Jun 29, 2008

Beyond Pain

I’ve been in one kind of pain or another for most of the last two years. Most of it is sports related. It started with a condition called "tennis elbow," which lasted for about four months. When I recovered, I then I stretched a tendon on my left shoulder. Once that healed, I hurt both my Achilles tendons, then had plantar fasciitis, and the most recent one, since last October, is a intermittent lower back/hip pain that seems to move from one place to another.

I dropped off my son at school last Friday -- I’m in Buenos Aires and he’s taking Spanish classes for three weeks – and decided to run some errands before I picked him up. I had a lot of walking to do and as I walked, I noticed a burning feeling in my lower back and my left knee.

When this sequence of injuries began two years ago, I was frustrated and often made myself miserable thinking that this should not be happening to me. Until then, I had never experienced any chronic pain. Naive as it may sound, I thought I was invulnerable to it or that if I ever had to deal with pain, that because I'm mentally tough and prepared for it, I would be able to heal right away.

The more I fought the pain mentally, the more conscious I became of it, and before I knew it it was interfering with many of my activities. My days became colored by the level of pain I felt.

Looking back, I can say the experience has been most humbling and helpful and I wouldn't have it any other way. If I’ve learned anything over the last two (painful) years is not to fight pain. My purpose is no longer to heal the body, but rather to withdraw my identification from it.

While I may or may not, according to what I feel at the moment, take material steps to alleviate the pain (this is what the Course calls “magic”), mentally, I’ve learned that I feel less anxiety and less pain when I accept it as it is. After all, I am identified with a body. Discomfort, whether it's physical or psychological, comes with the territory. Watching the pain come and go without resistance or judgment is the key to diminishing our identification with the body.

As I walked through the narrow streets of downtown Buenos Aires, the pain became particularly intense. Both my lower back and my knee throbbed. I walked slowly and with difficulty. I felt crippled. Unable to finish the block I went into a cafe and sat down.

I watched my mind fight the pain and become lost in it and then become conscious again as I let go. Eventually, I settled into peaceful acceptance. I remembered one of my favorite lines in the Workbook Lesson 135:18-1, “What could you not accept, if you knew that everything that happens, all events, past, present and to come are gently planned by One Whose only purpose is your good?”

A non-dualistic God doesn’t really have a Plan. The Course often comforts us with the use of anthropomorphic language to describe god, but it’s meant to be taken metaphorically. It's the way by which the Course is able to reach us at the level we are at. There is, however, an atonement path for each of us. That path is exactly what happens in our lives. Each situation is a lesson in a perfectly crafted curriculum. There are no mistakes. As students, our job is to forgive, not to argue with the lessons as they come.

Sitting at a table now sipping a nice cup of coffee with milk, I watched the pain come and go. If you’ve ever watched yourself think or feel, you know that once you begin to watch yourself do something, you can’t be fully identified with it. You’ve become the conscious observer. As I looked at the pain without judging it (that's what forgiveness is), for a moment, I felt who I am beyond it. It became clear that this aching body was not who I am. I laughed out loud.

In the middle of the worst pain I’ve had in a while, I was suddenly happy. The pain didn’t stop, but it ceased to be the focal point of my awareness. My mind was no longer consumed with it. As I looked around the cafe I had the feeling I was seeing through a veil. The images beyond the veil didn't seem so real and important anymore. The Joy I felt came from the awareness that I wasn't there. I remembered Ken Wapnick's seminar entitled "Finding Joy in a Joyless world," where he quoted this line from the Text CH6-II:6 “How else can you find joy in a joyless place except by realizing that you are not there?"

I walked out of the cafe and continued with my original plan -- the pain there, but my mind completely clear of it. I walked around for a whole hour until I picked up my son.

I came away from the experience with a deeper understanding of what acceptance is. It’s simply allowing the body to feel like it will, but mentally withdrawing my identification with it. It’s knowing that my body can feel as it pleases, but it does not have power to cut me off from my source of joy and peace.

Leafing through “A New Earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose,” by Ekhart Tolle last night, I found this on p. 78 “What is spiritual realization? The belief that you are spirit? No. That’s a thought. A little closer to the truth than the thought that believes your are who your birth certificate says you are, but still a thought. Spiritual realization is to see clearly that what I perceive, experience, think, or feel is ultimately not who I am, that I cannot find myself in all those things that continuously pass away.”

Yesterday, I woke up free of pain. I can’t say the pain won’t come back, but right now, it doesn’t seem as important. The lessons will come and they will stay for as long as I need them. True healing is always of the mind.