How I Cured My Chronic Pain

My chronic pain made me suicidal. I had it for over four years.

The pain was in my left ischial tuberosity where the hamstring attaches to the pelvis, otherwise known as your ‘sit bone’. And it mostly only hurt when I sat.

Unfortunately, until you’re in pain every time you sit down, you don’t realize how much of your life revolves around sitting. Traveling became impossible because I couldn’t last in a car or airplane. Work was difficult. Eating out with friends had to go. Even just relaxing in front of the tv at night was an excruciating exercise.

If you want to learn about why my TMS started, you can read the full story here. In this article, I want to address the specifics of how I found my way out of the entrenched neural net that is TMS and thought my way out of chronic pain after it destroying my life for four years.

Here’s what it comes down to:

You have to convince yourself that the pain is all in your mind.

And you have to BELIEVE it.

This is a much harder task than you’d imagine. We as people, of course, believe that pain is an indicator that something is physically wrong. And it is most of the time! But sometimes, our brain gets ‘stuck’ on pain mode and it can’t find it’s way out. That’s how TMS crept up on me. Some hamstring tendonitis pain sensation decided to stick around long after the tendonitis itself had healed.

So how do you go about convincing yourself that your pain is in your head? For me there were two people that I had to convince: my logical brain, and my emotional brain. Both of them had very different journeys to accepting the TMS diagnosis.

Convincing the Logical Brain

Your logical brain is all about evidence and data. In order to convince it that there is nothing wrong with you, first you need to make sure you have extensive testing done by your doctors. I had MRIs, nerve conduction studies, experimental cortisone injections, physical therapy evaluations, and several doctor’s evaluations. Some of them led to diagnosis and treatments that didn’t work. After years of this, my doctors were out of ideas and were telling me that there was nothing structurally wrong with me that could be causing this pain.

After ruling out physical causes, my logical brain was convinced this was TMS by creating an Evidence Sheet. My evidence sheet was a long list of reasons that I was certain that my pain was TMS, and thus in my head. Here is what mine looked like:

  • I have the exact personality type TMS patients have.
  • I have a history of abuse in my childhood that predisposes myself to TMS.
  • I have a long history of aches and pains around stressful periods of my life, particularly in my back and neck.
  • No medical professional can find anything structurally wrong with me.
  • Physical activity does not immediately worsen my pain.
  • I pass every physical examination with flying colors.
  • My pain completely resolves when I sleep and is gone in the mornings. Structural pain would not disappear overnight.
  • The initial onset of my pain was during a stressful period in my life (infertility treatments) and got worse the deeper into treatment I got.
  • I am able to change the quality and quantity of my pain in meditation sessions.
  • Sometimes my pain jumps over to my right side or to slightly different areas in my butt.
  • I have had a few hours, days and moments without pain.
  • The pain has resolved completely in the past for months at a time before it came back with a stressful event.
  • The pain is at its worst when I panic about it and obsess over it.
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol numbs the pain entirely. Alcohol is a CNS depressant which makes the brain stop feeling pain.

I reviewed this evidence sheet on a daily basis to remind my logical brain of why my pain was likely TMS.

Convincing the Emotional Brain

Like many TMS patients, I’m a hyper-logical person, and I’m not very in touch with my emotional brain. So getting in contact with my emotional brain to convince it was a much harder exercise.

Making it even more difficult to convince the emotional brain is the fact that the emotional brain under the influence of pain is driven by a single powerful force: fear.

My pain was terrifying. I was terrified that I would feel it forever. That I would lead a life essentially disabled, unable to see the people I loved or do the things I loved. I was terrified that in my 30s I’d be carrying around a donut pillow to sit on the rest of my life, or not be able to work anymore. I was scared it would get worse. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to survive it.

Convincing the emotional brain, for me, meant conquering that fear. How do you conquer a fear? It’s not like I could go bungee jumping or something to show I wasn’t afraid of this thing anymore.

The first step was to stop feeding the fear. I was doing a lot of things that gave power to my fear and to my pain. For example:

  • I spent hours every day researching my pain and trying to figure out what it could be. I googled infinitely trying to find success stories or surgeries or doctors or treatments I hadn’t tried. Now to be fair, this googling led me to John Sarno and TMS, but once I knew logically it was TMS, I needed to stop researching my symptoms.
  • I was limited my physical activity pretty significantly because of the fear that I would make my ‘injury’ worse. I started engaging in physical activity again, doing short walks and light exercise.
  • I was using a number of ‘modifiers’. Modifiers are physical items that aid you in doing basic tasks. I had various pillows and lumbar rolls that I used in the car and on chairs. I had donut pillows of various densities and sizes that I sat on. I had a tennis ball I would place under my hamstring when I sat down which would take the pressure off my ischial tube. I stopped using all of these cold turkey, because using them reinforced the idea that I was ‘damaged’ in some way, when I was not.
  • I had a routine of stretching, foam rolling, icing, heating pads and using stim to try to ease pain. I stopped doing all of these things.

Stopping all of these things was scary, and it didn’t make the pain go away immediately, but it didn’t make it worse either so I took that as a good sign.

Now that I wasn’t feeding the fear with reminders that I might be damaged, I also had to retrain my brain that the pain wasn’t something to worry about or be afraid of. And ultimately, that it wasn’t real. So I talked to it. A lot. Every time it was bugging me, I’d quickly say something like “Oh, that isn’t real, I don’t need to worry about it.” Or, “You’re not a real thing, go away!” Or, “I’m not hurt, that’s just my brain.”

After several weeks of this, I was noticing some reduction in my symptoms and an increase in my pain tolerance. I had pain-free days from time to time. It seemed I was on the right trajectory, but it kept coming back.

