It has been a while since I’ve written anything here. I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed not sitting in front of my computer, and I think this is something I’m going to be doing more often. Maybe you’d like to try it, too?
In fact I’ve been up to some fun things in the real world, like trying out circusy stuff at the Collingwood Circus Club and sharing some movement/strength goodies with them, and learning how to sing.
Much as I like the “real world”, I don’t want to let my unwritten words fester in my brain where they might start to rot and stink (Yes, I used deodorant today. Yes, I’ve showered…. I just haven written for a few weeks).
Let’s get down to it. (Fair warning, this post is long)
SEVERAL CONSTRUCTIVE USES FOR PAIN
They say “no pain no gain”, and “rest is for the weak”. However, this can potentially lead one to Broscience based evidence.
I prefer, “exploit pain for personal gain”. As is the topic of today: Living completely free from pain may be unrealistic, but we can meet it with our understanding and find that it can enrich our lives in many ways.
Writing this blog post brings me back to first year university anatomy class with one of my favourite professors of all time, Sam Booker.
It was in this class that the idea “pain is information” was first introduced to me. To paraphrase Sam’s words, “Pain is a sign from your body that you need to listen up and stop doing something because it feels bad”. Or something along those lines.
At the time, this blew my head off. You mean, pain isn’t just the annoying feeling of something hurting? Pain is trying to tell me something useful?? NO WAY!
And then, as per 19-year-old-Monika’s style, I memorized this fact for a test (aced it), neglected to further consider its practical application, and, for the next 4 years of my dance degree, I endured, ignored, and disregarded that my near-daily pain could be information worth tuning in to.
A few years ago I came across the work of Lorimer Moseley, the pain research guy from Australia, and read his and David Butler’s book Explain Pain. Explain Pain, again, describes pain as information about something our system is experiencing that could be potentially dangerous. Not that it is absolutely dangerous, but that we perceive it could be.
Our body uses pain to try to keep us from getting into too much trouble. Like the smoke detector that goes off just in case that smoke from the bacon you accidentally overcooked is actually a life-threatening fire (the actual story of my morning). Thank goodness the smoke detector is that sensitive, just in case.
Pain is a construct of our brains. Not to say that it isn’t real, or that it is imaginary. Our experience of pain is very real! But it’s not our finger that feels pain when we slice it open chopping onions- it is our brain that interprets the information from receptors in our finger as “danger” and produces a sensation that we call “pain” to let us know that “that was dumb, don’t do that if you want to keep living with all your blood”.
That’s great, Monika… But pain hurts
It’s all great to say: “Pain is just information. It’s in your head”. Ok… So how does that actually help us? How do we decode this information and use it to our advantage when we are injured, hurting, or sore?
(As you read on, keep in mind that if you are currently in a state of pain severe enough as to affect the quality of your life, get some help from someone you trust. I’m not a medical professional and I can’t help you through the magic of the internet.)
As my friend Rob Sawyer from aussie-land, recently wrote, living with the expectation of being completely pain free may not even be realistic.
Being pain free is a preference you and I are likely to both have, but it is just that: A preference. And pain, as I have learned, can be an enriching experience that helps us to learn more about ourselves. I used to think I could not be happy until I was completely out of pain. Why wait to be happy until that hypothetical, unrealistic date?
Rob wrote a lovely little piece comparing “pain-free living” with “balanced living”, which I will copy below:
I am surprised at how often the term “Pain Free Life/Lifestyle/Living” is used to lure in people who are experiencing pain in their lives… This terminology sounds extremely attractive… A life free from the experience of pain… But is that realistic?? Can we delete it from our existence? Mmm I think not.. So why is this continuously advertised? To prey on those that are hurting?
Is pain something we should be free of in this lifetime? Or might pain be a valuable experience that can help guide us?
I have met many inspiring people along this journey who have experienced great transformation in there body and lives, and they often had one thing in common… They gave in fighting and trying to be free from their pain, and began to honour it, explore it, listen to it, let it be a guide.
Can we life a Pain free life? A life free of pain?
Or a balanced life? A life enriched with the experience of both pain and pleasure?
Pain, in fact, is quite useful, and over the years and injuries, I have found quite a few uses for pain.
The following are some #protips for exploring pain as information, which may be useful if you wish to diminish its threat-status, live in harmony with your body, and even exploit pain to enhance your quality of life.
