Tag Archives: pain

Magic, illness and discipline

Most forms of magical and spiritual practice depend to some degree on concentration. It is feasible to do contemplative meditation when you can’t concentrate – by having an object that you return your thoughts to, for example. It is feasible to undertake prayer or ritual with an unfocused mind, but it is probably less effective.

Spell based magic is all about your will. There’s nothing like pain or illness to reduce the power of your will, and to make that kind of focused intensity difficult to maintain. All of us will go through times when we don’t have what it takes to act magically. Some of us will be like that most of the time. So, what do you do if you want magic in your life, but can’t rely on having the attention span, the concentration, the focus or the willpower to work it?

Aim small. Ignore the useless advice that if you can’t meditate for half an hour you should meditate for an hour. Better to have five minutes of quality engagement than a longer stretch full of frustration and misery. Look for acts of magic and spirituality that operate on a scale you can handle. Look for ways of working that allow you to come back regularly and do a small thing. Don’t tie yourself to fixed times because you might not have the clarity at those times. Work when you can.

People who are hale and hearty can be very comfortable telling people who aren’t to try harder. If you are ill, the limits of what you can do are often a simple fact. Trying to push for more can often result in a backlash that lets you do even less. Only you can judge this. Experiment on your own terms and don’t feel pressured into doing things the way other people think you should.

Look for opportunities for magical experience and transformation rather than acts of deliberate change. Being in a ritual can be transformative. So can sitting out with access to trees and birds or water or sky. Having an altar and spending some time with it can make room for things to come in. So can creativity.

Pain and illness can make it hard to think that good things of any shape can happen. The longer it goes on, the more it can lock you down and make you feel limited. Looking for small moments of beauty and wonder can be a way to offset this a little. Sometimes there are blessing amongst the miseries. There don’t have to be, and it isn’t your job to be relentlessly cheerful or to find shiny blessings in a shit storm. But at the same time, there’s much to be said for making the best of what you’ve got in whatever way you can.

Pain and meditation

Most meditation practices seem to start by centring you in your body. Breathe deeply. Be mindful of your physical presence. Gently relax your muscles. You know the routine. The trouble with pain is that being aware of it is the last thing you want. I’ve yet to experience a pain that I can’t suffer from more by paying it close attention.

Some pains I can soothe with the awesome power of my mind, but the truth is that the awesome power of my mind is fairly limited, and sometimes of no use at all. It’s especially useless if the pain is in my head or face to begin with. It’s also a lost cause if I don’t have the concentration to meditate, and there’s nothing like pain for wrecking my concentration.

(As an aside, this is not a request for pain management advice of any sort, there’s a lot of specific detail missing here, as there often is when people talk about pain. This is not a thinly veiled request for guidance about how to deal with pain. I am dealing with my pain, these are observations arising from what I’ve been doing. Onwards…)

Unfortunately, sleeping calls for a period of just being alone in my head with whatever pain I’m feeling. So, while often the solution to meditation not helping with pain is not to meditate, on the edge of sleep, I really need all the help I can get. A meditation practice that can take me away from the pain and into some other head space can really help.

I visualise the pain itself as being like a big door surrounded by flames. My challenge is to get through the door and into the headspace where I don’t feel the pain. Now, normal meditations encourage us to be calm, to feel gentle, peaceful emotions. I have found that doesn’t help me deal with pain. However, if I set up a visualisation or a pathworking that evokes really strong emotions, I can become sufficiently involved with it to take me out of my bodily awareness. This creates the weird situation that being in pain may be the best time for me to try and work on difficult emotional things. I stay away from things that cause too much fear, because panic is not conducive to sleep.

I can’t say how or if this would work for anyone else, but it might. You need to plan what you’re going to work with and pick things that you personally will find emotive in intense and powerful ways. You can’t use any of the normal settling in techniques because they’re all too body centred. I tend to picture the fiery door, gather my wits and dive headlong into the most intense meditation I can think of. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it does work it allows me, eventually, to go to sleep, and that’s quite some blessing.

