A week ago I mysteriously developed a muscle spasm/deep pain underneath my left shoulder blade. The pain is constant and varies from extreme to just noticeable. My first thought was, “OK cool, an opportunity to practice being mindful and maybe I’ll get an inspiring post out of it”. So far, after 6 days and no apparent consistent effective pain strategy, I’d like to stop practicing please.
My initial strategy (that is sometimes helpful) was to make the pain the focus of my attention. I put my attention on it and tried to notice how it changed, it’s quality, it’s intensity. But as the days went by I was becoming disillusioned and irritated. I started to think I was missing something. I went back and read a couple of chapters in a very good book called “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the pioneer who integrated mindfulness meditation techniques with science to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness.
The book’s invitation was to do a full body scan meditation. Today I did a truncated 25 minute version of the one explained in his book. The difference between what he suggested and what I was doing was that instead of just focusing on the pain, he instructs us to focus on ALL of the body, one part at a time. And if the pain distracts you, notice it and gently return to part you were focusing on originally. Of course if the pain is just too distracting, he suggests doing something else which I won’t go into here because that wasn’t my case.
The benefit of this strategy (focusing on the whole body instead of just the pain) was that it allowed me to see the whole picture of my body not just the pain. I saw that there were other parts that did not hurt, there were parts that were fatigued, there were parts being ignored. There were even parts that felt good.
But most importantly it allowed me to see clearly the thoughts and feelings I was having about the pain that, for some reason, wasn’t happening with my original strategy.
Here is a small sample of those thoughts and feelings…
- This pain, the way it is, how it comes and goes is unacceptable.
- Because I’m not easing the pain, I’m flawed as a mindfulness practitioner.
- I’m scared. What if this is permanent? What if I never gain control?
- I’m sad because I’ve been physically limited.
- Things are not going as planned and I’m angry about that.
- I really want relief. But is seeking relief not allowing experience? Aren’t I supposed to be allowing experience?
- I really don’t know what I’m doing.
These thoughts and feelings are not wrong in any way. They are normal and to be expected. But on some level they point to a fear and resistance I have about the pain. It’s really important to note that having resistance to what truly is happening will always cause an additional type suffering, the suffering of conflict.
I now clearly see in that focusing on just the pain, in this case, was not allowing me to see my resistance to it. Isn’t it interesting that you can focus completely on something and still miss the feelings about it? The mind is tricky sometimes.
This is why we practice relaxing, and observing with compassion. We want to see the whole picture, the pain, the feelings about the pain, the thoughts about the pain. We want to see the resistance. Because if we miss resistance or attachment, we miss this added dimension of conflict. And conflict causes extra pain.
Who likes pain? It hurts! But if it is in our experience, first we need to allow it. Only then can we respond to it with skill, and more importantly, with compassion.
By the way, I’m feeling less irritable since I realized I was trying to push away my pain. When it comes now I remind myself, “oh yeah, that’s how it is right now. I really don’t like it, it’s uncomfortable, it’s sometimes scary, but I will relax and allow it to be how it is. And I will act with loving kindness toward myself in this experience. At least for now, the added burden of conflict is dissipated.
I’ve linked to his youtube guided body scan that you can use at your leisure.