Solving the Unsolveable: 4 Steps in a Path to Healing & Preventing Chronic Pain

Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you – all of the expectations, all of the beliefs – and becoming who you are.

– Rachel Naomi Remen

Over the last 30 years I have gradually gotten myself into the business of chronic pain.  I developed this niche not by claiming it but, rather, through following my interests and passion for all teachings and related to the mind-body connection.  I first studied Psychology, and then Yoga, followed by Ayurveda, Meditation, Mindfulness and Buddhism.  Every path led to the same place with different words. While I was developing my own model of approaching my patient’s complaints from what we used to refer to collectively as a “holistic” or “alternative” point of view, the scientific theory of pain was evolving as well.  Currently, there is substantial evidence to prove that pain is not simply a physical or neurological reaction to a stimulus, but a process  involving an individual’s culture, their environment, their past and present experience and their perception along with the original stimulus.

All pain, acute or chronic, is real but not all pain is true in a mathematical sense (a + b ≠ c).  In recognizing this, we can let go of the need to find a solution to the problem.  In fact, these efforts to determine the how and why and whose to blame often create a self-perpetuating pain cycle and impede the natural processes of healing.  Below I offer you 4 steps to help you move through acute pain directly (without initiating the cycle) or to free you from the grip of the chronic pain cycle.  I believe these steps to be effective in most to all cases however the amount of time to progress through the steps is highly variable.  In the case of acute pain, you may move through these steps in a matter of hours; in cases of chronic pain, it may take weeks, months or years.

  1.  Release Ownership:  stop referring to the discomfort you feel as “my pain” or, especially “my painful…injured…weak…bad…etc. body part”.  This is the most important first step to releasing the assigning of blame and responsibility for a solution.  In the truest sense, claiming pain as your own will ensure that the burden is yours to carry.  Attaching a negative adjective to body part will give your pain a home.  In truth, pain is dynamic and changing and healing is systemic.
  2. See it for what it is:  The word pain is so loaded.  What is “pain” and how is it perceived in the body?  “Pain” is the mental recognition of a negative sensation.  What would happen if you remove this word from your vocabulary?  Describe your sensation in every way you can, other than the word “pain”.  Give it a size, a shape, a pulse, a movement, a temperature, a weight, a texture, a taste, a smell, etc.  Next, describe another place of your choice in the body (maybe the opposite side, left/right, front/back).  Finally, check in with your the original place once again and note any changes in the sensation.  Even if the discomfort has intensified, you will recognize that your discomfort is not static or intractable.  This practice can take the form of a Body Scan or Body Sensing Meditation if you like.
  3. Accept It / Neutralize It.  This is usually the most difficult step and it may take time.  You don’t have to be happy about the presence of discomfort and irritability in your body, but you don’t have to run away from it either.  As you begin to describe the pain for what it is, you will begin to notice the hold it has on you and your life.    It may be the lack of control, the frustration of not knowing what is happening to your body, the inability to continue the activities which make you fuel your passion for life, the feeling of being “less than” or the guilt of not being able to fulfill your responsibilities.  On the other hand, you may recognize that you are somewhat attached to this presence.  It brings you love, nurturing and attention, it gets you out of doing things you don’t enjoy or that take up your time.  With persistent pain, there is often the relative comfort of living with pain compared to the fear of starting over without it.  When you begin to ask yourself, what can I accept and “what am I afraid to feel?”, you give yourself permission to feel the sensation or the emotion  (for more on this, see Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach).  In feeling the sensation or the emotion directly without negative connotations, resistance, or aversion, you free this connection in the cycle of pain.
  4. Take Positive Action with Compassion:  When you make it to this last step, you have so many options to move forward.  You are no longer trying to solve the problem, you are simply moving forward regardless of the condition in whatever way you feel safe and ready with a gentleness towards yourself and your body.  In the case of acute pain, you have the detachment to treat the condition directly and appropriately for what it is – you have described the sensations and you know which you will tolerate and which you will not.  In cases of persistent pain, the options include, but are not limited to: meditation, yoga, physical therapy, psychotherapy, nutritional support, medication.    Describe a “positive” version of yourself, one that you can remember with all your senses,  (“I am…”), and move slowly and steadily towards it with each breath and each decision.

Please feel free to comment on  your experience with pain or your path to recovery, to inquire for more resources or guidance, or to find out how to book a session with Melissa at Discover Yoga & Physical Therapy.

A Full Moon Ritual: Making Room for the Freedom to Choose Something Different

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This Saturday a full moon will rise in a (very likely) clear North Carolina sky.  Lately, I have been working with how to “let go” of habits which no longer serve me and working with the intention “In this moment, I choose health”.  I have learned a lot about my so-called “triggers” and I can spot the moment of choice almost without fail.  Unfortunately, I have not yet found my way to consistently choosing something different.  Honestly, I usually choose the bad habit time and time again (In fact, as I write this blog I am finishing my glass of wine).  Many people believe that the arrival of the full moon brings a power and an opportunity to “let go” of anything which does not serve your intention.  So, I am choosing to invoke that power to explore and share with you what I have learned.

We can recognize a habit as bad and even forecast a situation that will almost always lead to exhibiting an unwanted behavior but still not feel free to choose something different.  This is what it means to be “hooked” and it happens to the best of us.  This week I learned that much of the problem lies in the dialogue we have with ourselves after the trigger.  You know the one – “I know….but, in this case…” or, “if it weren’t for this person (or this situation) I could definitely have made the right choice” or, worse yet, “I cannot believe I am going to do this again – what kind of awful person must I be…when will I ever learn?”  This dialogue, whether it is with yourself or with others, is the fuel for the fire of habit.  What would happen if we just decided to let go of the “I know but” and the self-loathing, to just stop and feel the desire creep up and accept that it is uncomfortable and difficult.  We could just quietly listen to the other person slander us or something we care about and not react but, instead, feel the tension build, notice the physical location and the intensity of this stress and then recognize that it is all temporary and irrelevant.  Pema Chodron says that when we do this we open ourselves to a “positive groundlessness” – a state of uncomfortable and ungrounded freedom where we can then make a different choice.  As we repeat this process day after day, we create new, positive, intentional habits.  This appears to me to be the missing link in all the self-help lessons I have learned and practiced before.  If this is true,  recognizing what habits are not serving you is not nearly enough. Nor is it much more productive to focus on your intended, or more positive choices and habits. We need to “let go” of the need to justify, to blame, to rationalize, to equalize, to control or, engage with even the thought of the behavior and, then experience what that detachment feels like.  Too often we feel the need to take a firm hold in something we believe in thinking that this will provide the footing we need to take the leap into what we truly want to happen.  Chodron’s theory is quite different.  I believe she is saying that if we grasp too strongly to any belief (positive or negative), we may be a little too comfortable there to make a solid leap for change.  But if we allow ourselves to just experience what it feels like to be a “hooked” human being with an overactive brain and conflicting desires we will be free to move, change and evolve without constraint and without the holds that bring us back time and time again.

So, as you look up into the sky, and see the full moon rising this weekend, acknowledge what no longer serves you and, then, label all the reasons you feel it it isn’t right for you and all the reasons it is still comfortable for you and all the barriers you have to changing your behavior.  Finally, choose to let go of all of these thoughts and prepare yourself to be drawn in by the moon’s gradual waning into a positive state of groundlessness and, subsequently, a gradual return to the power of fullness.