Privilege and Pain

How do we make sense of each other’s pain? If someone is suffering, all we know is what we can see, what we’ve experienced and what we imagine. We guess, we judge, we decide whether to take them seriously or not. We call for an ambulance, or we tell them not to make a fuss.

I’ve seen rather too many statistics say that women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s. I’ve also seen plenty to suggest that fat people in pain are taken less seriously than thin people. Black people may also find it harder to get taken seriously than white people. When it comes to the business of other people’s pain, we bring our prejudices to the table and judge accordingly. People who are wealthy and deemed important will have the slightest health issue jumped on – perhaps because they can pay people to do just that. The rest of us will have to make our case, and may be met with suspicion and disbelief.

As a child I was told I had a very low pain threshold. The implication was that I made too much fuss about things that hurt me – cuts, bruises, splinters etc. As an adult dealing with children, I’ve seen far greater reactions over far less. Not least because children have little to compare a hurt to, and are far more shocked by it. Often it’s the shock they most need you to help them with. There’s a balance to strike between helping a child keep their experiences in perspective, and comforting them.

Into adult life, it is often the people with least experience of pain who make the most fuss about it. The people for whom pain is not normal, are the people most keen to avoid it. I recall being told that a person just couldn’t go for a run unprepared, they would hurt themselves. Well yes, they might make their muscles sore, certainly. I don’t run often, because the jolting hurts my body too much, but when I’ve had a go, I’ve been in pain before I started. It must make it hard for an observer to make sense of me. I walk for transport, I do long walks, I dance when I can – it doesn’t mean I don’t hurt, it’s just that I choose not to be ruled by that hurt.

There are many conditions that mean living with pain. You choose how much you can do and what you can take, or what you’re obliged to take in order to work.  With the safety net ever harder to access, people who don’t know you may make superficial judgements about your pain and thus your right to time to rest and heal. Some things can be recovered from if people are allowed to rest and heal. Some things are more readily managed without piling on the economic pressure. The question now isn’t whether you should work, it’s whether you can. A person who is in constant physical pain can indeed work. I do so. I don’t think anyone should be obliged to, though.

I don’t look like I’m in pain. I’m not pulling dramatic faces or making sad noises, I don’t limp or have a sling, I only use a stick for longer walks over more challenging terrain. And like a great many other people in similar circumstances, I can’t prove to anyone how much my body hurts. This means we are easy to dismiss. If we’re inconvenient, we can be ignored. If we can’t do something we can be told off for not trying, not pulling our weight. It is really easy to deny, ignore and denigrate someone whose pain does not manifest in ways you can easily observe.

And then there are the people who feel I should deal with my pain in the manner of their prescribing. If I don’t, I’m not taking it seriously, not trying hard enough. Or I was lying in the first place. It can be frustrating to say the least, and I don’t have to take as much of this as some people will. As far as I can see, there’s a definite parallel between who gets to have their pain taken seriously, and who has other kinds of privileges going on. It all seems to fall out along the same lines, and that stands some thinking about.

The Parallel World of Pain

My understanding is that for many people, pain is not normal. It’s a sign to stop, to rest, to not start things. Exhaustion is another thing that many people take as a sign to quit. I’ve had conversations where people have told me things like how terrible it would be if you hurt yourself doing exercise, and that I shouldn’t do something until I’m entirely well…

For most of my life, if I waited to be pain free, not exhausted and feeling well, I’d never get to do anything. The only way to exercise is to deal with a body that hurts before I’ve even started. If I want to do anything much, I have to push. Sometimes it feels a bit like living in a parallel universe. People I encounter have such a different experience of life, such different assumptions about what’s ok and what isn’t. I know it’s not just me.

It’s easy to imagine if you see someone doing something, that they’re fine. No one can see what it costs, at the time, or afterwards. Sometimes I choose to pay that cost, because otherwise I don’t get to dance or do longer walks.

There’s an ongoing emotional cost to pushing a body that hurts into doing things. People who live in the parallel world of pain can have very different emotional experiences from those who don’t. It may be that you get by through learning to tune out your body. It’s awkward for someone with a nature based faith where embodiment matters. It’s emotionally exhausting, and leaves you feeling like you’re less than the people who can afford to be present all the time. Sometimes, you end up so out of it that you can’t really think because there’s so much to tune out.

