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Crack that coconut: on pain, compassion and coconut water

* This post originally appeared on the Yoga Service Council website.

Pain and disease awaken us to convictions, which are necessary to our moral condition. ~ Samuel Johnson

These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them. ~ Rumi

Pain is the great teacher of mankind. Beneath its breath souls develop. ~ Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

February was the first month in over ten years that I did not produce a newsletter. I couldn’t – I was in one of the most depressive and confusing periods of my life.

It started back in early December when I was apparently bitten by a mosquito that was infected with the chikangunya virus – a virus that causes severe joint and muscle pain and depression. Every morning when I would wake up, I would immediately be aware of the pain. When I put my feet on to the floor to walk, pain would ache and throb through my feet and I would hobble like someone twice my age to the bathroom. Getting dressed was a chore since I couldn’t lift my arms over my head or put them behind my back. Making breakfast reminded me of my condition since I couldn’t open a jar or light a lighter for the stove. Working was difficult since I couldn’t turn on an i-phone or use my wrists to type. While the pain was pervasive, specific points of pain would often move. One day it would be my right thumb and left ankle, and two days later it would be my left thumb and right shoulder. Swimming hurt. Stretching hurt. Walking hurt. Many times, I would just be sitting with friends or family, not thinking about the pain, when suddenly it would flare up and I could feel it starting around my neck and shoulders and then just begin to work its way throbbing down my arms.

I went to visit my family for Christmas and hid the pain I was in. I didn’t want to make a scene, and I knew that my family’s resources for this sort of thing were appropriately directed toward my sister who had just completed chemo treatment for ovarian cancer.

Keeping the pain inside drove the depression deeper into my cells. I would cry every night when I got back to the place we were staying and then pull it together for the days spent with family. In January, I went up to Seattle to see an infectious disease specialist. Short story – I tested positive for Lyme disease and was put on antibiotics to get rid of it, if in fact that was what I had. It wasn’t. But I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotics and ended up with second-degree burns on my hands and feet and excruciating pain in my fingernails.

Over the next several weeks, joint and body pain continued but little by little began to subside. As I type this today, I feel mostly pain free and am grateful for that. But I am also grateful for the experience itself as it taught me at least two powerful lessons.

The first is simply a deeper sense of shared experience and compassion. In the work I have done over the past twenty years, I have had the honor to sit and work with so many people in difficult life circumstances. I have been incredibly lucky in my life to have dodged so many of the painful experiences that my clients and students have to live with, but it never made me feel like I couldn’t connect with them or help them in some way. Sharing the experience, however, even if in some small way, has helped to see a new dimension to their pain in a way that invites a deeper connection.

It may have been four years ago now that I contracted an awful stomach bug here in Mexico. At that time I remember thinking, “Wow. This is how all the people I have worked with who have irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s Disease, or other digestive disorders might feel.” I understood, in a whole new way, how it felt to have to always have a bathroom nearby. To be afraid to eat anything lest it wreak havoc on my belly. To feel wrung out and hungry because I didn’t want to eat and deal with the consequences. To not want to socialize because there wasn’t really anywhere I could go that felt safe from food and near to home if I needed to get there.

I knew then, and I know now, that it wasn’t the same as living with those symptoms as chronic conditions, but when I was in the midst of it, I had no idea how it would play out – or if it would be a chronic condition or not.

I had a similar experience three years ago when I witnessed a horrible accident in which a child died and was pulled out of the water right in front of me. I felt the crushing weight of trauma – the distraction, the replaying and replaying and replaying of the incident. I woke up in the middle of the night obsessed with the mother and how she would cope. I saw everything as bleak and sad and overwhelming. Small talk made me anxious and I felt unsafe in all kinds of new ways that had nothing to do with the accident.

While again, I knew this was not the same as the experience of the many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with severe PTSD from repeated trauma, nor the many adults I have worked with who had prolonged histories of childhood sexual and other emotional trauma, the experience did give me a new visceral insight into what PTSD might be like and how I could meet it with love and true “compassion” or “suffering with.”

