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Meditation and chronic pain

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If neither you nor anyone immediate to you  has had chronic pain, it is nearly impossible to relate to. This can make the battle more difficult for the sufferer, adding to the pile of stress loading on. There are no simple answers, but if some of these conclusions gleaned through years of chronic pain and Zen practice can help, the time spent writing this will have been worth it.

I belonged to a Zen lineage where sitting meditation, or zazen, was done in a formal position in 35 minute blocks. A retreat, or sesshin, can see as much as ten hours required sitting, plus whatever else you wish to put in on your own. This can induce excessive pain even to healthy individuals. Unfortunately, I have a bone disease, have had dozens of tumors removed, and have dozens more remaining. Meditating in a formal position was like sitting on rocks. But in formal zazen you aren’t allowed to move or fidget.

During a  week-long sesshin I was forced to speak to my  Zen teacher about the searing pain. I needed a coping mechanism. His advice was to witness the pain, to continue to focus on the meditation, and to face thoughts of resentment and anger that came up. The result of this direction was the realization that a bulk of my pain was rooted in thought and emotion, and came directly from anger and resentment for having the disease, and for relatives who’d passed it on. It wasn’t more than a day or two before I saw the ludicrousness of this blame. When that evaporated, what I was left with was just the pain, which by itself was not solid, was constantly in flux, and obviously did not define me. This helped tremendously.

However, there are different kinds of pain. Pain in the hand is easier to deal with than pain in the testicles, and knowing what your pain is caused by is far easier to deal with than suffering from an undiagnosed ailment, due mainly to fear. Chronic pain is another animal altogether. Chronic pain begins to reshape neural pathways and remold the plastic brain. It’s like someone yelling in your face as loud as they can, constantly---hard to keep your cool.

My mother died from Multiple Sclerosis and its extenuating circumstances. Her lack of balance caused her to fall and break her back. A blood clot formed and moved to her lung---a pulmonary embolism. She had a devoted caregiver---my dad---and her sister was a nurse. She was in good hands.

I had no idea---till I had my own chronic pain ramped up---just what she was going through up to her death. My own affliction stems from a hereditary bone disease (multiple hereditary exostoses) and the dozen surgeries performed to remove tumors. Eventually, in the course of dealing with my own pain, I had a eureka moment, a point in time where it dawned on me what my mother had endured.

An important distinction is that if you have a recognizable affliction---MS, Cancer, or Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), as examples--- people typically understand the gravity of  the situation, if not the life-changing pain. When a person’s health is ruined by obscure or unknown conditions, it is more difficult for people to understand, and navigating this is  difficult for the sufferer.

Most of us have an identity, things we have, or do, that we feel defines us. We might be a marathon runner, a bicyclist, a surfer, a painter, a parent, or any number of things combined. When injury, illness or chronic pain begin to erase that which defined us, hopelessness sets in. All you’re left with is who you are standing there in that moment. You stand in front of the bathroom mirror in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, unable to recognize the person staring back at you. Insult to injury occurs when the chronic pain begins to remold the plastic brain, so that even the personality you once loved begins to slip. For me, this is when thoughts of suicide became a logical rather than a desperate possibility.

I have it better than some. That phrase, however, is one that chronic pain sufferers do not want to hear from family or friends, because it unnecessarily minimalizes their situation. Put it this way: if you lost a leg in a car accident, you know there are people worse off, but it won’t make you feel better in emergency to know then  that someone in the next OR lost two legs. Perhaps  later, when you’re recovering, but not in emergency. Comparing pain is not the way to address the situation. At the moment of extreme chronic pain, there is nothing in the world worse to the sufferer.

My luck is in the form of a loving and supportive partner, family and friends. This is crucial, because at some point it’s not enough to fight only for yourself. You have to fight for those who love you. Also, I have a condition that can be managed to some degree.  Others aren’t so fortunate.

A lot of people with chronic illness and pain cannot work. Over time, savings dwindle. Some people need to sell their homes for whatever cash they can glean. There are tax rebates available for specific ailments, and  disability is available in this country, but it’s woefully inadequate. Here in BC, disability payments for a single man are less than $1000 a month. Better than nothing, but not much, especially if you’re in Vancouver---one of the most expensive cities in the world to live---where I had to come to access a decent array of health professionals.

The only way big banks could be saved in the 2008 financial crisis was for taxpayers to pool their resources, yet we as taxpayers expect people who fall ill, through no fault of their own, to bail out themselves, or to have  loved ones become strapped with crippling bills and debt---it’s known that a great number of homeless are mentally or physically ill. Sadly,  it has become political suicide to raise taxes, which is where money comes from for helping people.

We live in an Oprahesque world where we’re convinced we can be in control of everything, including our health, a mindset that makes it easy to blame the unfortunate. It’s a thought process rooted in fear: “I’m in control, therefore that can’t happen to me. If it happens to someone else, it must be their fault”.

What sufferers of chronic pain and illness need is not blame, comparisons or even willy-nilly advice, no matter how well intended.  What they need is love, acceptance and support, often in the form of an ear.

Ask yourself, “What would I want for my  loved ones?”

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