Living in the parallel world, it is hard to make choices about what is and is not a good idea. The regular road map for the territory assumes you are well. How much sleep, exercise, food, rest etc you officially need isn’t much use, but there’s really no one to tell you what might be worth considering. What’s the right balance for a body that doesn’t start from the assumed position of a morning?

We only have our own experiences to guide us. This means that for a person in the normal world, where pain is occasional and the rules for dealing with it are clear, people in the parallel world are confusing. I don’t think it’s possible to imagine what long term pain does at a mental/emotional level if you haven’t endured it. I also don’t think it’s easy to understand the rest of the life impact either, not without making some effort. It helps when people can recognise that there are other people whose experiences are totally different from their own.

We’re not making a fuss.  We tend to make far less fuss over pain experienced than people who are generally pain-free do if hurting. We’re not doing it for attention. Whether you think we have low pain thresholds or not, is irrelevant. We don’t want unsolicited medical advice from people who have no real experience to draw on. We don’t want to be told what to do. We don’t want to be told that we should be more positive, more grateful, or that like attracts like and we’re doing it to ourselves. These are not helpful suggestions, they are toxic acts and as cruel as they are unreasonable. If you don’t understand what’s going on, consider that we live in a parallel universe and the rules are different here.

A brief selection of my stories about my body

On the one side there’s the issue of no pain no gain, and on the other is the Taoist notion of effortlessness – do without doing. For much of my life, my awkward body has meant that any kind of activity courted pain and I’m used to thinking in terms of having to push. Recently I’ve started questioning this.

The assumption that I needed to push through the pain has been with me for a long time, unquestioned. But, there are stories in my family about laziness and pushing, about not getting comfortable and not letting yourself off the hook. Or at least I’ve understood it that way.

How much pain for how much gain? And at what cost?

My fear is that if I don’t push myself hard all the time, I will be lazy and crap, and still fat. The relationship between fatness and assumed laziness has been an ongoing issue for me. The desire to prove that my body shape is not a consequence of lack of effort or lack of discipline on my part, has been with me since my teens.

Faced with the impression that there’s a crisis, my body stores fat. I am fantastically efficient in this regard. The impression of crisis can be created by missing meals, and otherwise reducing calorie intake. It can be created by sudden bouts of intense exercise, fuelled by shame and not sustained. Ironically it turns out that on a higher calorie diet, I am more likely to lose weight. No pain, no gain around the middle.

Do without doing suggests a state where how you are gets the job done. Getting more sleep has encouraged my body to think there isn’t some kind of emergency going on and to stop stocking up. There’s reason to think that stress caused by what happens when you’re fat can help keep you fat – again it’s about the feeling of emergency and what a body does with that. My physical survival method is clearly not to be able to run away easily, it is to be able to sit out the problem and have another go when things calm down. Doing without doing.

I’ve never really listened to my body. I’ve internalised the idea that expressing discomfort was just making a fuss, so when my body complains of pain or weariness, I have tended to over-ride that for as long as I can. Whatever gain there is seeming more important than the pain. Only in the last few years have I started listening to my body about what it might like to eat. Extra toast, and more protein have featured heavily. And yet I am not gaining flab. It’s almost as if my body knows what it needs to be a healthy size, and what it needs is not what I had been told it needs.

Trusting my body and going with it looks a lot like do without doing, to me. Not a big, sweaty push for change, but a softer acceptance of what actually works. Letting my soft animal body get on with things rather than trying to flog every last ounce of effort out of it. It’s possible that all the things I have done to try and overcome pain and fatness, have in fact been making the pain and fatness worse for me because it results in my body feeling threatened and under pressure all the time. But as a culture this is what we do to fat people, layering on the blame and shame and the pressure to force change and not asking why a specific body reacts as it does.

