A look at how mindfulness can help you deal with pain.
I had the good fortune to be able to travel to the beach recently. As you know, vacations can bring up so much – and not always just wondrous experiences. I hope you have opportunity to catch a vacation in some place that awakens your sense of beauty and awe and that allows you to fully feel whatever presents itself. Here’s a story that tells about an experience I had that put me fully in touch with feelings of bliss and then pain…
Going for a beautiful walk on the beach – the blue, turquoise, greenish blue water on my right; amazing river-cut mountainside, palm trees and bush on my left. I’m at the perfect spot between where the waves lap the beach, and the deeper wetter sand that my feet sink into and is harder to walk in.
It feels good to walk, to have my limbs moving, remembering the pleasure of walking. I’d been sitting and stiff for too long already in the morning. The waves, the people, the overnight campers, the resort dwellers, the fisherman, the families, the cool shade from the buildings and trees, the rocks that emerge from the smooth sand, the yacht taking off in the distance, going faster than the outrigger canoers learning a new sport…all add to this rich morning walk on the beach. The sounds of the waves, crashing in the distance or lapping onto my feet, provide backdrop noise for the birds starting their morning calls.
I languish and lean into this amazing stroll. In this environment I could walk forever. The noticeable oncoming warmth of the day is cooled by the ocean breeze. I take in every nuance of light, color, movement, sound, sensation. I am like a sponge on this ocean walk and I am filled with peace and beauty. I already know this is the highlight of my day. I am so blessed to be walking in this paradise…
…There’s a woman trying to manage her paddle board and the current is pretty strong. The paddle board has a mind of its own, pulling and pushing in its own direction. It slips away from her, shooting out from her grasp….WATCH OUT! Watch Out!! WATCH OUT!!!!!
I don’t realize it’s me she’s warning and in the split second before it hits me, I see out of the corner of my eye a white paddle board coming straight for me, parallel to the beach. I only had to jump about a foot ahead so I could clear it and avoid being smacked altogether, but there is no way my brain registers that in time to make my body react by getting out of the way, in the split second of awareness I have, so SMACK! The board hit just above my ankle with fierceness. The micro second of knowing I was going to get hit was exactly the same moment of knowing I’d gotten hit.
In some twisted way of trying to avoid shame, I did manage to think that I didn’t want to suffer the embarrassment of being knocked over by the force of the impact, so I stood rigid and firm and instead let my leg take the full brunt of the slam, as if I were a concrete wall. Only I’m not. Letting myself fall and roll with it would definitely have been a better choice, but in that moment, I was more concerned about saving face.
The pain of the impact pain is excruciating, but I have maybe five steps in me to get out of the way and try not to get hit again by that paddle board that is flailing and flying out of control, and I try to avoid the humiliation and embarrassment of having been hit.
The woman is very apologetic and asks repeatedly, as does her crowd on the beach, if I am OK. I feign yes, I’m ok. And again. How I take those first few steps right after impact, I don’t know – it’s another energy from within me that I don’t know I possess. I get ten feet away and want to collapse from the pain, or hold myself paralyzed as I finally allow the pain to sink in. The pain …The Pain…THE PAIN….
I JUST TRY TO BREATHE SLOWLY, BUT IT HURTS SO BAD. Hard to breathe slowly when it hurts so bad. I need a few moments. I trust it won’t keep feeling like this and that it will ease, but my brain just wants it to hurry up and not feel like this for one second longer.
I must turn around and walk back. The path I’ve taken thinking I could walk alongside this ocean forever, now looks interminable. I start hobbling and it hurts to put weight on it. It hurts to not put weight on it. It hurts to wobble, it hurts to stand.
The people ask again if I’m ok. I hobble yes I’m fine… What can they do? There’s no blood, nothing broken because I can still walk – just invisible but palpable PAIN. I keep waiting for it to subside like a wave – but there really isn’t any subsiding going on…
Try to be with the pain – I plead with myself. Be present to it…don’t wish for the flow when I’m still in the ebb….tears sting my eyes. It just hurts. I want to cry. I feel helpless, little, hurt, but I must go on. No one will carry me. I must carry myself. Even if it’s slow and careful, and filled with agony, I can do it.
I am distracted for a moment by the waves, the beauty, then again wincing with another noticing of the pain that doesn’t really subside. Tears fill my eyes. OUCH. I HURT. I HURT. IHURT SO BAD.
I notice the paddle board perpetrator (it wasn’t her fault really – she was like I would be – overpowered by her board and the current) gliding gracefully out to sea – and obviously without pain. I make up a story that we read in the papers about a hauli paddle boarder who gets washed out to the next island because she didn’t understand how strong the current was, and I laugh about her karma, just before I feel a stab of my own karma boomeranging back and pounding me with pain again.
It’s no longer localized to only where the paddle board originally hit me, but spreading deeply and hurtfully to the front of my ankle, and then to the top of my foot, and through the foot (oh my poor feet that are so ouchy anyways), and now up my leg. I wince, and tear up, and hobble, and catastrophize how everything is ruined now. I can’t do anything. I hurt so much.
No matter how I adjust for the pain, it is still there. I am grimacing with hurt and suffering. Some moments I am just present to the pain – O U C H. Some moments I even manage to feel compassion for all the people who live with pain. I keep walking, with some moments of I need to stop, or I must cry, or I simply just hurt and I will hurt as long as I hurt, and then I won’t. It hurts to hurt.
I realize the impact pain is gone, and now the settling in pain is present. Stiffness, swelling, ache in all the surrounding areas – as if each adjacent part of my body was trying to carry the load, share the burden of the pain.
I am grateful the paddle board with its full force didn’t take my foot off or break something. I am grateful it’s not my heart that is hurting – only my ankle, foot, body. I am grateful, but I still hurt.
I get to the ice. I put my foot up. I wince with pain. I move slow. Time moves slow. The ice hurts. I hurt. But I can finally feel the ebb and flow of this pain too. And I notice some of my pain has eased as I write this story. I notice I have just been with the pain, just being with it as it is, even when I feel I can’t bear it one second longer.
I do believe that my total presence to the pain, my acceptance of each throb, my written and emotional articulation of each wince, actually helped me to move through it relatively quickly. Even though at times I naturally wanted to escape and be rid of all that pain, I was able to utilize my mindfulness practice to help me to stay with it, embrace it, feel it fully, and then let it go in it’s time.
Let me know how you feel when hit with some emotional or physical pain. What happens for you? How do you move through it? I’d love to hear from you.
If you need help managing the pain of illness, anxiety, depression, loss, please contact me for a therapy appointment.
For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.