Four Buddhist Truths Learned from Chronic Pain

1. Everything is Transient

During my last pain flare, for over a week I lived with the feeling of two nails shoved in my eyes, causing an intense headache. It would be easy to say the pain was constant since it bothered me enough to interrupt my activity several times a day. However, if I remain fully present with my body during these times, I notice how the pain waxes and wanes, even during a full body pain flare.

I’ve found this to be true of all the types of pain and fatigue I experience. As I expand my awareness out from the body, I see the truth of impermanence in all aspects of life.


2. Suffering is caused by Attachment

When the pain forces my body to shut down and all I can do is lie on the couch, I watch my mind as it grapples with the situation. If I remain attached to getting up and being active, there is great suffering when the body refuses to cooperate. If I let go of the attachment and instead observe what is, there is pain and discomfort but no suffering. It is as if a large weight is removed and I can simply be with the pain as it changes form with every breath.

I watch how at times we all cling to ideas of how we think it should be – whatever the situation – and how this attachment blinds and separates us from what really is here now.


3. There is Always a Way Out

Intractable pain feels like being a tiny cage with no escape. It can overwhelm the attention to the point where there’s no other point of focus. At level 10 on the pain scale, the body collapses and the mind shuts down – the way out is the autonomic response beyond our conscious control. At any level below 10, we can find the way out by focusing our mind.

Once we realize this, we have many choices:
– increase our suffering by focusing on our attachment,
– escape through the power of imagination,
– distraction either physically by introducing different sensations or mentally through visual or auditory stimulation,
– or conscious observation of the qualities of pain through the lens of detachment.

Sensorial distraction may include a tens unit, massage, petting an animal, listening to music, or watching a movie. Conscious observation with detachment may include reminding ourselves I am not this fragile body and all of this is merely sensations passing through my awareness field. Throughout the years, I have applied all of these methods to find my way out of the tiny cage.

In my dealings with others, and in my own pre-pain personal experience, I’ve seen how we find ourselves feeling trapped by a situation over which we have no direct control, yet there is always a way out of that feeling of helplessness by taking control the one place we always can: the focus of the mind.


4. Meditation Makes Finding the Way Out Easier

Practicing meditation makes the mind stronger, and thus allows us to gain control of our focus in the most trying of circumstances. I could write paragraph after paragraph with examples of how myself and others have benefited from meditation and share many studies revealing the power of meditation, but this is the one Truth you’ll have to prove for yourself.




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Mammograms, Ropes, and Snakes

When your entire body hurts all the time, and the breast soreness becomes intense with each hormonal cycle, it’s natural to avoid things that increase pain. So I put off my mammogram for what I thought was 2 years, but turned out to be 3. The day after the test, I happened to have a follow up with my doctor, so she gave me a print out of the report and said the radiology department would be calling me back for more boob squishing. I didn’t think anything of it and focused on the more pressing issues of discussing options to treat the Endometriosis that has been getting progressively worse. We decided on another trial of Femara, this time taking the estrogen blocker for part of the month instead of every day and unleashing the dreaded hot flashes. (Ironically, Femara was originally sold as a breast cancer drug.)

As promised, the radiology department called in the morning to schedule the additional mammogram and breast ultrasound. I had looked up “new asymmetry on the right axillary tail” so I know there’s a good chance the abnormality is simply a shadow. I made the appointment for next week and told the woman on the phone, “it’s probably just a shadow.” She didn’t comment.

I finished getting dressed and thoughts about the upcoming test unleashed a wave of wistful sadness as I considered the potential changes to this body. Just then the wind howled and was answered by the baying of all the neighborhood dogs. They howled and yelped as if to say: “Don’t worry, you are not alone.” The sadness dissolved into gratitude for this body and the life it has lived.

