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Partnering with Pain and Enduring Issues

“Enjoy the life that shows up in the making space for healing.” (Dawna Furfaro-Strode, L.AC)

When we are in pain, or unwell, either in the short term or the longer term, how can we dance with this

state of our body and mind as a partner in our life rather than in a daily battle that puts us into distress? If a beloved child, or spouse or grandparent has a bad day, don’t we bring them a cup of hot tea and reassure them that it is ok “just take it easy today.” So why do we withhold this same loving kindness with ourselves and not give ourselves the space we need to heal? Or, even sometimes even when we do give ourselves the space to slow down and heal, it can be a challenge to handle pain, discomfort and uncertainty we may be feeling.

Sometimes we have to make peace in our heart to walk with our condition and ebb and flow with it like with a dance partner. Some days will be better and we can lead and twirl around the floor. Other days are worse and our partner struggles and we must be kind to ourselves.

Below are questions from me to Acupuncturist, Dawna Furfaro-Strode, L.AC about how we can partner with our pains. Dawna had chronic pain for many years and treats patients with both chronic and acute pain. As part of treatment, she often works with patients to transform their language around and relationship with pain to create more possibilities for healing. Below, she offers some wisdom from her experience. She posits that what we say about our bodies and the “bodied-ness of being” can either put us at war with or at one with ourselves.

Jan: We’ve been conditioned to use diagnostic descriptions of our conditions. For example, I have osteoporosis and a lifelong sacroiliac dysfunction and sometimes my low back lays me out flat. I am just beginning to understand this idea of not labeling myself a condition and yet I still find it a challenge in how to think about what I experience.

Dawna: It is natural to want to know why we're suffering, to want a label to clarify what's going. But there are drawbacks to thinking of ourselves as having a particular condition. If I have a “condition,” I immediately get tight in my body and go "UH OH!" and think there must be something to fix. "Eek, a condition! I'm stuck with it!" And I literally get stuck because I have gone tight and contracted in my body in response to a label put on what I'm experiencing. If I have some pain in my back and someone tells me I have spinal arthritis and I agree to accept that, I'm automatically in a conversation that I am limited by whatever that doctor/expert /specialist can tell me about spinal arthritis. I then have relegated my authority over what I experience to someone who can tell me how it is; what is possible and impossible, how to navigate it, and so on. And there might be times when a label is helpful, when having that kind of information is useful. But not when it keeps me from being present to what I'm experiencing, and to being open to the inherent wisdom of my body. It may be that back pain is my wise body's way of saying, "slow down, you're working too hard!" If I put a label on it, a diagnosis, I lose my curiosity and quickly am in a conversation where I'm trying to fix it. I don't want to have spinal arthritis! That sounds awful. But some sensations arising in my back are actually pointing me to wisdom or new possibilities for being-- that I can breathe into more easily!

So, often, I forgo the label and use pain as a call to pay attention, to see what I notice when I'm really present to my body. There is much to learn from our bodies. I often call pain and symptoms "embodied squawks." My body is talking to me in this language of squawking-- calling for my attention. And then I can stay curious and in awe, and see what I can learn from my body. It may be asking me to do life totally differently than my usual habits. If I focus all my energy on the label and trying to fix my problem, I can miss what may be simply a call to go slower, to breathe more deeply, get a little more sleep, to move my body instead of sitting at a desk; there are so many possibilities for what might be called for. When I let go of the label, there's more room for me to have an observer, to notice what's going on in my body and make choices based on what I experience. This doesn't mean I don't take care of myself, but rather, I do it from having an intimate sense of what my body is asking for rather than what someone (who does not live inside my body) tells me to do. I am empowered in my own healing, and I am more awake to my actual experience, moment by moment by moment.

The other piece is that it's really easy to be in a war with my body if I subscribe to a label that indicates I have a problem to solve. I generally avoid using diagnostic language to describe my body because it's too easy to fight with a herniated disc, or ankylosing spondylitis, and to think of it as an IS, a static thing, a conclusion. "This is how it is. I have this disease. Oh shoot. How can I fix it?" I am in opposition to myself and to a thing that I cannot be sure actually exists. When I stick to what I observe, the actual phenomena occurring, I can learn how to take care of my body, to do the things that will help it heal from a place of knowing from the inside out. Because my knowing arises from my actual experience. My body is wise. It knows how to be well! When I listen to it fully (by closely observing my symptoms and squawks and moments of ease), I can learn how to take care of it from lived experience. This takes curiosity and a willingness to be a learner.

