On my walk this morning I ran into a friend I had not seen for some time. She seemed to be walking well, but I knew she had foot surgery within the last year or so and I asked how she was doing. “It’s still challenging,” she said, “I still experience neuropathy, but I’ve learned what I can do. When I first get going it’s tough, but if I just give myself some time to warm up and let my muscles loosen, it’s manageable.” When I saw her she had been out walking for about 30 minutes and found that she was now moving well with little discomfort. She said, “I’m finding that I really can do pretty much anything I want to do as long as a take my time and have a little patience.”
That morning I had been feeling pretty stiff myself. In this blog I don’t talk about it much, but I’m still adapting to the changes brought about by cancer treatment in 2014. Chemo left me with several problems, among them neuropathies of my own. My feet and legs have changed. The brand of running shoes I wore for years no longer work for me. For the past two years I’ve been experimenting with different brands and models. I thought I had finally solved that problem, but this morning I found myself questioning that choice as well. New pains have begun to assail my legs and before I saw my friend it had occurred to me that I should probably begin the search for shoes again. My legs were feeling particularly achy. I even began to think about taking some ibuprofen, something I rarely do these days because of other issues that have developed following chemo.
After encountering my friend I thought, well maybe I’ll wait 20 minutes and see if I still have the pain. I am a total believer in her practice of moving through the discomfort for a while in hopes it will change. So I shortened my stride, slowed down a bit and within another 15 minutes or so the pain began to subside. When I left my house, I told myself that I would only walk a short distance today but I found that I was able to go much further than anticipated and stayed reasonably pain-free for most of it. There were occasional twinges, but if I distracted myself with the scenery, for example, I would realize that the sensation had passed by the time my attention returned to it.
The point of all of this is that sometimes we have to work through the pain. When we’re hurting all of our energy seems to focus like a laser beam on our misery. In a recent article in Tricycle magazine the author, Daisy Hernandez, who was suffering from her own encounter with chronic pain that defied diagnosis, referred to the teaching of the two arrows: “An arrow hits you and there’s pain. The second arrow is the story we tell ourselves about the first arrow. I’m a loser. This always happens to me. Why me?” She goes on to say, “The thing about illness is that in addition to its being a series of impermanent and heightened sensations, it is a story that contains many stories.” We can easily become obsessed with our misfortunes and let them take over our lives. You might have noticed the reference to illness as “impermanent sensations”. Surprisingly, even in the case of chronic illnesses, the sensations never stay the same. They come and go, morph and change – just like everything else in life. Sometimes we even make friends with these sensations, even cling to them. They become such a part of us that letting them go means we just might cease to exist. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice that nothing stays the same.
It may be that even when the pain changes, it might not completely go away, especially when the source is unknown. We may have no control over how it manifests. But we create the stories ourselves. So we also have the power to change them. In her piece Ms. Hernandez quotes another author, David Loy: “As David Loy writes in his enchanting book The World Is Made of Stories: ‘To see stories as the problem is to blame the victim. Instead of getting rid of stories one can liberate them: storying more flexibly, according to the situation.’ ” This sentiment is echoed in an article by Valerie Sjoberg on the Chopra Center’s website. She writes about “rebuilding your story of pain” turning it around into something positive. That might seem like a tall order. But it’s one more opportunity for practice. The practice Ms. Sjoberg suggests: “Catch any negative thought tendencies and choose to spin your experience of pain into a positive story. A positive outlook can help reduce unnecessary suffering and may even provide space for your body to heal.” Yup – easier said than done. But it can’t hurt to try it out. If it doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up. Keep trying. That’s what practice means.
Back to my walk today. So many of us are daunted by the obstacles of illness and pain. We think, “I can’t do the things I want to do because it hurts too much and I feel too lousy.” However, just as my friend related sometimes you just have to work through the pain to get past it. It may seem impossible at first but if you keep trying you just might find that your pain begins to change and maybe you can get a little bit further than you were able to yesterday or last week. This is a perfect time of year for this type of practice. Look around and notice the angle of the sun and the color of the leaves. Today I walked by a field where the haying has begun. I watched the machines piling up the grass and then pulling it together to make a bale. Breathing in the smell of freshly mowed grass it was hard to remember that I wasn’t feeling all that great. That’s a good place to start if you want to spin a new story. Watch the birds. Listen to their songs. There is still much beauty to observe in the world. If you spend your time focussing on your own suffering you’ll miss it.
And if walking outside is not your thing, you can always take a class and bring your movement indoors. The same concepts still apply: warm up slowly and be gentle and compassionate with yourself. That’s right – treat yourself with the same compassion that you often reserve for others. Illness and pain can be isolating. We tend to feel like we are alone with our suffering. We wrap ourselves in a blanket of self-pity. But this makes me think of the famous saying “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Everybody has problems. No one is exempt. As Ms. Sjoberg writes: “Developing compassion doesn’t just apply to yourself—it can extend to your interaction with others. Everyone is experiencing their own suffering. Give them some love. It may help them in their healing, too.”
Bottom line: get moving! You can do it. Take it slow. But you are more than your pain, whatever it is. Allow the rest of you to shine through.