this e-mail exchange from one of our members begins with any correspondence from her. She was reacting to one of my posts in which I described my different reactions to my pain. When I react with terror or fear, when I begin a story line about the pain, the pain gets worse. When I open up and feel the pain and feel compassion for my suffering body, the pain remains just as severe, but the experience of it changes. Here is her e-mail:
Dr. Dan, I am curios to know how this can be taught. You mentioned that you had just given in to your spasms, and let the stress become kindness...how do you do that? I get severe spasms from an implant surgery where they cut a wrong spinal nerve. The spasms have lasted (non-stop) for up to 12 days. I get irritable because I am jumping around like a fish out of water, I can't sleep, and I can't drive. I get very stressed. A few years ago, a friend took me to my neurologist because the spasms were making me crazy. The receptionist was quite rude, and I usually just blow that kind of thing off. But not that day. I was so tired, sore, drugged, and irritable that I let her have it. That is not who I am, and I don't understand how a different person can just emerge from me when I feel like that. A neurologist only gives me more medications to try. So, when I'm on a handful of medications, jumping like crazy, getting no sleep, and want to saw my legs off, how can someone teach me to not be stressed? How do you feel kindness in the midst of chaos??
My response comes next:
It breaks my heart to hear of anyone's suffering, but to know that what's happening to you seems to be relentless is just awful. And like anyone who cares for you, I so deeply wish for the end of your pain and the opportunity to reclaim the joy that is in there.
And you cannot do anything with what is happening in your body and you cannot do anything with the experience your body is happening, so please don't try to change that. You see, your body is suffering. In addition to that, your mind is suffering. Of course your mind suffers because of your body and your body suffers because of your mind. And there is nothing we can do to change the suffering of your body, but perhaps we can alter the way your mind experiences your body.
Your poor body is in crisis. It thinks there is something terribly wrong somewhere and it is reacting to its perceived threat. The fact that it is in constant crisis renders it exhausted and yet it can still get no respite because it thinks the crisis continues. And because it is in crisis, your autonomic nervous system gets involved and I am sure it affects your heart rate and blood pressure.
This poor body doesn't know there is no real crisis so it continues to react in order to save your life. This body that has been working so hard to keep you alive and functioning now has this extra burden. So when you are in spasm, perhaps you could just close your eyes and imagine what your body is experiencing. If it's pain, agitation, hyper reactivity – whatever, just imagine the experience. And perhaps you could begin to feel towards your body what I feel towards it right now; compassion, kindness and sadness for its suffering.
Now let's take a look at your mind. When we have pain of any kind, we tell ourselves stories about it. When my pain gets acute, I begin to tell myself stories that it will never change, my life will be compromised forever. And when I have moments of respite I sometimes tell myself that I have turned the corner. All stories and none of them have anything to do with what I am experiencing moment by moment.
When I have severe pain now, I close my eyes and let myself just feel the pain of imagining how my body is suffering.
Be kind to the woman you are. That doesn't mean self-pity or self-indulgence, it just means kindness towards this innocent body that suffers, towards this good woman who suffers. Nothing will change, your spasm will continue. But maybe excepting that nothing will change moment by moment will change everything.