Avoid self-pity and subjectivity
A requisite for balanced living with pain is to be able to stay objective and avoid self-pity. These two bits are crucial going forward with any kind of treatment or therapy. Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t make using pain as information possible- It makes you resent the pain and wish it was gone.
Of course, I don’t wish pain upon anyone, it’s not that you should ever wish you were in pain, but making up stories about your pain and wishing it wasn’t there isn’t going to help get to the truth either.
Stories I’ve heard:
“I’m broken, and I no one has been able to help me”. Can you absolutely know that this is true? Have you worked with everyone? Or have you tried three therapists and given up hope already? Or, have you tried actually doing the work they asked of you?
“I’m just getting old.” Well, what about all those young people in chronic pain? What about all the 90-year-olds that live healthy, happy, active lives able to manage pain effectively and live with minor discomfort? Pain doesn’t discriminate by age.
“It’s because of my posture that I inherited from my Dad, he had the same issues as I’m having now”. Pain is not a genetic inheritance, and posture doesn’t necessarily correlate to pain.
Drop the stories and drop the self-pity.
Be open to feeling your pain
It might seem redundant to say, but, for us to exploit pain as useful information we must be open to actually feeling it in order to explore what it means, not wish it was gone or try to dissociate from it, or numb it with painkillers.
“But I shouldn’t be in pain!” (there’s that self pity I warned you about). Well you are. That’s the reality of it. Love that it is there, because it is, and you’re about to learn some useful things from it.
This sounds a bit cruel, but you can only hide from your own body for so long. I remember needing to take pain killers to get on stage and perform, and I remember getting prescription pain meds instead of getting help from a therapist. Pills are just easier, and ignoring pain is much easier than facing it. For a while…
Dig deep for more descriptive words
It is useful to make pain less “painy” by describing it in as many neutral terms as possible, which I encourage you to try right now if you have something going on in your body.
I have one client in particular who, despite her impressive vocabulary (seriously, she knows ALL the words and corrects me frequently), and my insistence to find different words for her experience, consistently comes back to, “It sucks”, “It hurts”, “It feels shitty”.
Sucks how? What kind of hurt? What’s shitty about it? We need more information if we’re going to do anything with what you’re experiencing. In fact, she uses “it sucks” to describe a lot of exercises that don’t hurt in the “pain” way, but that are just hard to do.
If you currently have something that hurts, what three words would you use to describe the pain sensations? Burny? Grabby? Pointy? Weak? Grindy? Stuck? Dull? Sharp? See what happens as you get clarity on this. Just try not to use the words “tight” or “painful”.
Click here to use a thesaurus, if you’re struggling.
Remember, exploiting pain doesn’t necessarily mean “making it go away”, it means meeting it with your understanding, lessening the threat, and reducing the negative sentiments attached to it so that it can be used as a learning experience.
Pain as an object of meditation
You don’t need a meditation app if you have pain to work with!
The challenge with pain is that we are generally biased to judge it as a negative experience (there are however some individuals who genuinely enjoy pain. I’m not talking about those people). Then again, maybe that’s just my naivete speaking, having never broken a bone, never been stabbed, never fallen from a 10 story building, and never woken up mid-surgery to find the anesthetic had worn off prematurely.
I’ve never felt I was in life-threatening pain, so, easy for me to talk.
Regardless, we can use “pain as neutral information” for a fascinating meditation.
Similar to noticing a tree over to the left, or a pile of dog poop on the sidewalk, we can notice pain. We can tell a story about the tree or the dog crap, or we can just notice they are there.
We might see a tree and think, “Oh look, my favourite tree! This tree is beautiful. This is the same tree I had a wonderful picnic with my grandmother under just before she passed away. I love this tree and I will take my children here one day, too”. The tree brings back happy memories and so we become happily attached to it. No harm done here. But we can also look at it and see it for just what it is: A tree. No stories or sentiments attached.
As I mentioned earlier, we will also often tell stories about our pain, and sometimes these stories keep us stuck. The key difference: It is not so pleasant to become attached to pain as it is to a tree.
Using pain as an object of meditation is to observe it without the story, without the judgement of “bad”, and feel it for what it is.
I would argue that it is an equally valuable experience to be able to look at a tree and see it for what it is, not for the story of the picnic with a cherished relative and the fond memories it brings, but for just being a tree. Since the tree is not a bodily experience, this might be an easier place to start than the pain meditation.
