Melting Chronic Pain & Illness

The Dance of Sensation & Story: PART II
July 14, 2014
Practices to Melt Chronic Pain & Illness
September 10, 2014
In a “how to” piece I wrote called Making Friends With Illness

I talked about how physical symptoms of discomfort and illness are not as concrete as they seem. Western medicine needs to catch up with modern physics! Quantum physics understands that all matter—including our bodies—consists of constantly interchanging particles.

In this essay, I will further explore this notion of the non-solid nature of body-symptoms, in hopes of opening up some options to readers who face chronic pain and illness.

I almost called this piece “When Mystics Get Sick,” because since childhood I have had a close relationship with visionary experiences and “non-ordinary states,” and have also experienced my fair share of chronic pain and illness.

I have found there is an interesting interplay between psycho-spiritual and physical states.

What is Chronic Pain? What is Chronic Illness?

A big question for me has always been, “What is illness?” “What is pain?” I am actually asking two questions here: “Are illness and pain solid things?” and “Are illness and pain bad?”

Is Illness/Pain a Solid Thing?

What is a migraine? What is chronic intestinal pain? Are these solid things?

Western medicine sees illness as a thing. Allopathic medicine focuses on diagnosing, labeling and treating a “condition” or “disease.” It searches for organic causes of illness and pain. A disease is seen as a free-standing, static thing. It is “kidney disease,” or “a tumor.” “a virus.” A thing.

We look to doctors to tell us, “You have X, and we are going to treat X with (the treatment for X).” This approach is legitimate, just as legitimate as it is to describe light as a particle. Viruses certainly exist. Broken bones exist.

But light is not always a particle; sometimes light is a wave. Often our symptoms and conditions mystify doctors.

So, are chronic pain and illness solid things? Maybe. But that’s not all they are.

Illness was not a solid thing for For Hildegarde von Bingen, a 12th century German nun and mystic. The grave illness that kept her bedridden was her repressed visionary experiences resisting censorship.

Hildegard had internalized the male-dominated, hierarchical church norms that forbade women and common folk from communing directly with God. As Hildegard lay in bed, God instructed her to write down her visions and share them.

Once she did this, her illness disappeared.

Pain is not always a solid thing for my clients. I have witnessed many clients’ distressing symptoms dissolve once they were acknowledged and listened to with respect.

Sometimes body contractions simply need kind attention to unwind; other times the bound up energy melts after it is expressed through tears or laughter, burps or flatulence, sighs or yawns.

For chronic conditions, this process may need to be repeated again and again. With repeated practice, more symptom relief and spaciousness becomes available in the short and long term.

Illness is not a solid thing for me. I’ve experienced migraines for 15 years. At first they were monthly episodes that began with blinding optical distortions (called “auras”), followed by two days of opaque, inescapable agony. Migraines used to terrify and defeat me.

But as I have grown and changed, so have my migraines. They are more malleable. Now when a migraine starts flirting with me, I slow down and greet it. I can feel the contraction of energy and emotion gathering in my neck and head. It wants attention and expression. So I cry, or journal, or dance, or speak aloud the angry thoughts I have been holding back. Usually the migraine evaporates.

At other times, if I am too caught up to notice an impending migraine, it slams me, and I am incapacitated for awhile (rarely for two days). But even then, it retains a fluid quality; big watery emotions float within the migraine; When I relax and surrender to the pain, I often feel strangely peaceful, and grateful.

Illness and pain are not always solid.

Are Illness & Pain “Bad”?
Are illness and chronic pain inherently bad?

Can there be a purposeful intelligence within pain and illness? 
In my experience, there can be. There is.

Hildegard’s illness was certainly purposeful. And insistent!

How about for you? I encourage you to explore this possibility yourself. When you are having a troubling sensation or symptom, try asking your heart, your spirit, your body: “What is this symptom trying to express or protect?”

  • Is this illness a message from the Divine, or wisdom from another realm?
  • Is this symptom an opportunity for healing?
  • Is this pain an opportunity to unwind trauma in the body?
  • Is this contraction in my body trying to keep me safe?
  • Is my body frightened of a change I am making in my life? Is it trying to reinforce the old, familiar restrictions of my family or the dominant culture?
  • Is there a story within my illness that longs to be listened to? A story of my childhood? An ancient story, buried under shame? An untold story of how my lineage survived oppression?

You can ask yourself these questions, or come up with your own questions. Trust that answers will come. Allow your body to respond in its own way and time. Setting aside some quiet reflective time each day creates opportunities to hear the “still, small voice” of your wise body.

Over the years, I have received some interesting answers to the questions, “Is pain bad or unhealthy?” and, “What is illness?”
Pain is both concentration and contraction. But is pain a bad thing? (Am I bad if I have pain? Have I done something wrong?)

Contraction frequently accompanies a significant shift in someone’s identity. The body/mind often contracts in familiar, chronic pain just as we are starting to expand beyond our previous limits. Contraction puts on the brakes.

Sometimes this is fear talking; it is a sign that we need some reassurance. Sometimes this contraction slows down the expansion to a more sustainable pace. Sometimes contraction is the inhalation that prepares us for the exhalation of expansion.

It is true that pain is challenging. But as we know from the birth process, pain is not necessarily a bad thing.

What is illness? Sometimes illness is transformation. Usually when I am shifting how I relate to the world, my body struggles to re-orient itself in specific, sequential ways.

For example, at a certain point I was actively shedding my old survival strategy of keeping my voice small and withholding my opinions, and “trying on” a new practice of raising my voice and speaking my truth. Audacious stuff for a girl who survived child sexual abuse and neglect by being compliant and unnoticeable!

During this time, over a period of about ten days, I experienced—in this precise order:

1) pain in my tailbone;

2) menstrual cramps;

3) extreme heartburn;

4) shoulderblade and rib pain;

5) a mysterious sore throat and severe TMJ symptoms;

6) vertigo and visual distortions; and finally

7) a fierce migraine.

At the time, I was too miserable to do anything but endure. Later I realized that my radical shift had been making its way through the each of the areas/organs associated with the 1st through 7th chakras (energy centers). By the end of this process, my vocal behaviors were thoroughly established.

How solid is illness for you? Is your pain a particle? A wave? Or both?
What intelligent patterns have you noticed in your body’s experiences of pain and illness?

I invite you to share your challenging and liberating experiences, with me and others.

Next month:

Practices That Invite Pain & Illness to Melt

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