Coping with Chronic Pain
by Diane Linsley
Some time ago, I ran into my old jaw doctor. It had been many
years since the last time I had seen him. At the end of our brief
conversation, he said, "I'm happy to see you smiling." I don't think
he'd ever seen me smile before.
I've had chronic pain for 35 years, ever since a boy in junior high
broke my jaw. The first few years weren't too bad. But as I got older,
the joints began to deteriorate. Eventually, I was sent to one of the
top jaw specialists in the country. He tried everything, including
two major surgeries. But there was no cure.
The doctor told me I was the fifth worst case he'd seen in the state
of Utah, and he was surprised I could function at all, considering
how bad my x-rays looked. I suspect that he uses my case as an
example when he gives lectures at TMJ conferences.
Most people can't imagine what it's like to live in constant pain.
Sadly, some people with chronic pain end up committing suicide or turning to addictive drugs in an effort to escape. Often, they become so deeply depressed and negative about life that nobody can stand to be around them.
Living with Chronic Pain
Bill Harris tells the story of an Indian mystic who was dying of throat cancer. In spite of the intense pain, he lived in a state of blissful peace and joy. As his pain increased, his joy also increased. His students asked him, "Are you in pain?" He replied that he was, but it didn't stop him from feeling joy.
When I first heard this story, I hated it. It sounded to me like a lot of sappy baloney. It challenged everything I believed in and everything I had experienced up to that point in my life. But I couldn't stop thinking about it. That was before I went through my own spiritual awakening.
Since then, I have learned that pain is not the same as suffering. Suffering is what happens when you project your pain into the future. Pain in the Now is simple pain. It can hurt a lot. It can be debilitating. It can prevent you from doing things that you want to do. But it is just simple pain.
When you project pain into the future, you think about all the things that you will never be able to do because of your condition. You think, "Why did God do this to me? Haven't I suffered enough already? He must be punishing me for something I did wrong. I'm a wicked person. I don't deserve to live a normal, happy life like everyone else." These thoughts go around and around in your mind, growing larger every day, driving you to despair.
Your only escape is in the deepest stage of sleep. Even your dreams are full of monsters and bad guys. Waking up in the morning feels like being dragged back into hell. Your friends abandon you because you're not fun anymore. Your family tip-toes around you, afraid to say or do anything that might upset you. Yes, I know all about this agony because I lived like that for fifteen years.
Spiritual Answers for Chronic Pain
So why am I happy today? Did I find a cure? Is it a new drug or supplement? A new form of physical therapy? A new surgical procedure? Sorry, I've tried all of those things. I still do my old physical therapy exercises. I still take 12 grams of MSM every day, plus Wobenzyme, boswellia, collagen and turmeric to control the inflammation. All of these things help, but they are not a cure.
The reason I can smile now is because I have learned what the mystics know - that I can cope with anything that arises in the Now. Pain only turns into suffering when I project it into the future. When I think about living with pain for another 30 years, it turns into unbearable agony. Jesus said, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." That means that you have enough to deal with in the present moment. Don't try to live your whole life in one day.
Well, this is very good advice. So you try to be in the Now with your pain. But it still hurts like crazy. And you think, "Am I supposed to spend the rest of my life living in the Now with my pain?!"
This is a paradox. Life is full of paradoxes. In Zen training, teachers give students paradoxes in order to reveal the ego. The ego consists of your false ideas about who you are and the way things "should be."
After two years of doing Holosync meditation and reading philosophy books, I began to see the paradox that I was stuck in. My problem was that I had false expectations, perfectionism, and limiting beliefs. I thought that a person could only be happy if they got what they wanted. I had been raised to believe that if I was a good girl, God would bless me, and I wouldn't have to suffer. And, believe me, I was a very good girl.
You might recall this story from the Bible: A man comes to Jesus and says, "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" Jesus replies, "Thou knowest the commandments." Then he reviews them with him. The man says, "All these have I observed from my youth." Jesus answers, "Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor....and come, take up the cross, and follow me." [St Mark 10: 17-21] Where exactly did Jesus go? He went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Then he went to the cross.
In this story, the man couldn't give up his wealth. But this isn't a story about giving away your possessions. It's a story about giving up the ego. It is much harder to give up your mental stuff than your physical stuff. We are all very attached to our mental projections. The young man was attached to his self-concept of being a righteous person - much like my idea that my pain shouldn't be happening because I didn't deserve it.
We create suffering by resisting what is. Sometimes you can change your situation, and sometimes you can't. When you stop resisting what is, it still exists. But it's just what is, without being magnified by the thinking, worrying, projecting mind. Eckhart Tolle says, "Suffering is necessary until you realize it is not necessary."
Lessons from Chronic Pain
These days, most people can't tell that I'm in pain. I don't look like a person who is in pain. And I don't talk about it, except when it is necessary. I don't even think about it. I only notice it when it is unusually intense. Then I ask myself if there is something I need to do to lessen the pain. Did I forget to take my MSM? Do I need to lay down and rest for a while? If there's nothing I need to do to care for my body, then I focus on something else.
Chronic pain is a common experience for the elderly, but what if it happens early in life? Such experiences separate you from your peers. Nobody understands what you are going through, and you have a horrible feeling that God has singled you out for suffering. It's very hard to cope with. But it forces you into higher levels of development as you continually seek for solutions to your problems.
If there is any compensation for suffering, it is this: Suffering forces you to keep seeking. Eventually, your increased awareness culminates in a deep compassion for all people, along with increased self-acceptance and peace of mind. This process takes many years, but research shows that meditation can speed up the growth process.
Compassion and Chronic Pain
One of my favorite books is Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber. Ken describes the experiences of his wife, Treya Wilber, who died of breast cancer at age 42. I greatly appreciate the meaning that Ken put on the experience. He not only describes suffering in a deeply personal way, but he also explains how it pushed them both into higher levels of awareness and compassion.
In spite of my new understanding, there are still some days when I curse my pain and think to myself, "To hell with compassion! I would give up all this personal growth if I could only live a normal life."
As I've gotten older, I've begun to realize that there is no escape from pain. And it's not just physical. When I first became a spiritual seeker, I was motivated by the idea that I would eventually find a solution to my pain - even if it was just a new way of understanding it. Now I know that spiritual growth itself results in a type of pain that I never before imagined.
This is the pain of acute awareness and great compassion. Highly evolved people do not experience less pain than others. They actually experience more. But their capacity to handle pain and tranform it into joy increases as they evolve. Pain is fuel for the fire.
Coming back to the practical level, there is no reason to suffer unnecessarily when there are other options. As a life coach, I help people to deal with all sorts of painful problems, including health, relationships, and other issues. I try to take a balanced approach with both practical things you can do, along with spiritual concepts and practices that can help you cope.
I would not be able to help other people if I had not gone through so much suffering myself, which forced me to seek for answers. Personal experience is the groundwork that needed to be laid before I could be an effective coach.
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