For example, in my meditation practice, currently, I am working on observing myself observing: Noticing the thoughts (words and images) that come in, saying goodbye to them without letting my mind get too carried by with them, and noticing the space between the thoughts. My awareness becomes the object of my observation. There are many ways to meditate, but this is what I am working on now.
If I reach the 15 minute mark, I often start to notice some discomfort in my upper back and knees, and my foot falling asleep. At this point, it is easy to become frustrated with these sensations and wish they were gone because they are distracting me and I find it difficult to ignore them and I just want to get back to meditating! But then I realize that what is distracting me is not the pain itself, the pain is just there, like the tree, but it is my story and thoughts about the pain that are distracting me.
So I bring my awareness to the area of discomfort as I would to the tree. And I just try to “see” it as part of the landscape, along with all the other things in my awareness.
In “mindfulness” meditation, this is essentially what we are doing: Taking in everything with all our senses, and just observing it as it is. The pain is there, no doubt. But if I didn’t attach the “this is annoying, I wish this was gone” story, what would it feel like?
Interestingly, as soon as I shift my focus as such, the pain and discomfort start to drop off, becoming a dull hum, not so sharp and omnipresent. The painy feelings cease to be as bad and distracting, and I can simply notice that they are there. And then, the pain may even disappear, which blows my mind.
Sometimes the act of observing changes the observed without us having to try to change anything.
Using pain in this way has made for very, very interesting sessions, and makes pain an excellent teacher for being in the moment, focusing on what is real, and practicing non-judgement.
INJURY AS INSPIRATION
I will finish this long post up with the quick story of how I used some recent wrist pain to enhance my pistol squats.
Last summer I started rock climbing (bouldering) and it was going pretty well (If you define embarrassing myself a bunch while trying to overcome my fear of heights as “great”…) but recently my wrist has been bugging me, and I’ve had to take a little break from it.
Years ago, I would have ignored an injury and kept performing through it. Monika 2.0 doesn’t do that shit anymore.
In fact, with my extra available time not spent climbing I wondered, “What if I used the passion and time I dedicated to climbing and redistributed it into the recovery process?”.
So that’s what I decided to do, and some pretty interesting stuff has come out of it, and, through the process of body-detectivery, this minor setback has been teaching me a lot about my body, stuff I may not of otherwise discovered.
To borrow the words of Gary Ward, I “interviewed my body”. Even if I do rest from climbing until my wrist feels better, I would also be best served to learn where this issue was coming from. Bodies don’t just start hurting randomly, for no reason. There is probably some good information to dig into here.
I will now skip all the dry technical stuff (but I wrote a few more pages on it, if you’re interested…). To sum it up, the interview process went as such:
- How does my body hold itself statically?
- Where is the perceived “center” around which my body is currently organizing itself?
- What movements am I not accessing?
What I discovered in the process was a lack of ribcage/pelvis opposition in rotation, so I followed that trail. This incongruence in rotation turned out to be a missing piece of my left leg pistol squat puzzle.
My left side pistol squat used to be extremely wobbly, and even kind of painful (I mean tight, I MEAN…) for my hamstring (old injury). As it happens, on my left leg, my pelvis and ribcage were rotating the same direction (both to the left, instead of pelvis left, ribs right). In gait, and in most exercises, the pelvis and ribcage should rotate in opposite directions, not the same. I just hadn’t noticed this until I took the time to interview my body.
Now, with the awareness of my lacking oppositional rotation, I can go just as low into the pistol squat as on my right side (which is still pretty pitiful) with no discomfort, and all I have to do is reach forwards a bit further with my left hand.
And I’ve been blaming my “short achilles tendons” all these years… It was just a rotational pattern I didn’t know I wasn’t doing.
Pretty cool to be able to trace some wrist discomfort to an old hamstring injury, and use the info to revamp my pistol squats.
What’s really interesting to me is that paying all this extra attention to my body over the past week, it feels amazing, in fact, never so good. However, my wrist still feels the same. Not worse, the same. Pain is still there, but I feel enriched by the experience of exploring it.
Patience is truly a most important virtue, as this process has been teaching me.
Nope. I’m all worded out. Gather your own conclusions. You can do it! I believe in you!
And seeing as we’re getting towards the 3000 word mark, I think this is a nice place to wrap up.
What do you think? What’s your experience? Hate or love what I have to say? Leave your kind words and/or abuse in the comments section below.