Two days before Christmas, two days before the socializing of the Holiday season really got into swing, two days before I felt that at some stage in the next week I will need to dip deep into my inner resources to navigate my introverted self through the busyness of seasonal jollity - I get a migraine.
Migraines for me are a three day presence of dull thick, hard throbs in my head and psychologically feeling completely out of sorts in my body. This one though had another surprise up its sleeve. It lasted for five days. All of this is preceded by the green light to say that a migraine is on its way - auras flying around in front of one of my eyes, increasing in number until I can hardly see out on one eye. Migraines are definitely more than simply a headache.
Half way those five days I drove myself to the Maui Arts and Cultural Center to see an animated Japanese movie that was being shown as a part of the Maui Film Festival. This might sound like a crazy thing to do after what I described in the last paragraph, but having sat with migraines for almost four decades now, I try to find ways to not let them completely bring my life to a stand still. I told myself that a late afternoon movie would be half full and that I could relax in a dark, empty theatre. Well I got that wrong. The movie, Miss Hokusai, was good while confusing in places and beautifully illustrated. An historical drama based around the artist Hokusai, known for his woodblock print of a wave. I was drawn to see the film by my new love and curiosity of Japan (see my last post), but while I enjoyed the animation and am pleased now that I saw the movie, I had to breathe deeply through the ninety minutes to not let the waves of nausea overwhelm me.
And it is that image that I want to borrow from here - Waves. the word gives a sense of something in motion, moving, changing, crashing down and rising up again. Very definitely not fixed. There is even sound connected with it, from that of little breakers, to the giants that you can experience here on Maui.
When pain grabs us the feeling can be so unpleasant that we almost lock onto it. In engaging in this conversation I am not thinking of chronic pain. While what I share here is, I believe, true for all pain, some pain is just too overwhelming to be dealt with any other way than strong pain killers. Remember the priority is to look after yourself and do what is right, seeking medical advice where appropriate - do not regard these words as a substitute.
So returning to that moment when we lock onto that pain. As we do so we create this image of solidity in our mind. This pain is solid, unchanging and it hurts! So we want to get rid of it, this lump of PAIN! An unchangeable, unmovable thing in our body called pain. It hurts one way right now and that is the end of the story. But let me invite you to try something….what if we can find some space to sit or lie down with this pain, perhaps in a quiet darkened room? Bring your mind to the area where the pain resides. Watch and observe it with the light touch of your awareness. If the pain gets too much do what you need to do - medication, the comfort of others - and then when you can return to the pain. What is going on there? What does the pain feel like? Does it have a color? Does it have a shape? Does it feel light or heavy? Is it moving? Can you “hear” a sound there? Perhaps the analogy of the wave is fitting?
None of this is to deny pain and the hurt that it causes us, but what I am inviting you to explore here is the solidity or otherwise of the pain. I am inviting you to get to know the pain and develop a relationship with it beyond our habitual recoiling from it. I am suggesting that if we sit with the pain we can see that it is not a solid object. There is something changing and evolving about it. It’s output as it were is the pain that we feel, but the actual thing that we call pain seems to be undulating and constantly reorganizing.
It is because of this changing nature that we can bring our awareness to bear on pain, lightly touching in on our experience of it in that moment, and then letting it go because it is changing….even if in the next nano second it strikes us hard again. It’s about the intention that we bring to our experience of pain. The intention to let go of the pain as best we can instead of holding. But do remember that there is no denial of pain in there - pain is pain (a kidney stone reminded me of that!) and where you need to cry out, reach for medication, consult a doctor - DO! However, the more that you familiarize yourself with pain’s changing nature, the easier the letting go and being able to breathe into it will become.
Another way of handling pain is to shift the perspective with which we are seeing and experiencing it. Where we can find the space within ourselves reflect on others, maybe starting with friends, who might be suffering pain, whether due to similar causes or different. Imagine as you breathe in that you are taking on that pain, and as you breathe out you are giving them a state free of their pain - they are healed. As you strength in this practice grows, widen your sphere of those who you want to help. If resistance arises, that is fine - we all have our limits of how far we can spread our help - with practice that resistance will lessen.
By taking our mind away from our own pain and giving ourselves the perspective that others out there are hurting as well, we diminish our self-involvement with our own pain. Again, this is not to deny our hurt, but rather to move it into the space of a larger perspective - and that shift can make our own discomfort seem smaller, at least a little bit, and more bearable.
I invite you to try these methods out next time that you are in some physical discomfort. You might find that you have a preference for one method over another. That’s fine. Use what works of you.
And let me know below how you get on, success, struggles, or if you have any questions. If you have another method that you use to manage your own pain, I’d be interested in hearing about it.