Jan: I love the idea of approaching our experience with curiosity. And yet, as I sit here with cramping in my low back that seers through my abdomen, I’m struggling with how I look upon that with curiosity.

Dawna: It can be so hard to do this in the moment of pain! And it's okay not to do that if it's too much. But if we can let the sensations simply arise without adding any story or fight to it, our pain becomes less, we become more spacious, and can bear what is showing up with more ease. If each squawk, sensation, painful bit is simply a sensation arising, then it can be more like a wave on the ocean, coming and going, rising and falling, and we can ask into what possibility life might be calling us to that we would otherwise have missed. For me, I had never learned to go slowly in life until I had very intense back pain. I lived hard and fast and very intensely; I had no concept of slowness, stillness, simply being. I didn't know how to fall asleep at night. I didn't know I could move at a different pace. I had no concept of moderation. Once my body became a wisdom teacher, I could ask questions like "What is the pain calling me to?" "What in my life am ignoring?" "How might I do life differently in light of these body squawks?" And so often for me it was a call to slow down, to turn inward, to cultivate stillness and wisdom and rest. These are things I never would have bothered with if my body did not insist so strongly! And they have truly been life changing. Simple things, so simple, like breathing deeply. Like taking breaks. Spending more time in nature. Meditation. Being in the water. These are my medicines now. It's a huge, huge difference from where I was before. I hardly knew I had a body until it was filled with pain.

Jan: How do we keep from becoming fearful or despondent about chronic issues and pain?

Dawna: I practice taking the pain moment by moment, and, even when I'm tempted to, I avoid using the term “chronic pain” to describe the sensations occurring in my body. Because it's possible to sentence ourselves to pain by calling it chronic. If we think our pain is chronic, that it may never go away, it's so hard to open to healing from that thought. Even if we desperately want to heal, when we call pain chronic, we actually make it harder to do so. We tighten against inevitable suffering and it is so hard to relax enough to really let ourselves heal.

I had the experience of having pain very often (some would say chronically, and I used to, too!) for seventeen years. And then I didn't have pain for many months, or, I didn't have the same kind of pain and out was like a miracle because I had a body I had forgotten was possible. There were so many ways I could move and exist that had not been possible for half of my life. It was wonderful! And then, one day, I felt the old kind of pain again. I got so scared, thinking it was back. But some part of me knew better than to believe that and so I told myself, very clearly and gently-- "This is temporary. It'll pass in a few days." And it did. And that happened a few more times and each time I responded in the same way and the pain came and went. And I started to get the idea that if I just relaxed around pain, and let my body simply be with it, without adding my fears and projections into the future, that I could let pain move through me. And I think sometimes we "hold onto" pain by what we say about it. We get afraid or we call it chronic, and we tighten around it, and it's hard to let it go. Physically, we sort of keep the pain locked in by tensing against it. At least, this is my experience. So, when I have pain now, I do my best to take care of myself in whatever way wisdom dictates, and I relax as much as I can about it. This is not so easy. It's a practice, really. But the stories I tell about my pain or symptoms (to myself, to the world) really impact whether I am fighting against or hanging out with my bodied experience.

Another way to say this is that we take many moments of pain, lived over time, and call it chronic pain. And, really, these are simply moments of pain.... Sensation... Different sensations, arising, changing. Even fixed pain has some subtle movement to it. Every moment is not the same. These are sensations arising, like waves arising, waves disappearing. And when we make it a thing-- "chronic pain" or "herniated disc"-- there's less room to see the waves come and go, to allow them to come and go. Instead, we create a static thing out of what is inherently moving and flowing. And we tighten our body against this thing that we don't like, and it's harder to let go, to heal, to simply be in life, present moment by moment by moment. We tie up our energy in trying to make it better, solve it, fix it, fix ourselves. We're trying to escape this awful thing THAT MAY NEVER END. This chronic pain. And it's so painful. We add pain on top of pain by fighting what we're feeling, by thinking something is wrong, or broken, or will last forever.

We are nature. We are movement. We would never expect nature to be the same way all the time. We don't expect every day to be sunny days fight against every rainy day, cloudy day, snowy day, windy day. We don't try to fix them. It's just how it is. Rainy. Cloudy. The sun will come again. There's nothing to solve. Our bodies are not so different. We are moving and flowing and changing all the time. And we are sunny, cloudy, windy, rainy, in cycles. And maybe sometimes we get a little stuck, our bodies get stuck and throw up some flares of pain to get our attention. And we can learn from the flares or ignore them until they become raging fires.... And we often ignore the flares completely and push through and work harder, or take a few pills, drink an extra espresso and press on... Because no one ever said, "Hey, your body is wise. When it hurts, give a closer listen. It might be teaching you how to live your life more wisely, more fully!" Most of us, especially in the West, don't know how to really slow down and go quiet. We have forgotten how to breathe deeply. We are doing life at high speed. We are productive. We are getting things done! But nature doesn't work on one speed. There are cycles and seasons and times to work and times to rest. Our symptoms may be helping us to line up with these cycles, for we are nature too!

