Living with chronic pain is so, so common in our society. You probably don’t even need to think twice to agree with me, and that you or someone close to you lives with some kind of ongoing something, whether that’s a full-blown condition like fibromyalgia or an annoyingly stiff and sometimes achy neck.
Or your low back hurts, in a twingy sort of way, when you’re in the garden all day. Or even you don’t feel anything in particular, but rather an overall sense that the bar we’ve set for “normal” is pretty low, and that you’d like to be more expressive, free and mobile in your body. But really … (As in, it’s easy to talk about this stuff in a wistful sort of way, but you’re interested in actually changing).
Below are some tips to help you find your way out of any degree of chronic pain.
This is not an exhaustive list, and it’s certainly, and importantly, not a diagnostic one. It’s best to read through a list like this with a curiosity, see what if anything sparks some heat for you.
Lastly, none of the following will work in theory only; you have to actually begin.
— Take your best guesses as to why you’re in whatever pain you’re in. You might have no idea, but try for at least two or three.
We’re going for an alert, adult beginner’s mind attitude to this question. It’s easy to say “I have no idea; how could I know?” and also easy to say “This is exactly what it is and I’m positive.”
It’s much more difficult, and it’s the terrain we’re looking for, that sits in the uncomfortable middle: you don’t know, but you have a hunch or two and you’re very, very curious. (Pain does a good job of getting our attention, of bringing forth sincerity).
— Write all that down instead of just thinking about it. Putting it to paper helps separate “us” from “it,” untangling often quite tangled beliefs about who we are, and why we’re in the state we’re in.
— Based on what you already know, and your current intuition, what’s your best guess as to how you can resolve this? This list can be anything, like “see another shoulder specialist” … “take a Pilates class from that studio that just opened down the street from my office” … “start doing yoga” or “stop doing yoga.”
Your guesses might also have an emotional root to them: “talk to my brother about that day I got a concussion” … “admit something to my partner I’ve been avoiding.”
We’re not searching for the non-conventional, but we’re not avoiding it either. Our emotions and our tissues are quite interconnected.
— What’s your relationship to that list? Are you doing any of the things you think might help? If yes, great, skip to the next one. If not, that’s okay and way more common than you’d think. In my experience helping people at my clinic and noticing in myself, often the closer we get to something that will really change a deep chronic pain pattern, the more resistance we feel.
We might see this kind of thing play out in someone with knee pain who is willing to work for hours and hours doing certain kinds of movements, like squats or leg presses, but avoids a yin yoga class like the flu, even though he has a sense that that’d be really helpful. Likewise for a yogi who isn’t willing to drop her version of the dharma if it’s causing pain.
— Feel the pain, perhaps in a deeper and more complete way than you have been. Let that be both fuel for change, and perhaps a completion of an experience that was left half-baked.
“Easy for him to say,” you might think. And you’d be right. This is your journey, and you ultimately go it alone, just like me. But notice where this voice is coming from. Is there a part inside you that actually fears letting this pain go, letting a full and actual completion occur? If that part has a voice, let it be felt, even heard.
— Dare to be wrong. Not only right now, making any lists above, but wrong about how you have been thinking about the state you’re in, about what you need to do about it, about the source of it and how this will all play out. It’s often surprisingly difficult to let go of our ideas about ourselves (perhaps you’ve noticed!). And maybe you’re totally right already, but even just for a moment, can you let that go and see if it’s really true? Who are you without this pain, without these beliefs about where it’s headed?
— On that note: are you only considering one genre of cause or solution? Like if you’re only thinking about a musculoskeletal/mechanical approach, or digestion and diet, or stagnant chi on a meridian line, or even emotional causes.
Consider seeing a practitioner who practices a kind of therapy that’s quite different from what you’ve been trying. Maybe it’s the magic bullet, maybe not, but it’s likely at least some good systemic food for thought.
— Fancy yourself an ecosystem, one with deeply interconnected relationships of the seemingly independent species. We’re lamenting the lack of flowers, but aaah right, where are the bees?
In your case, where you feel the pain might be one or two steps removed from a deeply interconnected issue. Knee pain stems from tight hips, that are driven by visceral scar tissue from a childhood abdominal surgery. That kind of thing.
Though I say “ecosystem” because in reality it’s less linear than that. To work directly on your knee (the “effect”) may well start to change that visceral scar tissue (the “cause”) via physiology we’re just starting to understand. The important thing to know is that you’re working with all of you, all the time, no matter what.
We’re ecosystems, not cars.
— Note that all of these tips rely on self-investigation. How has it felt, reading this list? If annoying or frustrating at all, you’re not alone and that’s okay; in fact, it’s good to start to feel what’s often the underlying charge of the pain. Not good like it’s fun per se, but good like there’s some of your fuel to find your way out.
Pain produces a sincerity that’s rare for most of our lives. It’s one of few things we can’t really negotiate with. It has something to tell us, often, and to find out, we need to go into the cave …
I hope this has been helpful for you. I know this kind of advice can be a dance between “take this and do this and you’ll be healed” and “find out for yourself” and that I certainly tend towards the latter. I think I do this in part because there’s so much of the former out there, and it’s mostly worthless out of context. Most any treatment can be helpful to someone, but what’s best for you, right now, especially if you’re reading a list like this, i.e. you haven’t resolved what you’ve wanted to resolve … that’s highly personal, which means context.
And often, once we even start to taste our system finding its own way out, even just a little bit, that makes a huge difference in your next steps, and the seeds of “take this/do this” have much more fertile soil to land in.
See you on the other side. LB