Through my spiritual practice, I’ve become accustom to watching my mind. I notice the random thoughts that pass through, the moods and feelings, basically all the good, bad, ugly, and beautiful things that arise and fall away. Staying centered in the present moment, this practice of mindfulness has allowed me to both witness and fully experience the entire range of options available to humans.

rope-948677_640As I went on with my day, I watched my thoughts return to the abnormal mammogram. The classic example of Ignorance offered by Shankara played out in my head. In a dark corner, there is a coiled shape. We don’t know if it’s a rope or a snake. And if it is a snake, we don’t know if it’s a dangerous snake. If we pretend it’s a rope, then we could invite great danger through our mistake. If we pretend it’s a snake, then we could freak out in fear and waste energy over nothing. All we can do is remain calm and open while we seek more information.basilisk-rattlesnake-7303_640

I noticed over and over I kept telling myself, “it’s probably just a shadow.” Then it hit me: I was facing denial. I laughed and reminded myself I had no way of knowing until the next test. And at that time, I would deal with whatever needed to be done.

It seemed within minutes, my mind switched gears and hit anger. I realized there was still some deep resentment I held towards my body. It became sick and disabled when I was 28 years old, right at the age when I was prepared to make millions as a computer consultant. My illness cost me friends, money, and endless adventures and instead gave me tears, exhaustion, and pain – lots of pain. It also gave me the motivation to work my spiritual practice on deeper levels than I could have imagined. I spent time sitting with my body, apologizing for my anger and showering it with gentle gratitude for the immense strength it has despite all its challenges. I also scanned my attention for any external resentment. Within my mind, I asked all those people for forgiveness for any harm caused by my anger and let it all drop away.

As I chopped green onions for lunch, I caught myself bargaining. “I’ll eat better, with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables,” I promised. Immediately my blatant honesty kicked in and said, “No you won’t. You’ll do what you do, and eat what you want. And that’s OK.” The bargaining stopped right there.

Later in the day, as if out of nowhere, the depression hit like an avalanche. Although I’m familiar with the stages of grief, I wasn’t expecting it. As first I was confused. I thought perhaps the sadness arose from all the horrific stories on Facebook I had been reading. But my practice demands that I look, and look deeply.

I watched the mind cycle through its thoughts. It wasn’t death that brought me to sorrow; to me death is a natural part of life and although I miss those who have gone, I feel no fear or sadness at the thought of the death of my own body. The sorrow that arose came about at the thought of the decisions to be made and all that my husband and I would have to go through if it does turn out to be cancer.

I thought of the unknown form coiled in the corner and smiled from the calm of the present moment. The appointment has been made, so there is nothing more to be done right now. The report says “Incomplete” and that is all I know for sure. The sun will set tonight, and it will most likely rise tomorrow. There are piles of projects on my desk, and I’m excited to see what I can accomplish in this beautiful body. And when the tests are done next week, then I’ll know whether the form in the dark corner is a rope or a snake and I will deal with it accordingly.

I’m sharing this with you today because I know there are millions of us waiting for the results that will tell us if the coiled shape in our dark corner is a harmless rope or a deadly snake. Once we have done everything we can to discover the information, we can only wait for the Light. And in these moments of being with the Unknown, we can let the wind and the howling dogs remind us we are not alone.



7/12/16 – UPDATE

First, the news: It was a rope! The radiologist told me the change they spotted was a simple lymph node that did not appear on my previous scans, probably because of its position close to my armpit. They want me to come back in 6 months to make sure it doesn’t grow or change in any way, so there will be more squishing sooner than I like, but it is worth it.

Next, I want to say a big THANK YOU! to my sweet husband, who took time off from work to go with me for my tests. Having him there was a huge comfort, especially when I watched the ultrasound technician taking many pictures of a round blob. And a big THANK YOU! to those of you who left comments, sent emails and texts and phone calls and who inwardly sent beautiful healing energy. I feel so completely supported, and I am humbled by your kindness and your love.

I know sitting with the Unknown is a challenge to which many of us relate. While I was sitting with my own unknown this week, I was reading Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid and came across this line: “…we poor humans are wired up to always think the worst is gonna happen because it so rarely does. Then what’s only lousy seems okay – almost good, in fact – and we can cope just fine.” The truth of this strikes me even deeper now; I had hoped what they saw was a shadow and that would be the end of it and I could go back to skipping mammograms. But it being a lymph node in need of watching actually is good in scheme of things.