Fat, I am inclined to think, is really a symptom of other issues, and the key thing is to find out what the other issues are and deal with those. Comfort eating has emotional reasons driving it. Storing can be driven by all sorts of physical pressures. Body chemistry, malnutrition, stress… there are many reasons a person may store fat that have nothing to do with discipline and effort. Try to solve that by adding to the strain, and for some of us, there can be no winning.

Meditation and pain

Pain is no aid to concentration. For the person in pain, being in the body is often the last thing you want. However, many meditation techniques start by focusing a person on their body – on breathing especially, and deep breathing at that, and on awareness of physical presence. Some meditation methods are purely about being present to yourself. If you’re in a lot of pain, it’s not an appealing prospect.

It is possible to meditate while in pain, and to benefit from doing so, but many approaches won’t work at all.

For mild pain, and pain that comes from tension, it may be possible to get some relief using meditation practices that focus on relaxation. However, for many of us, this will make little positive difference and may just serve to unhappily increase personal awareness of pain.

Make sure that everything in your meditation environment supports and enables your comfort. Ignore any other advice you have to, to achieve this. Any restful position that improves your comfort, any mild activity you can meditate around is good. Don’t do anything that adds to your pain, no matter what anyone else has to say about its value. People who are not in pain can have some funny ideas about what’s going to be useful, I have found.

Pick meditations that don’t depend on you having good concentration. Guided meditation CDs may help, listening to meditation music, cloud watching, contemplating a physical object – things where you can drift away and drift back, but which do not focus you on your pain.

Alternatively, pick a scenario that you would find it good to be in, and contemplate it. A sunny beach, an isolation tank, a sauna, a woodland in spring – whatever makes you feel good and can be easily imagined. Flight is a favourite of mine when I want to be away from my body, as is visualising myself floating in warm water. If you drift, just re-start, as there’s no narrative and no goal, it doesn’t matter if you can’t hold the thought for very long.

Meditate only for as long as works for you. Some bodies stiffen and become more painful if kept still for too long, so especially ignore the old chestnut about how if twenty minutes seems a long time you should be doing it for an hour… A lot of mainstream meditation advice comes from people who are largely well and assumes the person on the receiving end is fine, too. You know your body and you know your limits and no one is entitled to demand that you hurt yourself for a spiritual practice.

Exploring the mysteries of pain

The human body is a complex thing, affected by everything it encounters. Thus when something is a bit off, working out what, and why, is no small task. I’ve been struggling with pain and stiffness for years, and experimenting with different ways of living and being to try and alleviate it.

There are a number of factors that, without any doubt, increase how much pain I experience: Insufficient or poor quality sleep. Not enough oil in my diet. Something going awry with my gut leading to loss of electrolytes and oils. Stress, anxiety and depression. Cold. Any kind of jarring physical activity. Airbeds.

Some of those rather imply their solutions! I do what I can, but life can conspire against me. One of the major problems is gut function – an issue I’ve had for more than a decade. I became vegetarian again when I realised that meat (or, I suspect, preservatives in meat) were intolerable to my gut. In the last year or so, I’ve realised that refined carbohydrates also increase my risk of gut-fail. With a switch to mostly brown flours, rice and pasta, I’ve found that my digestive system behaves itself a good deal better, and my overall pain levels have come down as a consequence. How anyone else’s body would respond, I can’t say.

I’ve learned to be much more alert to what my body is exposed to – sound, light, air quality, motion, temperature… these are not things I always have control over. However, quieter, gentler environments help me with staying calm, and that in turn helps with pain.

I’ve been giving a lot more deliberate thought to issues of when to rest, and when to push. There are times when I need to push, and I believe in testing my limits. I want to maintain as much fitness, strength and flexibility as I can, so I have to balance pushing my body against keeping it comfortable. I think I’m doing quite well with this, and overall my energy levels are up.

This time a year ago, one late night in a week was ambitious. Now, if I’m careful about getting early nights the rest of the time, I can have two late nights. By late nights, I mean not going to bed before 10pm. I’m always in bed before midnight.

At this autumn’s Contemplative Druidry day, I was able to sit, stand, move and be still as various activities required and I was reasonably comfortable throughout. I remember how last year I needed to sit on the floor so as to be able to fidget more easily to reduce discomfort. A year on and I hurt less, and I have more stamina, which encourages me to think that I’m getting more things right than not.