In the same way, this occurrence of pain through the mosquito virus has given me fresh eyes and insight into what a chronic pain experience might be like. I cringe to think of the Yoga for Chronic Pain classes I used to offer. I know I was kind hearted, and probably had some good ideas, but I had no way of truly understanding that what seemed “gentle” to me then was already more than many people could do. Cat and cow? Nope. Hurts my wrists. Raising and lowering arms with breath? Nope. Hurts my shoulders. Point and flex feet? Nope. Hurts my toes and ankles. Breathe? OK. Yes. I can do that.

If I could go back and teach those classes again, I would be even that much more gentle. I would do a lot of breathing, not only because most people can do that relatively pain free, but also because it adds the benefit of a tool to use in managing the pain and everything that comes with it. But most of all, I would just be a partner, an ally on the journey.

Because this is the second thing I learned on my own pain journey: that chronic pain is mostly hidden, as are many illnesses and life challenges, and that when we talk about our condition, we are mostly met with what I have termed the “smugness of health,” something of which I know I too have been guilty.

There seems to exist, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, a sense that, “That won’t happen to me because I am…” and you can fill in the blank. Younger. Healthier. Slimmer. More active. More evolved. A sense of, “While I feel bad for what you are going through, I really can’t relate, because I am, and always will be, the picture of optimal health.”

I remember being a kid and my dad asking me to read labels for him at the grocery store. I remember this in part, because there was something that I really liked about helping my dad in this way. This person who was so smart, so powerful, and yet he needed my help to see the small print. I got to be smarter and more powerful than him, for just that moment. I couldn’t even imagine that one day I would have to hand a jar to one of my own nieces or nephews and ask them to read it. I just assumed that my eyes, my vision, would always be perfect.

When my sister was diagnosed with cancer, she said many times, “My friends keep saying they can’t believe this is happening to me – they see me as the picture of health!” I’m not sure I even know what the picture of health is. Is it someone who looks “healthy” on the outside? Is it someone who has evolved in their mental and spiritual health? Is it someone who drinks spirulina shakes and runs ultra-marathons? When she got the results back from genetic testing, I remember not feeling necessarily any better that she did not carry the gene – I could see that cancer can strike anyone anytime. I could get it whether I had the gene or not. I could get it no matter how healthy I am. And flying in the face of the most insidious and harmful, yet all too common thought process: I could get it whether I had “processed the unresolved feelings of – fill in the blank” – or not.

Anything could happen to my body or to my mind. And anything can happen to yours.

And yet, we have this very odd surety about the state of our bodies and our minds. I say odd because we know, at a pretty high level, that pain, age, illness, injury, and yes death, will reach us all. And yet, we spend most of our lives denying that reality. So when we see someone else living it, we have two options: acknowledge it as an inevitable part of life and move toward their suffering, or double down on our narrative that it “won’t happen to me,” and put up an invisible wall of advice or judgment between us. Because if I can tell you what to do, or if I can find a reason why you have that but I don’t, I get to, just in that moment, feel smarter and more powerful. Because that’s not going to happen to me.

In my experience, the vast majority of folks choose the latter. But why? I believe we choose it out of fear of facing the truth, and even more pernicious, out of fear of showing our fear of facing the truth. We are of afraid of death, afraid of loss, afraid of illness or change or trauma, and yet we don’t want people to know we are afraid. So we avoid the topic, and the reality, as much as we can. We sit in isolation with our suffering, or, when we are not the ones in pain, we revert to giving simple, obvious advice to each other while ignoring the depth of their suffering. In just that moment, we can assert our own power and intelligence, mostly through giving advice, as a means of masking what is actually happening.

I was hyper aware of this all winter. I recall one time seeing a post of a dear friend of mine who is a professional dancer where she wrote “It always sucks to be sick, but especially now.” I felt so irritated by the responses – “Take lots of vitamin C!,” “Drink herbal tea!” “Make yourself some soup and stay in bed.” I wrote,“Hang in there.”