Remembering Shankara’s example of the rope and the snake allowed me to let go of that tendency to think about the worst, and saved me from wasting hours of doing research on things I don’t need to know about right now. It let me avoid being sucked into fear and instead, I worked on the projects I wanted to focus on out of love.

My wish is for those of you who are reading this is that with whatever issue has taken on the form of a coiled shape in a dark corner, you also are able to remember that it is safe to let the Unknown be Unknown for however long it takes to get a light shining in that corner. You are not alone with the Unknown, and while you are waiting, you are allowed to go on with your life, having fun exploring this magical world.

Please continue to share this post with anyone who may benefit.

This beautiful butterfly enjoying the flowers greeted us as we came out of the hospital; a wonderful reminder of the endless transformations we all experience each day!



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Dealing with Other People – Excerpt from Peace with Pain

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Dealing with Other People – Excerpt from Peace with Pain

A friend of mine often recommends my book, Peace with Pain: Your Guide to Life in a Malfunctioning Body, to clients in her counseling practice. It’s helped those with physical pain, as well as those who suffer from mental and emotional pain. There’s one chapter in particular that she points out: Dealing with Other People.

To make it easier for people to access, I’ve created a video reading of this chapter. You’re welcome to listen and share this page with anyone who may benefit. If you watch it, the cats provide a little entertainment about halfway through the video. 😀

At the end of most chapters, there’s a Take Action section. Here’s the Take Actions steps for Dealing with Other People:



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Sitting in Judgement

It’s easy to sit in judgement of things we know nothing about.

I loved my work as a computer consultant designing software, coding, testing, and training the end users. I also made a ton of money and was able to pay off all my student loans and credit card debt. I even bought a vehicle straight off the assembly line. That was fun, to get exactly what I wanted.

But life doesn’t always give us what we think we want.

My body went haywire, and slowly everything I built was destroyed. I lost not only my job, but my career and identity as a computer consultant. I lost friends, and I nearly lost my boyfriend. But he stuck around and our relationship grew into something new, something stronger. (He’s now my husband.) I lost an entire decade – my 30’s – to spending the majority of my time being sick in bed.

I lost all my physical strength, and sometimes even my brain would shut down, causing me to have memory lapses and confuse words, like saying black when I meant white. My husband repeatedly deals with me insisting we’ve never watched a movie, only to have to me say: “Oh! I remember it now!” at the last scene. (I just did that to myself yesterday!)

If you’ve never had severe pain and fatigue, you cannot imagine what it’s like to be on the couch wanting a glass of water and not being able to get it. Until you experience it, you cannot know the frustration of having the wrong word come out of your mouth, and knowing it’s wrong, but not being able to do anything about it except try to back-peddle and try to explain what you really meant, with words that – yes, you guessed it – also come out wrong. Until you lived it, you cannot know what it’s like to have an unpredictable body that may or may not cooperate at any given moment.

There was no car accident or sudden incident to point to…this illness came upon me gradually, like being hit by a truck over and over. At one point, during one of my early collapses, I argued with myself about calling Rama for help. I had the number to his answering service, so I could have easily gotten a message to him.

But as I said, it’s easy to sit in judgement of things we know nothing about. I thought the pain and fatigue were temporary. I thought I was being weak. I convinced myself it was nothing to worry about, and that I needed to exercise more and work harder. In short, I ignored my body’s cries for help and tried to force it to perform despite the collapses.

Two weeks later, Rama died.

After Rama left the body, I spent a lot of time beating myself up over the decision not to call him. He could have healed me, right? Or he could have at least spared me a great deal of suffering.

When he was gone, I decided to honor the commitment I made during the teaching empowerment he gave me. Even though I was barely getting through the day, I decided to teach meditation publicly. (I had taught privately for years, but my students were sparse.)

Going through all the basics with new students turned out to be the most amazing gift. I relearned everything, and found not only did it work for the students, it worked for me.

During my lost decade, I found incredible support as we created and built Dharma Center. (Thank you – you all know who you are!) My faith in the Teachings grew exponentially.