I don’t have much hope that I can get myself to a state of being pain free, but if I can keep the pain at tolerable levels, and be able to keep doing the things I most want to do – that’ll do. For the first time in a good fourteen years, the idea of being pain free at least some of the time, no longer seems totally preposterous.

Survival tips for people who are on fire (metaphorically)

Some weeks ago I procured and read The everything Guide to Adrenal Fatigue. One of the main consequences, is that I’ve changed how I think about my body. Rather than just experiencing how I’m feeling, I’ve started to consider it in terms of chemistry. Not very sexy, but a good deal more useful! Here are some things I have learned so far that may help other people dealing with forms of burnout, stress, and depression.

I cannot tell the difference between depression and exhaustion when I am feeling them. I also often confuse anxiety with pain. If I tackle the pain and the exhaustion, I feel less depression and anxiety. If I take the pain and exhaustion seriously as issues, I am less likely to want to call them depression and anxiety, and thus I feel more able to do something about them. I have stopped thinking of myself as a person suffering from fatigue and started thinking of myself as a person who really needs a rest. This is helping me make changes. Other people’s mileage will vary depending on what the underlying issues are.

Thoughts and feelings are connected. If I let panic get a hold of me, I can run my body into the ground. If I let myself feel pressured, even making lunch can bring the threat of burnout. I have to slow down, take deep breaths, try to put things into perspective, and not let myself be panic stricken about what I haven’t done yet. I’m not actually on fire, it just feels that way. If I can control my thoughts, I can get in control of everything else and change something of how I am feeling. I have been in situations I could not control, this fear is a legacy from that, but I am not there now and need to learn to be gentler. People who are actually on fire need actual help, and will not be able to change things by thinking about it. I have been there, I need to recognise the consequences.

I need the good stuff. Happiness is not a luxury, not something I have to earn, not an optional extra. It is key to my viability. I need things that make me happy and leave me feeling good. I must not, therefore, squander my precious downtime on things I find stressful or miserable. I have to stop doing what other people want me to do and start doing what I want me to do. I have to trust the people close to me to support me in this and I must be less willing to tolerate people who don’t really care whether I am happy or not.

I have to stop using sugar and caffeine as a crutch to keep me upright when I’ve burned out. I need to handle exhaustion with rest, not with using stimulants to keep pushing myself ever onwards. I can have sugar and caffeine, but I need to treat them as recreational drugs, not as things I am dependent on.

I have to recognise when I can’t do what’s wanted, or don’t want to, or haven’t the energy, or the inclination and so forth, and say ‘no’ to people sometimes.

I have to be aware of the pressure I feel around money, work achievements, social engagement, the need to be a really fantastic activist and all the other things that would cheerfully suck me dry if I let them. I have to hold my own boundaries. Other people cannot be relied on to hold those boundaries for me, or to respect them. My body is a finite resource and needs treating that way.

Living with pain

Not so long ago I had a conversation with a friend who has been suffering from something called post concussion syndrome. I’d not heard of it before, but it has involved months of horrendous headaches, and, the friend thought, had affected their personality.

“Well, obviously,” said I. “Pain does that.”

To those for whom physical pain is an occasional thing, the experience of it comes as a shock. If the pain doesn’t go away, it has an impact, and one you probably aren’t prepared for unless you’ve paid attention to other people dealing with ongoing pain.

Pain is limiting – whatever hurts, you just don’t want to use any more than you have to, and you rapidly learn to avoid adding to the pain in any way you can. Sometimes these tricks put extra strain on some other bit of your body and you end up damaging that too. Pain is exhausting, it undermines concentration. In large doses it can become hard to think in an organised or sustained way. It’s emotionally wearing. It erodes you, sandpapering at your sense of self. The loss of things you used to do easily doesn’t help with that.

