Friday, November 17, 2017

Joe Omundson

Healing from pain: the mind-body connection

I sit down under the rock arch at the end of my hike and remove my shoes, placing them near my groin, under my ankles as padding while I sit on the downward sloping slickrock. The lowering sun shines on me and counteracts the cool air. Starting a 31 minute timer, adjusting my seat, I do my best to clear my head and settle in to my meditation practice. 

I begin by focusing all attention on my breath, trying my best to notice any encroaching thoughts and drop them. It has been a busy-minded day and this effort is not very successful. I move on to scanning my body (Vipassana), beginning at the top of my head, bringing my awareness to any sensations that are present; spreading this awareness down the sides and back of my scalp, down my forehead, the edge of my hairline, through my eyes and nose and mouth and cheeks and jaw and chin and down my neck.

The technique says not to react to any sensations, but rather to accept them impartially, equanimously. My only job is to sit still and scan my awareness through all parts of my body and notice what I find. But today I simply cannot resist the urge to squirm when I experience the constricting tension in my neck, shoulders, and upper torso. It is easier for me to explore the tightness by moving, playing, stretching, somehow addressing the problem rather than sitting still and experiencing it. I want to stretch it out until it's gone, once and for all. 

I know that this is counterproductive to the method I am using. There is a time and place for that kind of exploration in yoga and dance but it doesn't mesh well with Vipassana. My most helpful meditation sessions are the ones where I truly stop caring about whether my sensations are pleasant or not, and allow them to arise as they are. It is in these times I see myself for how I am, when I connect different aspects of my experience and accept my current state.

After a couple minutes of side bends, neck circles, heart openers, I try to remember where I left off and continue my scan down my body. Down the front and back hemispheres of my torso and through my pelvis. My legs are hard to sense in detail. There is a contraction of hips and thighs I believe I need to maintain in order to remain sitting upright; it feels as though I will fall backward if I release it, but this is not the case if I can also release the tension in my low back to allow my spine to float to vertical. My calves threaten to cramp into charlie horse if I notice and release them fully, so I move through that area quickly to avoid the pain.

My upper torso is still crying out to me and my attention jumps back up there. I stretch my arms out to my side as wide as they will go, while also trying to release my shoulders downward and shine my chest forward, like Christ on the cross. As I do this, pain and tingling shoots down my left bicep area from shoulder to elbow. The muscles, ligaments, fascia, something in this area is so accustomed to being drawn in to protect my heart that it literally doesn't know how to relax for a second. The tension tugs at my attached body parts, I feel it in my neck, my shoulderblade, my chest.

I try to return my attention to my feet, to where I'd stopped the methodical scan of my body, but ultimately I surrender to the screaming tension surrounding my heart. It is nothing new for me. It has been there for years, decades, but damn I am getting so tired of being captive to this restriction. I try to remain impartial to the pain as I attempt to release as much as I can. Maybe the pain isn't there to protect me, maybe I'm not at risk of self injury if I allow it to become excruciating, maybe I have to pass through that to let myself release.

Though I surrender to the agony I can not release.

Suddenly, the experience becomes emotional. "Why am I still so trapped by this? Why do I carry this pain? What have I done to deserve it? When will I ever be free from this? How can I get past it?" I am nearly in tears and I feel a deep sadness for myself, for the child who still lives in me who has known this pain for so long. I know that not everyone carries this burden. I see the freedom in the posture of some of the more well-adjusted souls around me. They do not have the weight of the world on their backs. Their hearts are not so fragile as to need protection from their shoulders. Their chests are proud in full acceptance of their place in the world, their value and goodness. They are strong in themselves and they have something to offer. Why can't I be like that too?

My timer ends, and I quietly put my shoes on and begin to walk the sandy trails and paint-marked slickrock back to my van.  I've left behind some of my anxiety and restlessness at the arch but take with me a new sadness and compassion for myself.

I understand some of why I carry this pain. Multiple people who deal with body therapy have noticed the same constriction in my ribcage in the heart area and pointed it out to me. I've worked with it over the years, I've reflected on why it's there and what it means for me.

A major part of it is my birth with a congenital heart defect, and the corresponding open heart surgery at age 15. My chest cavity was opened — of course this affected my body and as I healed I could never return to exactly the way I was before. I had a sense of needing to protect my wound which became ingrained in my consciousness and in my body's patterns of holding. To this day I am sensitive to being contacted where my scar is, and if it is tapped or impacted with any force (even by myself) I feel an immediate fear and pain. My mind may have been anesthetized to oblivion while the buzzsaw bisected my sternum and while my ribs were pried apart, but I wonder how much of that experience my body still remembers vividly.

But it's more than the physical trauma of my heart organ. It's an emotional thing; it's my question of self worth, my wavering sense of deservingness. It's the first two decades of my life that I spent listening to people who told me that I was inherently sinful, that I was wicked and needed saving, that all humans were this way. That my only hope of worthiness was through the replacement of my own identity with that of Jesus Christ. That nothing I could do on my own would ever be good enough without this phantom figment of a God doing it through me. It's been almost a decade since I rejected this soul crushing, abusive philosophy, but still the effects of it hide themselves away deep within me.

