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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Chronic Pain as Spiritual Teacher

Pain is an interesting thing, and chronic pain can be a fascinating pain in the ass - or other parts of the body. I have learned it is a profound spiritual teacher as well. Nobody likes pain, we all want to be pain free, and sooner or later we all lose that battle. Some will lose the battle to remain pain free sooner and others later, but we are all going to lose it - except for those who have a rare disorder that causes them to not feel pain. At first that might seem like a desirable thing, but if you consider that the inability to feel pain would leave you with no reason to take your hand off a hot burner you will soon come to see that it is actually dangerous to not feel pain.

I have noticed that there is a part of me that wants to understand where "this" pain is coming from when it flares, not so much because I believe such an understanding would change anything but rather because I am curious by nature. I also want to know if I have done anything to exacerbate my pain so that I can change my behavior. The problem is that when we reach a point in life where we are carrying multiple diagnoses there may be no single, easy answer to that question. What's more, I am not sure it really matters. As the Buddha famously said, when you find that you have been shot by a poison arrow the thing to do is not to ask a lot of questions about the origins of the arrow or the type of poison involved - the thing to do it to pull it out! In a similar way, it doesn't matter so much where the "pain arrow" came from, it matters that it is present.

I've read a lot about pain and chronic illness over the last twenty years. There are nearly as many suggestions about coping with chronic illness as there are people making suggestions. Some advocate the use of medication while others are critical of medication and advocate other interventions. In my more cynical moments I am fairly certain people in the latter group move to the former when they encounter chronic illness and pain for themselves! A while back I read about a man who believed he was such an advanced mediator that he didn't need anesthetic at the dentists office. Once the drilling started, he realized how wrong he was! Along with many other men, I bought into the notion that admitting pain was somehow less than masculine and needing medication was even worse. It's a harmful myth, because when we are in significant pain we don't respond in the best way to our family and friends. You can call me weak for taking medication when necessary, it's more important to me to be the kind of husband, father, and grandfather my family deserves.

I must confess there are many times when I cannot look at my pain dispassionately and wax philosophical about it. Tonight was one of those nights, though obviously the worst of it has now passed and I can at least write about it. You see, pain isn't just about pain. It's also about sleep deprivation and the consequences of the resulting fatigue such as concentration and memory problems as well as a reduced pain tolerance the next day due to fatigue. There are, of course, many more struggles that come with living with any chronic illness, but among my point in writing tonight is to say that chronic pain has been among my greatest spiritual teachers.

As I have written elsewhere, I was raised in an abusive and chaotic environment. Some of the consequences of that history included (in my younger days) being extremely guarded and needing to be sure I could physically protect myself in any situation. I became a tough person with a high pain tolerance because it wasn't acceptable in my family to be in either emotional of physical pain. It was fine to be ill, in fact in a bizarre way it was almost encouraged, but complaining about it was out of the question. Not surprisingly, shortly after graduating from high school I became involved in an abusive relationship. During that relationship I injured my back at work. That injury finally started my relationship with chronic pain and eventually led to back surgery twenty-five years later.

I met my wife Erin I was forty years old. By forty-five I was reaping the consequences of the good old, all American male, just rub dirt in your injuries lifestyle. One of my ankles and one of my shoulders were in very bad shape, eventually requiring surgery. Suddenly, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't take care of myself without help - especially in the aftermath of two surgeries. For a period I couldn't have gotten myself out of danger by any other means than crawling, and even that was problematic. What does somebody with my history do when they are confronted with the reality that they are no longer in physical control? I suppose that most people try denial for a while, but it really is short lived. Sooner or later you have to surrender and admit that not only are you not impervious to danger but there are times you cannot even meet the simplest of your own personal needs unassisted. For me, that was a huge growing experience - and each time I have been forced to say, "I can't," it has been another growing point in my life.

A few years later the wear and tear of life on that back injury finally caught up with me and my opportunities for growth multiplied right along with my pain levels. My ankle and shoulder surgeries turned out to be a training ground for the much more debilitating process that my back became. I found I couldn't walk more than thirty feet without sitting or squatting. I went though many, largely unnecessary, procedures and tests but the only thing that helped were moderately high does of pain medication. Pain medication doesn't stop degenerative processes, and in the end I had no choice but to have back surgery - something I had I would never to do. It was an excellent decision and turned out as well as anyone could hope such a surgery might. Even with the surgery, however, there are ongoing limitations that, for the most part, I have learned to accept. More importantly, they limitations have taught me something about myself. In western culture we are taught that our value comes exclusively from what we produce, and this value system causes big problems for a lot of people when they retire because their whole identity is tied up in their work. They quite literally don't know who they are when their working days are done.
One day not too long ago I realized that "I" don't feel any differently than I did thirty years ago. My body certainly does, but Craig still feels like the same old Craig he was at twenty-two. Chronic pain has shown me the truth that I am not my body. My body is the vehicle that carries me around, and there are days it feels like I bought this vehicle at a used car lot with a sign saying "home of the high mileage beauties" out front, but it's not me. Some people never learn that lesson, but I have been blessed to learn it well. Of course, the lessons haven't always been pleasant but nothing worth having comes without effort. When I see my friends spending hours at the gym trying to delay or reverse the onset of aging I feel sorry for them because they are engaged in an exercise (pardon the pun) in missing the point. Of course it's great to be healthy and it's great to be in shape, but time moves on relentlessly no matter how much iron we pump. From my vantage point I recognize they would be much happier spending half as much time in the gym and redirecting the other half of their gym time to personal and spiritual discovery around the aging process.

I would love to tell you that I am older, wiser, more insightful, and everything is wonderful all the time. That would be lying, however. The truth is that chronic pain and chronic illness wear on me just as they wear on anyone else. I have good days and bad days, though I am coming to understand them more as good periods and bad periods. Sometimes it is quite easy to cope with my challenges and they seem almost insignificant. Then there are periods like the one I have been going through recently when I have trouble getting comfortable no matter what I do and I can't concentrate well enough to do much of anything. These are the times when spiritual practice is very important, even though I may not be able to do much practice in the middle of these tough periods. My history of practice carries me through, offers insight, helps me to surrender and recognize that everything changes and so eventually a good period will begin. Where I believe people with chronic illness get into trouble is when they believe that their spiritual practice and insights should mean they don't have any struggles. As long as we have a body we are going to have periodic body problems. No amount of spiritual practice or insight exempts us from being human. What it can do is take the edges off the worst moments and offer hope. The other thing that can be quite helpful is sharing our stories in the hope that they might help others. I was encouraged today to receive a comment on an article I wrote about chronic pain and ego last January on my other blog at from a young woman with chronic pain issues herself. It has been my experience that my struggles take on meaning when I can offer them to others in similar situations. For that reason I am in the (perhaps odd) space where I wouldn't have anyone take away my struggles if they could. Perhaps that is the greatest spiritual lesson of all.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for sharing this very inspirational thought. And hopefully that chronic pain will :)
    spiritual insights