Years ago, I was abruptly struck with a mysterious illness that began as a flu, and engulfed my life for nearly a decade, as it wreaked havoc on my immune system. My body was filled with chronic pain and crushing fatigue that left me barely able to lift my head. With so much brain fog, I couldn’t follow simple conversations, or even read at times. After months of non-conclusive tests and a fortune spent on sham treatments, I received the highly unsatisfying, non-diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Hmmmm.
A less than capable, and somewhat dismissive label for a profound degree of suffering. Especially when people would add comments like, “I’m really tired too.” Eventually, I left a successful career. And perhaps most devastating, I lost the ability to exercise for nearly a decade, which had always been one of the pillars of my mental balance. Luckily, I had one more pillar… a consistent mindfulness practice.
When I became aware that I realized I could hold my screaming body the same way a mother holds her crying baby… with awareness, acceptance, and understanding, I soon understood that pain is not stagnant – not even for a second. Not a thing at all really. It ebbs and flows like a river. At one point on a meditation retreat, I observed a migraine headache slowly slither down my face over the course of an hour into my throat, like a snake, and then morph into a sore throat. From there it spent the better part of a day traveling down into my gut. Observing this was a little unsettling, but transformative, because this THING that I had been calling pain, was really a PROCESS. A process I didn’t need to identify with as ME, or Mine. Just bubbling sensations of various intensity.
In that way, I was kind of free. Especially, when I noticed how unexamined pain would trigger a cascade of dark thoughts that would ruin my mood, and trigger even more pain… Which in turn, would trigger more thoughts… like a staircase into suffering and despair. Seeing this so clearly, in real time, over and over, allowed me some influence over which thoughts to feed, and which ones to breathe with and not strengthen.
During one meditation session, I saw myself subtly tightening my muscles around a stomach ache. Through the lens of mindfulness, it became clear that I was adding tension to the pain, under a misguided and unexamined attempt to protect myself from it, which was only making it worse. It had been happening for years without my detection. With that insight, the tension let go of itself, and the energy of pain had more space to release over time.
On a long-term retreat, I once became nearly incapacitated for days, barely able to get out of bed to eat, or even use the bathroom. Through it all, I kept meditating, watching my breath and body sensations in a lying down position. Eventually the pain and fatigue crescendoed into a solid 10, leaving me completely immobile. In this condition, I no longer had the energy to resist the pain, and fully surrendered on a very deep level. In that moment, I tasted a level of peace I had never known before. You might even use the word liberation, in the midst of physical agony. It was truly mind-blowing.
I saw again that my own resistance had been creating a prison, not the pain itself, and I deeply understood why some people on their deathbeds can reportedly fill a room with strong feelings of peace, even light, that is noticeable to those around them… it’s because they’ve let go of resistance.
The world of neuro-science is showing us more and more that the experience of pain is very much the product of our attitudes and expectations. As an example, have you ever stubbed your toe on a day when nothing else is going right and the pain is 3 times more intense? Athletes know this idea. NFL players report a much easier and quicker recovery time after victories than defeats. Somehow, the scoreboard dramatically shifts the subjective experience of pain.
It all depends on how we hold it. Mindfulness can help us see this directly, rather than understand it as a concept, and this direct seeing can wake us up to how we are resisting other parts of our lives, and the effects it is having on our overall happiness. You might call this true healing. A healing of the mind. I’m not trying to pretend that pain doesn’t suck, but It doesn’t have to be a prison. It can provide the perfect conditions to wake you up to possibilities you might not be imagining now. Like clearly seeing how you are feeding habit patterns that have historically held you back. Chronic illness might not be your condition, but the next time you’re feeling some pain in your knee or back, or you have a cold, and you consider skipping meditation, you might think again.
Might it be possible to reframe these unpleasant experiences, and consider their potential to wake up your entire life? Pain in the body can be a doorway into this more fundamental form of healing if we set that intention, and understand the true potential of our mindfulness practice to heal, rather than a technique to feel good. Nobody said mindfulness is easy. Actually, they did… but they were selling something. The truth is, if we’re willing to be present and curious for whatever is happening right now, regardless of the conditions, even pain and illness can help us grow wiser, even happier. I could say more, but I’m off to exercise….
This essay originally appeared as a recorded talk on the Ten Percent Happier meditation app.
Reprinted by permission.