I returned home to Hawaii from traveling in Spain, with three-day stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco on either end. I spent nearly 40 hours in airplane seats and 16 nights in strange beds on bad pillows.
After I got back into my own bed, I became aware of a mild pain deep on the left side of my neck.
As days passed, the pain rose in my consciousness. After about a week, I could not turn my head to the side or lift my chin without a stabbing pain radiating into my left shoulder and down my arm. I had slept wrong on my neck before and had suffered intense pain for a week or two. I waited to see if my condition would improve.
When I finally went to the doctor, he examined me, pulling my arms and testing my strength. I left with a prescription for a muscle relaxant. The X-ray the doctor ordered revealed that I had degenerative disc disease.
A chiropractor told me that the most likely scenario was that I twisted my neck on my trip and put my cervical spine out of alignment. Calcium deposits around my discs are now pinching my nerve.
Now that the pain is my constant companion, I have begun to explore the relationship. I notice that it ebbs and flows. Some of the time, it lets me be. But if I move a certain way, I get a piercing reminder. The pain sends unsolicited pins and needles flowing down my left arm, as if a ball of barbed wire is tumbling from my elbow to my fingers. The tip of my left index finger is numb.
At moments, I probe the pain. When I can’t find a position for sleeping, I stay with the discomfort before I change sides. Trying to reach my toes in the shower, I stretch a little farther to feel the pinch. Lying on my back in yoga, I turn my head to taste the pain from its very center.
I am not a masochist. Now that it is mine, I want to become intimate with the physical pain. I want to know its texture, its taste. I have avoided painkillers, which I know would change the relationship and create a different dynamic.
The longer I live with the pain, the more I see my relationship with it changing. Similar to Emily Dickinson’s perceptions about growing accustomed to the dark, I find that either the nature of pain changes or the way I see it alters. My pain changes as the physiology of my body adjusts and compensates, both on its own and through chiropractic treatment and massage therapy. My attitude shifts as I see the pain as a part of me.
In that moment, I accept it because I choose to.
We all have a choice. We can choose to avoid the pain. I agree with Pema Chödrön: When we put all our energy into protecting ourselves, we build armor that imprisons the softness of our hearts. Conversely, practicing mindfulness around our experience with pain softens our hearts.
With our mindfulness practice, we do the best we can. We might start slowly, easing in. We are gentle with ourselves. We are committed to opening our lives and our hearts.
We choose to embrace our pain. It seems contradictory and counterintuitive—pain is the enemy, right? All our systems work to avoid pain. To protect my impinged nerve, the muscles in my back clenched en masse.
Yet the deeper we go with it, the more tempering and liberating we find the fire of pain. It strengthens without hardening or breaking us. We find that we are vulnerable. We surrender. Our hearts soften. Our intimacy with our pain makes us more tender, more tolerant and more accepting.
Staying at the center of our pain, as a practice, shows us all the self-concern that we carry. We see the endless strategies that we employ to make ourselves feel comfortable. In the practice of mindfulness, we might watch our thoughts about the way that life is supposed to treat us and how our bodies are supposed to serve us (or at least how they’re supposed to leave us alone).
In being mindful, we can stop spending our time and energy vilifying, denying and avoiding our pain. We don’t need to dig a hole to hide in.
We present ourselves. We approach our pain and even ally with it. Inside the fire, we might feel strangely grateful and glad to be alive.
Author: Richard Gentei Diedrichs
Editor: Callie Rushton