. I go back to the body - open to it, have compassion, gratefully receive the next breath, feel gratitude for the love I have and have had in my life, knowing that love is always there.
I was reading "The Shaman's Body: A New Shamanism for Transforming Health, Relationships and Community" by Arnold Mindell this morning. I opened it to this: "Body experiences are not haphazard. They are meaningful. The more troublesome they are, the more they seem to be potential allies...If you follow your body, you move through the world as if you knew it like a map. Body sensations are then experienced as if they were connected to the entire gravity and electromagnetic fields of the earth, the power of the night. The dreamingbody seems then to be partly yours and partly the connection to the universe. When you are in your dreamingbody, you experience its power as not belonging to any living creature."
Our power lies not in our bodies, nor their health. Our power lies within life itself. That which makes our heart beat another beat, that which breathes another breath... I have seen my illness as an "ally," allowing me to deepen my practice, and this perspective has likely been a lifesaver for me. Such intense suffering has opened me, by force (along with a small amount of my own willingness) to the 10,000 sorrows and thus the 10,000 joys of the world. Being blown open and being able to sense the power of life itself, I believe, is the reason I'm living today. And if we are alive, we have much to be grateful for, even when racked with pain.
My tears last night were both "ohhh the pain" as well as "ohh Goddess/Divine thank you for letting me live another day, I can't believe you continue to bless me." 10,000 sorrows, 10,000 joys. When I laid "in my death bed" (which was how it felt at least) in Philadelphia in February/March, I had been unable to walk or wheel myself, unable to prepare meals for myself or my kids for days at a time. Every single thing we needed was taken care of by a friend. I felt I was watching myself die right in front of my eyes. I couldn't believe I couldn't make my body cooperate with me. I couldn't believe I would have to let go of my kids at 3 and 5. I sobbed over losing them, and them losing me. One fateful morning, through tears of deep grief, I saw a bird looking at me through my window. We held each others awareness for a moment, and I felt unspeakable love pouring out of me. I knew that my suffering was too, just another piece of the divine order of things. I realized that my entire life I had been held - by parents, by the ground, by my bed, by friends, by gravity, by dear loves, by birds, by my breath. I was blown open - I felt I could feel both the deepest pains of the world at the same time as the highest joys and love. Each horrendously painful event happening at any given time is also one tiny incident in the great scheme of things, our planet held in gravity orbiting the sun, held in the cosmos, held in darkness. Thankful for another breath, another sight of my kids playing, another visit from a friend that literally kept us afloat. This all felt so far gone when I was walking around without a cane recently, and yet so near when I was shaking and vomiting in pain last night.
The beauty of life is that we don't need to know the millions of processes happening within our body and around us for it to keep marching us forwards. Life. Our bodies are so easily destructible on one hand, so fragile, that one accident at the wheel can kill the organs that keep it alive. Yet, life-force is so powerful that even when our body, our organs, nearly fail us, this unknown, unlanguable force pulls us through another moment.
Developing our ability to connect to THAT, that which holds all experience, has saved my life. I do believe, having been saved because of my practice, saved by allowing this to carry me through my own personal hell, that it is the most important thing for us to develop to deal with the stresses of our lives. When I touch deeply into my pain, I touch deeply into the pain of the universe - people are dying from lack of access to medical care, a mother has lost her child, people are getting murdered, starving, friends are homeless and working almost more hours than there are in a day to try to make ends meet, and all of our pain is held in great awareness and love by that which holds all experiences. There is also great beauty, great love and joy abound - children playing in sprinklers, a friend coming to another's aid, a stranger stopping and asking someone crying on a bench if there's anything he can do to help.
The Buddha taught that whatever happens on this physical plane is subject to birth, decay, and death. That which we love and hold dear escapes us. That which we've worked tirelessly on is suddenly washed away in a flood. These material things, our sensations, our experiences, these are all expressions of the divine. Even in great pain and loss, we are blessed with another gift of life giving air - breath. Our breath carries us through each moment, from the time we are born, until we die, when that which has always held us, continues to hold us into our next birth. When we have nothing else to hold onto, we can ride the breath and simply look outside and remember that we are on a giant planet, nightly under millions of stars, and that we are made from the same things that the entire cosmos is made of. We can reach past our cosmos, out into the darkness, and lay there to rest in love. We can let go of the sensations of pain in our bodies for maybe just one moment, and feel into the dance of the bird in the sky. Every single aspect of this web of life is connected to every other. All it asks of us is our willingness to come back to love, our willingness to be of service.
So, in the spirit of service, I hope that my stories of suffering may be what my friend Deanna's stories are for me - a candle in the darkness, for if nothing else, we know that we are not alone. Even when we are not physically with each other, we are with each other in the ether, as near as we are far away.
And life, held in our loving awareness, keeps marching on.
If you have any questions about practicing with pain and/or illness, or have practice tips you'd like to share, please do.
Bowing in gratitude to your attention and your inner light,
May all beings be free from the suffering of wanting things to be different than they are.
May all beings be happy and have ease of physical well being.
May all beings feel held in great, divine love.