Most people are good at being helpful around short term setback. But when the answer to ‘how are you?’ is ‘pretty shit and suffering a lot, just like I was the last dozen times you asked me’ it becomes tempting to lie. You get bored with talking about it, bored with explaining, too tired to explain, bored with pity, bored with a sympathy that is devoid of empathy and bored with other people not understanding what you can and can’t do and why concentrating is so hard. You lie and say ‘I’m ok, I’m coping’. It may seem better and happier to talk about anything that isn’t the pain.

And then, because you haven’t felt up to explaining everything about what the problem is and where it came from, the well-meant helpful advice will flow in, and most of it will be useless because it’ll be based on not knowing what the problem really is, and reading/hearing it will be exhausting and probably also annoying, but you can’t say that because they’re only trying to help…

Pain affects mood. Sometimes very simply – it hurts so badly that you end up crying. Sometimes, the idea of ever having an ok day again, ever feeling passable, ever being able to function properly seems so impossible that it’s hard to know how to keep going. Rage against the people who are lucky enough not to be suffering and do not know how lucky they are. Frustration over what can’t be done, and the lack of understanding from others. Despair. Pain certainly does affect personality, because you can’t experience any part of that and not change how you think and act. Then you realise that your sense of self isn’t as robust as it was, because this thing, this pain in your body is able to turn you into someone else – a depressed person, a grumpy person, a person who won’t go out any more, or whatever it is.

I’m just surfacing after a couple of weeks of overwhelming pain. I’ve watched it punch holes in my mental wellbeing. I’ve watched it undermine my creativity and productivity. I’ve mostly not talked about it because I couldn’t see any point – and while I was in there, I doubt there was much point. There wasn’t anything much anyone else could do to help me. I’m still very sore, but it’s down to a level that allows me to function. Pain has taught me patience and stoicism, although it’s also caused me intermittent despair. It has changed who I am over the years I’ve been living with it. There is no avoiding that.

Learning from Pain

In evolutionary terms, pain is there to protect us. It informs us of threats to our fragile bodies so that we can reduce, or avoid harm and know when we need to do something different, or patch ourselves up. Emotional pain can reinforce experience of body pain. It also speaks to us of social discomfort – as collaborative creatures we need our social connections to be good, so emotional pain around this has an obvious survival use as well. Pain can teach us about the importance of things we’ve lost, and about social acceptability.

Pain is one of those issues around which we’ve tried, as a society, to change our relationship with nature. We seek to avoid pain – which is natural – but have lost the recognition of what it’s for and why it matters.

Western medicine focuses on symptoms, so the answer to pain tends to be pain relief. Not lifestyle changes, and unless you’ve taken obvious physical damage, not always any solution to the cause whatsoever. For example many women give birth in stressful environments surrounded by noise, light, strangers and uncertainty. What we give them, is pain relief. When people suffer the pain of work stress and mental ill health, we give them drugs to make them feel calmer – we give them pain relief, not situation relief.

We get a lot of cultural messages in the rich western world about never feeling any kind of pain. Adverts to tell us we should not go hungry between meals (hello obesity epidemic). We don’t want to feel uneasy, threatened or alarmed so we’re susceptible to politicians with easy solutions that require us to make no changes. No matter the cost those apparently easy solutions inflict on someone else. The push for excessive ease in all things alienates us from our bodies, and from each other, and from the world. Only when we are willing to look at the cost in pain of western ease will we be able to tackle many of the world’s most pressing problems.

I must also acknowledge that there are people for whom pain is a constant, and no obvious explanations exist. Even in this, I would say we need to learn from pain. A person in constant pain should have the right to whatever relief they need, and in the meantime the rest of our society should be looking at the implications of trauma, long term stress, pollution, and recognising that anyone born with something that hurts them should be entitled to care. These too are lessons from pain that we are not taking onboard collectively

The lesson from nature is that pain itself is often not a terrible thing. What it does, if you let it, is warns you about things that could be a lot worse. A mild pain acknowledged now can save your life – that’s as true of bodily pain as emotional pain. The pain of loss acknowledged now might save an ecosystem, or a species. Pain exists to help us navigate our way through the world, but if we’re afraid to feel it and afraid to look at its causes, we can entirely miss the point.