My body and I haven’t always gotten along. Eleven years ago I had surgery on my low back. The doc said I would be good as new in 6-8 weeks. It took a solid year, but I finally made a good recovery. Then, six years ago, I started having pain in my hands and arms. I went through a lot of specialists, ruling out everything from carpal tunnel to rheumatoid arthritis. I finally ended up with a spinal fusion at C5-C6. At six weeks post op, my surgeon pronounced me “cured” (his exact word) although I was still reporting significant pain and functional limitations. Long and unfortunately typical story, I’ve seen more specialists, had more tests, and of course, done the usual physical therapy and every other kind of therapy you can name. (I haven’t tried accupuncture yet, but I’m actually exploring that now.) I still have pain on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s a mild irritant; other times it’s so intense it makes me sick to my stomach. The main thing I hate about it is that the pain affects my ability to type and use the computer for long periods of time. I’m writing this post in short bursts, which really wrecks my concentration. (I’ve just gotten a voice activated dictation program; I’ve heard there’s a pretty big learning curve, but I’m hopeful). I’ve also found it difficult to travel. Somehow the vibration of the car seems to make the pain flair. But I did not want this to be a post about pain!
This is about Week 2 of the Sharon Salzberg’s meditation challenge based on her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. The purpose of the month is to give participants an overview of meditation. Week 1, which I wrote about here, was about breathing. This week was about mindfulness and the body. One of the exercises involved doing a body scan meditation and letting your awareness move from the breath to other parts of the body–head to toe somewhat in order. The instructions are to simply notice the sensations; no need to label them. It’s natural to try to hold on to sensations you find pleasurable, but you’re encouraged to notice them, but not cling to them. If you find sensations that are uncomfortable, you’re again encouraged to notice, without trying to make them go away. You can follow along with her on an audio version on her website. I tried doing this once, but actually found I did better moving at my own pace. Sharon also posted a really helpful post about working with pain that you can find here.
As I did last week, here are some of my observations from my practice sessions:
- I have a difficult time not putting things into words. I guess that makes sense with me being a writer. I kept wanting to silently talk to myself while I was doing the exercise. Sharon’s directions suggest trying to move beyond the level of words and just be at the sensation level. This will take a lot more practice for me.
- Since I was talking to myself, I made sure to be self-compassionate as I did. When I was feeling the sensations in my arm that were painful, I decided to talk sweetly to my arm. “You know arm, you do a lot for me. You basically work hard all day even though you don’t feel good. Thank you for that.”
- I’d read enough ahead in the book to know a few phrases to throw in. I told my arm I wanted it to be “free of suffering.”
- Somewhere (maybe in Sharon’s book) I’ve heard the phrases “soften” and “allow.” So I threw those words in liberally. I also tried to “make space” around the pain, and that actually seemed to help a bit.
- Sharon wrote in her post: “If there is a whole area that is painful, don’t try to take in the whole scope of it…see if you can find the most intense spot and pay attention to that. Notice if it changes – does it get more intense, less intense, stay the same?” I let myself explore the pain and see that it’s actually quite nuanced. I tend to just say, “My arm hurts,” but it’s much more rich and varied and complex than that. Then the thought popped into my mind, “My elbow doesn’t hurt. It actually feels quite divine.” I was excited about that. Wow! It’s not really my whole arm that hurts.
- Another point in her post I found really helpful was to see what we might be adding on to the pain – “future projection, a lifetime of hurt, self blame, etc.” I could write many posts about the “add-ons” I bring to my pain. Right now as I’m typing, I’m thinking: Am I doing too much? Am I going to hurt worse tomorrow? I’m being stupid. I should stop now. I don’t want to stop. This isn’t fair… The point is to be able to separate the “add-ons” from the actual experience so we know when it’s reasonable to listen to the thoughts and perhaps take some appropriate action, and when to say, “It’s just a thought.”
- And finally, at the end of week two, Sharon tweeted, “Let the breath lead the way.” As I found the body scan meditation challenging, and I found comfort in her message. All I really need to do is breathe.
By the way, I had no problem noticing the sensation of a 14 pound Bichon on my belly. Does anyone have any tips for dealing with needy, neurotic dogs?