July 6, 2013

Reflections: It's a pain to accept it, but ailments give us vital lessons

My shoulder aches. Maybe I pulled a pectoral muscle, overused a bicep or unattached the attachment of this ligament or that tendon.

REFLECTIONS is a column written by members of Maine’s faith-based community. Opinions expressed in the column reflect the author’s view and not necessarily that of the newspaper.

A little spot smarts when I back up my right arm to slip it into a sleeve. It jabs when I lift a load of laundry.

I sometimes work with people in chronic pain.

With teams of doctors, acupuncturists, massage therapists and physical therapists, I am the "mind-body" person, hired to help with emotional ups and downs.

Because of the advice I give to feel into the soreness, to study the stabbing or pinching, they call me the "ride-the-waves-of-sensation lady."

"Be with the pain and see what it has to teach you," I tell them. "What is its message?"

I cite poets like John Keats: "Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?"

Yet when I hurt, I have no interest in schooling intelligence. Soul? Like my clients, I want to feel better.

My friend tries to comfort me: "It could be worse, you know. At least what is probably tendonitis is only mechanical. Be grateful you don't have a systemic problem."

"Ya, ya, thanks. Gratitude, I know," I say, and then, "How long until I get my range of motion back?"

I do know. And it seems, no matter how long we practice new patterns, we can default to old automatic mind habits.

My shoulder creaks, I don't like it and I whine. That's what happens first: I feel something unpleasant and I want it to go away.

My Buddhist friends tell me that pain comes to everyone and that my pain about the pain is what's causing my struggle.

"Right," I say, and then, "When will I regain my mobility?"

Of course they are right. I tried to out-push-up an 18-year-old in the gym, and now, not only do I feel ashamed of my dismal performance, I have also ruined my shoulder.

That's my story. I rage at my not 18-year-old self.

My mind whirs, "I know better than to send blame into my body and I do it anyway."

I'm told I am not alone. One of my spiritual teachers once said, "Gaps exist between what we know and what we do."

I -- perhaps most of us -- know this gap well and live in this irony: We don't always do what we know.

Even as I scold myself, I must prep for tomorrow's group of people living with symptoms like debilitating fatigue and inflammation.

I scan my books and come across a favorite quote from Madeleine L'Engle, "The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain."

Over the years I have needed to read these words again and again to train my brain toward a new mantra, "learning, learning, learning," and away from its old first thought, "I hate this."

After all these years of counseling people, still, it takes me awhile to sit, to coddle the injury, to breathe, even to accept that my life, too, includes discomfort.

Finally, with that step toward peace-building in myself, I quit stewing, "This dumb shoulder isn't fair." I stop accusing my body of betraying me and I take a practical action step: ice pack.

The throbbing doesn't vanish. As I write my notes for class, my middle-aged shoulder cracks and pops. My bicep strains to type. The top of my arm pinches as I reach for the mouse. I'll call the doctor tomorrow.

But today, because I have made a pact with myself to practice what I preach -- to stop, to sit, to listen, to let things be as they are -- I can hear a deeper truth, the whispers under my screams: I am aging and I am scared.

Here in our shared condition, I will meet my students.

We all grow old, we all know fear.

Tomorrow I can preach what I practice, being human just like them.

It's really true: we teach best what we most need to learn.

Susan Lebel Young, MSEd, MSC, is a retired psychotherapist. Her new book is "Food Fix: Ancient Nourishment for Modern Hungers." Her website is www.heartnourishment.com and she can be reached at:

susan@susanlebelyoung.com

 

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