I miss the pain in my toe. It was one of the most enlightening pains ever.
Walking fast at the library about a week ago, I failed to see a low-lying railing, tripped over it, and fell headlong. I was down for the count but rose after a while, asserting, to anybody polite enough to ask, that I was fine. I’m a guy, after all. This is what guys do. They break a major bone in the body and then get up and say, “I’m fine!”
Well, after a while, everything didn’t seem to be fine. Not my swollen shin, not my painful toe. When I finally got to Urgent Care, an X-ray confirmed that luckily there was nothing broken. A tetanus shot later, plus some cleaning up of the blood from the shin wound, and I was out of there and on my road to recovery… one slowly-taken step at a time.
Pain can be a very thorough teacher, let me tell you. Since the accident, I no longer jaywalk, because just like the little old ladies with their walkers, I need the entire cycle of a traffic light to cross the street. I also used to avoid the elevator at my building because I thought it was too slow. Now I take it, even if I can read the complete works of Shakespeare in what it takes to move along six floors. Before the accident, my mind drove my body; now my body drives my body.
I learned that if I walk s-l-o-w, I can move without triggering the pain in the toe. As a yoga teacher I can’t avoid thinking this is the perfect metaphor for expanding the range of what you can do physically: you practice often till you acclimate yourself to a higher level of functioning — without pushing yourself into pain.
I also learned that life is very different when it’s my body dictating its pace than when it’s my mind telling my body how fast it should move to conform with time and schedules. Mind-driven, I overschedule myself and then struggle to meet deadlines. Body-driven, I walk taller, I feel everything, I’m not stressed. I’ll get there when I get there. Yes, I’ll be late a few times, miss the bus a few other times, but so what? I wasn’t goofing off, I tell myself, so this is how long it takes to get where I am at the pace at which I can move.
This new pace is as though I had decided to add “quality of experience” to the first few items on my to-do list. If on a regular basis I only had those first few things to tackle, I’d be fine most days; but as soon as I get started doing them I either become overambitious or am reminded of more things that need to be tacked on. Adding “Have a relaxed time of it” to today’s goals bumps off the last few items, yes, but since no matter how much I accomplish, there are always more things to do, I might as well surrender my quest for Doing Everything in favor of Quality of Experience.
Now that Pain as a Guru is subsiding, I have to remember its lessons. A friend called me while I was at the hospital and we got cut off before I could tell her what had happened; absent a description, her mind rushed to the worst and she told me later that she thought maybe I’d had a heart attack. I’d like to think that what with yoga and a healthy lifestyle, I’m not a prime candidate for these, but just in case, I hope that Pain as a Guru (and its attendant, Quality of Experience) is helping to improve the odds.
The funny thing is, one of my students is an avid skier. I’d previously told him that I’d probably never ski because I felt the risk of an accident outweighs the fun of skiing. When I told him my story, he replied something to the effect of, “I don’t know. If I were you, I’d avoid libraries. They seem pretty risky to me.”