It's more than that, too. Because of certain dynamics in the ways I was raised, I learned to view myself and my achievements through the lens of someone else's opinions, I learned to make someone else happy regardless of how it affects my own health, goals, and individuality. I grew up thinking I must learn to match a certain worldview and style of interaction which was contrary to my own nature. I was shown that I should despise, or at least ignore, my own body and treat physical contact and sexuality with disdain. I have far more memories of intimate embraces shared with my pillow than anyone in my family. I was terrified of being seen for who I really was, though I also craved that deeply.

I'm one of the lucky ones. My parents had me on purpose and I grew up relatively secure. No one ever bullied me at school. I was never molested. I had the privilege of being male, white, financially secure, and healthy other than my heart problem. I've never really been discriminated against because of any demographic which I have not chosen. My parents taught me a lot of functional and healthy habits. I've had a good education, I have a useful degree. I don't live in fear.

Since entering adulthood I've been able to dissect a lot of the things in my past that have hurt me and I've pushed hard in the direction of healing, growth, peace, self acceptance, and understanding. I've been privileged to encounter some amazing life experiences that many people will never have the chance to know. I have even found meaning in my trauma. I've turned my ongoing heart complications into a motivation and a learning experience, I've turned my distasteful experience with religion into a way to help and love other people who have been through the same thing.

And yet, I can tell you that life feels shitty sometimes. This emotional and physical pain surrounding my heart is very tangible. It still affects me. Everyone goes through something like this whether they know it or not; for many people the pain makes their life pure misery. Many people don't know where it's coming from. Many people think it's an inevitable part of life and they conclude that death would be better. When pain is someone's whole reality I can't say they're wrong.

But I believe healing is possible for myself. I know that trauma can be worked through, I have made progress in the past, and I will continue to grow in the future. My experience under the arch that day broke me down into sadness but it also lit a fire in my heart to take better care of myself.

As I walked down to my van and drove back to town I knew that I could not hide from my pain any longer, I could not continue to numb it or cover it up.

The first step of healing from trauma is simply to know that it exists. I realized this day that I need to validate the impact of my trauma and not dismiss it. I must bring it into the light and expose it publicly.

The second step is to begin making visits into the experience of that trauma from a place of security where the pain will not be too overwhelming; slowly, carefully, briefly at first. To climb down into that murky well and scoop some of the mud from the bottom while not going so deep that you get stuck.

I decided that the best way for me to do this would be to focus intensively on yoga for a time, while also improving my diet and sleep habits. Yoga takes my body to places that I would not otherwise know. It breaks up the stagnation. It provides a safe place to test my pain, to calmly explore the topography of my limitations and break new ground as I'm ready, intentionally and in a safe place. It lets me practice strong, functional new patterns of openness rather than settling into the habit of recoiling from what is uncomfortable.

I used some of my tip money to buy a month-long unlimited yoga pass and started going to classes every day. It's been 11 days. Every single class has had at least a few poses or themes that relate to the opening of my wounds and I've been grateful for the chance to embrace that painful place. I can feel changes starting to unwind inside me already, more sensitivity in the painful area, more discrete control of movable parts, greater range of motion. More ability to let go of the tension while also allowing strength to flow through. More ability to expand my chest and fill it with breath. Less need to draw my shoulders forward and hunch my neck before I do anything else.

And as tends to be the case, emotional healing happens simultaneously with physical healing. I'm already feeling more confident and more solid as a person. I feel like my days are more full, like I'm doing better at spending my time on fulfilling things and not getting stuck in self-doubt and misery. I've had more energy for helping people and for community projects I care about. I feel less intimidated by the idea of other people seeing my good and attractive qualities for what they are. I've actually looked at my reflection and caught myself unironically thinking "damn I am sexy today". I'm laughing and smiling more and overall feeling better.

The third step of healing from trauma is to get so familiar with that trauma that it loses its power. There's a desensitization, an extinction of the trigger that turns the pain into suffering. It becomes a place you can go like any other place, nothing special, nothing to fear. It's an integration into your whole self of that hurt which you have kept isolated. You accept it as part of your shape and the pain fades away. I'm working toward this step now. There are places inside me that I am restricted from experiencing without pain and suffering, but I'm teasing them out. I may be here for a long time. 

The fourth step is to embrace the ways that this trauma has made you unique. What did the pain and the healing process teach you? Can you see others going through the same thing, can you help them along? What power does this empathy give you? Maybe someday, my recovery from self-doubt and the pain that came from struggling to embrace my own goodness will actually become my strength, like a broken bone that heals to become stronger than it was before. Maybe someday I'll know exactly what it is I have to offer and exactly how I can implement that. Maybe someday I'll know how to teach others to become strong in their own worth.

In one aspect or another, I am in all stages of healing at all times. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, "our goal is to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant." Different hurts are in different stages along that process. Eventually we can learn to do impossible things elegantly. Our greatest weaknesses can become our greatest strengths.

Today I know that I am alive. I am learning to love the whole process of growth including the pain and confusion along with the triumphs. Life changes. That's fascinating. We get to watch it, to experience it. We just need to be open to experimentation, willing to learn, patient with what's hard, and hold on to the truths we have struggled so hard to find.

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