Listening to your pain

One of the things living with a chronic pain disease has taught me is how vital it is to have a good relationship with your body. I’m not talking about self- love or thinking positively about your body, that’s another post entirely. I’m talking about being in-tune with your physical being, listening when it speaks, noticing its clues, and responding with gentle attentiveness. My years of yoga practice helped immensely, although it came as somewhat of a surprise to me how little I was actually listening to begin with. Yoga is all about the union of your mind (thoughts, emotions), body, and that inner well of silence where the Observer of All resides. Yet, decades of (admittedly sporadic) practice taught me very little compared to the pain delivered by Crohn’s.

Daily pain episodes sent me to my bed, where for several years I would rock and suffer in privacy. Finally, I began to listen to the pain, to “lean into” it rather than resist it. Thank you, Buddhism. Now when the pain gets unmanageable, I go to my room, turn off the light and put on some ambient music. Lying on my bed, pillow under my knees or with my legs up the wall, I breathe. Slow in, slow out. I do my best to focus for a few moments on the gentle in and out that means I am alive. Then I turn to the pain. What is happening in my body right now? Where is the pain? Usually it is across my belly, above the belly button. Sometimes through to my back. When it is really tough is when it seems to be everywhere at once.

Next, I do a body scan to find and relax tension. I start with my feet, wiggling my toes. I let my feel fall outward, relaxing them, feeling them melt into the bed. Then my calves, then my thighs. I let my legs feel heavy, feel the support of the bed, relax. On to my hips, my pelvis, my lower belly. Relaxing tension that I find on the way up my torso, up my spine. I take a moment to be tender and friendly to the area affected by the pain and move on. Neck, shoulders, arms, hands. Last is my scalp and face, relaxing the forehead, the eyes, the jaw.

This can take anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, depending on the pain level and my state of mind (how clear my mind and heart are to begin with). Then I just lie there and breathe slowly, in and out. Almost without exception, the pain will be reduced significantly. My resistance to the pain is lessened and I am able to feel somewhat relaxed through the experience.

For this and so many other reasons, I am honestly thankful that my journey has included this measure of pain. It has helped me immensely in my spiritual practices of meditation, yoga, mindfulness, reflection, contemplation, and self-awareness, bringing me farther along the road than I would have been. It has been an invaluable to become more accepting and even friendly with the Crohn’s. Something I resented and resisted for decades is now my dear teacher.

As a bonus, I am now more adept at identifying emotional roadblocks by this practice of body awareness. When I am feeling anxious, emotional, or stuck in some way, I do this practice and explore where I am tight. Do I feel a lump in my throat, a fist in my gut, tension in my shoulders? Am I squinting, frowning, grimacing? Locating the tension will help with identifying where I am stuck in the mire of wrong thinking or emotional imbalance or habitual reactivity. Lying there, breathing in and out, sitting with the emotion with a welcoming heart, I will eventually see what is behind the painful emotion. I don’t necessarily think the chart below is especially insightful, but it can help to imagine how emotions and the body are interconnected. The body can be a wonderful help in this way, pointing to areas where I am stuck in emotional reactivity or other knotted up issues that need attention.