Of course, I would still torture myself from time to time. One day I did the math and figured if I had stayed in the tech world, I would have been on track to have earned well over a million dollars by that point. I would have been able to buy a beautiful house near bday-sunset-4webthe ocean that would provide a buffer from the world. I would have been able to write large checks to support the Teachings. And the bright minds I would have been able to mentor…Oh wait, I get to do that now!

I’ve spent nearly 20 years being poked and prodded by doctors with lots of labels but no answers. I’ve tried hundreds of remedies and diets and treatments. I still play in that world from time to time. But what has helped the most is learning to listen to my body and give it what it needs, when it needs it. (To learn more of what works for me, check out my book Peace with Pain.)

I also learned to fall gracefully, keeping in mind what my Aikido teacher showed me so many years ago: “Don’t fall, just relax and sit.” I’ve accepted that my body is high maintenance.

During all of this, I’ve also somehow learned how to look good even when I feel like crap. Apparently that is my special siddha power. So unless you spend a great deal of time with me, or if I tell you, you’d never know the condition of my body.

When I finally let go of the judgement – of everything – the most amazing thing happened. I let go of who I thought I was and who I thought others were and realized I know nothing.

I began to have timeless moments where I lived above the pain. But always, I would come tumbling back to the apparent reality of suffering. Even with these ups and downs, the illness I had judged as life-destroying and the body I had judged as weak turned out to be exactly what I needed to wake up. Once yet again, it’s easy to sit in judgement of things we know nothing about.

I don’t recommend this method of pain as a means to self-discovery as it is fraught with the pitfalls of self-pity and anger. Instead, look honesty at whatever Life has given you to work with and stretch to see what is beyond your self.

The coming and going into samadhi continued for I have no idea how long. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, it stopped – or I stopped. The doubt was gone. The suffering was gone.

I was standing on a rock my body should not have been able to climb in its exhausted state. (I pushed my body to do it because my student wanted to see the other side of the arch, and something surged within me to make it possible.) I stood there, in my unpredictable body with all of its pleasure and pain, knowing inner peace and unconditional joy beyond all of this. To borrow from Shankara, both the rope and the snake were gone. To this day, It remains. There are no words to adequately describe it; I can only call it Grace.

After all this time, I finally get the joke when Rama sang with Zazen: “Why did the Zen Master become a Zen Master? Because he couldn’t get a job doing anything else.”




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Morning Smile

Every night my body turns and turns and turns, hunting for a comfortable position. Exhaustion finally takes over, and I drift off to sleep… for about twenty minutes. Then the turning begins again. At dawn, the sunlight wakes me from my half-asleep, somewhat restful state. And I smile.sun-32198_1280-smile

It’s not every morning that I want to smile, but I smile anyway. I have learned I cannot control my body, but I can control my mind. This knowledge has freed me from suffering. Especially on the tough days when I really want to wallow, if I plaster a smile on my face when the light hits my eyes, everything shifts.

My body will hurt; it’s been this way for nearly 20 years, so I don’t expect it to stop, although I would welcome the absence of pain. Even when the pain is intense, the smile opens the mind to so much more than the physical experience of tired and sore bodies. While physical pain is part of my world, so is the absence of suffering.

The smile may leave my face after I climb out of bed, but it remains inside me. I feel the bliss of eternity wash through me throughout the day, and the world looks beautiful.

In my book, Peace with Pain, there’s a chapter called Smile Before Sleeping. It’s a great technique to learn mindfulness. But now I want to encourage you to Smile Upon Waking and notice how your world changes.

Smiling gets easier the more you do it. Your face remembers how wonderful it feels, to stretch your lips and raise your cheeks. With continued practice, smiling becomes a powerful habit. Then the smile appears even when you are distracted.

Of course, it helps to meditate every day as well. Even a few minutes of silence can melt years of conditioning that was built on misery. While you are meditating, you may notice the smile appearing spontaneously. These are my favorite types of smiles, when the mind stops and the facial muscle cannot help but express the Joy beyond thought.

At whatever stage you’re at, starting your day with a morning smile can transform your whole world. Don’t take my word for it, try it, right now.



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