Jan: As I sought to slow down over the weekend, I realized that this also entailed a dance with my partner and my family. And I realized that some of my pushing to keep “doing” was a hesitancy to ask for help and a feeling of shame and guilt for being weak. How do we embrace these feelings and also our families in this dance as they may experience their own sense of loss?

Dawna: I like to think that our bodies are helping us to heal these old stories of shame and guilt, and of having limitations that mean we are inherently weak. If we're willing to do the work, to pay attention to these stories and the self-talk we engage in when we are hurting or have to change our plans because of our bodies, I think these can be times of great healing. For myself, so much of my self-worth is tied up in what I can DO for others. And when I am having bodied pain that calls for rest, I hit an edge in myself where, if I look deeply, I can see that I am afraid of being worthless because I'm not doing as much. And what I do is practice noticing and bringing compassion to that fearful part. This can be a path to healing those beliefs that no longer serve us. Psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach has a beautiful process called RAIN that I find invaluable in working with the feelings that come up around being bodied, or any feelings, really!

Jan: So really, we need to listen carefully to what our body/mind tells us and gently heed those messages despite an inner feisty spirit clamoring ”let’s go out and do stuff!” Another aspect of what you are saying is that our story about our “sensations“ effects our relationship to it. Tara Brach also suggests that suffering actually comes from how we think about our pain rather than the pain itself. So, when my foot twinges I can have a panic attack that my bones are crumbling and I am losing the battle, or I can say “oh, my foot is twinging, I wonder what I’ve been doing or need to do to tend it.”

Dawna: Yes, exactly! Right now, this bit of a painful patch I'm experiencing I call my time of transformation. I am an acorn becoming an oak tree. Sometimes it hurts to break open. And it's totally worth it to stand in my full majesty as a great oak. So I can find peace in this painful patch by holding it that way. Is it true? Who knows? Does it help me stay peaceful and open and easy as I let my body heal? Yes! Is it bigger than the conversation "spinal arthritis"? You betcha. ;)

Jan: Many thanks Dawna for your help on reframing on this inner conversation we have with ourselves and the possibility for thinking and being with it differently!

Following are a few practices for partnering differently (and it does take practice!)

Suggested Practices:

  1. Letting Go: How to make the shift is a daily practice of accepting what is and letting go of other expectations (also see Tara Brach’s “RAIN”). When your body/mind calls you to slow down or change direction, try using the re-framing suggested by Dawna to “enjoy the life that shows up in the making space for healing.” Maybe today, I need to allow myself to sleep in and forgo a walk. I might do sitting qi gong. Perhaps I will read a book or chat with a friend. Maybe, just maybe I’ll allow myself a wonderful nap! This is a moment, an opportunity to insert space for healing instead of zooming around packing more things into the day. Maybe it means getting a baby sitter so you can take the necessary few minutes breathe in slowly over a cup of tea, or meditate, or watch the a sunset, or children play in the park. How can you insert space for your healing? If pain or discomfort arises some of the mindfulness approaches below might help.

  2. Meditation on Releasing Pain: Dawna suggests that when you have pain, or pressure, or discomfort, try a meditation where you open a faucet at the bottom of wherever your pain is to and imagine the pressure flowing out and easing the pressure. Remember to close the “faucet” when you are done! You can put the faucet anywhere you want it to be... We can move energy with our minds pretty amazingly, so it could be a fun experiment! (For what neuroscience is learning about the power of the brain and meditation see here).

Other Resources: A wonderful talk by Buddhist, Psychologist Tara Brach is here on the Dance with Pain. Dawna also suggests Dianne Connelly’s book All Sickness is Homesickness which she says woke her up to the “possibility that all our symptoms are calling us home to our biggest selves, to healing of our whole being.”

Sometimes we need to make peace in our heart to walk with our condition and ebb and flow with it like with a dance partner. Some days will be better and we can lead and twirl around the floor. Other days are worse and our partner struggles and we must be kind to ourselves.

It matters that you care. It matters that you feel. It matters that you notice. It matters that life lives through you…

Look, Feel, let life take you By the hand. Let life live through you.

(see the entire beautiful poem here)

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