The Authority Figure

I had worked my way through Dr. Schecter’s TMS workbook and it was one of the things that helped initially convince me that I had TMS. But neither his workbook nor my personal interventions were sufficient to end my pain. So I decided to make an appointment with Dr. Schecter to see what he had to say about my case.

He was very thorough in my appointment. He examined all of my medical history, my history of abuse, my scans, my tests, asked tons of questions, and examined my area of pain extensively. He clearly went in with an open mind. But when it came to his diagnosis, he told me that I could be fairly certain that what I was experiencing was TMS. He thought that perhaps, given my personality type, hearing it from an authority figure might make a difference for me.

He drew me a graph of his expected trajectory for me feeling better, indicating that I might see immediate improvements but there were bound to be regression periods as well where my pain would come back. But that as I carved new neural pathways, it would eventually vanish.

It took me two hours to drive home from his office and I was in excruciating pain the entire way. But I had new hope.

The next day, I woke up and the pain was gone. That was typical for my mornings. But then, it didn’t start up as the clock ticked by the hours. I went the entire day without pain. And the next day. And the next.

Hearing from Dr. Schecter that my pain truly was TMS ended my four year history of chronic pain. I had laid the groundwork and convinced my logical and emotional brain 99% of the way, and hearing from an authority in the field got me the other 1%.


I have had three types of TMS regressions since my chronic pain lifted one year ago.

  1. Occasional Sit Bone Pain (normal TMS Pain)
    I do still have my TMS pain come back from time to time. It regresses quickly now and is never with me for more than 24 hours. The things that trigger it are: other physical ailments like bad sickness, tight hamstring muscle (usually from over-exercise) and being too hard on myself mentally. The pain doesn’t scare me anymore and I know it will be gone soon.
  2. Back Pain
    After a stressful incident, I hurt my back doing yoga and ended up with excruciating back spasms. I’d experienced this before but not for a decade. I do have a herniated disc and spent years blaming my intermittent back pain on this, but I actually don’t think it’s the disc that causes pain, I think it’s tight muscles and spasms. While I lay on the floor, my back in a 9/10 pain spasm, the thought crossed my mind: what if I treat this like TMS? I kept my cool, told myself there was nothing structurally wrong with me, pulled myself off the floor and went on some slow long walks. A decade ago, this same type of incident had me chugging muscle relaxants, pain killers and lying in bed for months of recovery. This time, with a TMS-type approach, I was completely pain free in 36 hours.
  3. Foot and Leg Tingling
    The one lingering question mark in my TMS recovery was peripheral neuropathy. I’d tested positive for peripheral neuropathy in my nerve conduction studies and there was still some concern that there might be something wrong with me that caused that. About six weeks after my sit bone pain subsided, my toes started tingling. Then my feet and ankles. Then my legs. My toes started going numb entirely. Then my fingers. I was scared something was going on, so I went back to Dr. Schecter. He sent me in for another nerve conduction study. The results were negative. The first study was wrong. He told me this was an unusual form of TMS rising again. And he was right. It was born out of the fear that something might still be wrong with me that hadn’t been quite resolved. The tingling and numbness has 95% gone away and what remains I don’t worry about.

Recovering from TMS and chronic pain is a process, and it takes time, but it is possible. My only hope is that my guide on how I did it helps somebody else figure it out. I know that I owe Dr. Sarno and Dr. Schecter my life. I hope that sharing my story can help you recover yours.



“I love myself” or Carving new brain pathways via mantra

I remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of mantras. I was reading J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a story about the two youngest children in a family of geniuses. Franny become disenchanted with academia and starts repeating The Jesus Prayer over and over. The Jesus Prayer goes:

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me

The end goal, she said, was to learn how to ‘pray without ceasing’. To internalize the prayer so deeply into her consciousness from constant repetition that it would always be there, sync’d with her heartbeat.

As a young college student, I remember finding this entire concept and storyline very strange. I didn’t understand what would compel somebody to want to do this, much less how brute force repetition was going to cause some sort of lasting change in a person. I mean, I can sit around chanting “Give me a million dollars, give me a million dollars, give me a million dollars,” all day long and it isn’t going to happen. There aren’t magical properties to words and repetition doesn’t change that.

I understand it better now. Franny was trying to heal herself.

The reason I began thinking about it again was because someone gave me the book Love Yourself Like Your Life Depended On It by Kamal Ravikant. It’s a very short, strange, wandering read that basically boils down to this story: Kamal was a silicon valley dude who was depressed because he’d been dumped and his business was failing. He was stuck in a rut and couldn’t get out of it. So he decided that he was going to love himself.

But he didn’t know how to do that. So he tried just repeating it on a loop non-stop for a month saying it over and over again. “I love myself. I love myself. I love myself.” He did it during meditation, he did it brushing his teeth, and he did it looking himself in the eye in the mirror. He did it a lot.

He mentions at one point that it took a “long” time for it to work. An entire month in his case. I seriously started cracking up hysterically at this point. It was clear Kamal doesn’t have a history of childhood trauma holding him back that he bounced back that quickly. I’ve been in a ten year rut, and here Kamal is claiming a cure in a month? His lack of perspective simultaneously boggles belief but also leaves you wondering…

…is it really that simple?

The more reading that I do about neuroplasticity and the ability for the brain to reshape itself, the more I think that there is something to the idea. Forging new neural nets is, after all, about repetition. It’s why we can develop new habits after six weeks of consistency. It’s why practice of tasks makes us better at them, and it’s why I developed chronic pain in an area that had no injury. Habit. Repetition. Wearing down the same neural nets over and over until they become gravity wells, sucking every thought into them.

When I went to look for scientific studies on mantras, I was shocked to find very little research. It seems that the western scientific community has caught onto how mindfulness, meditation and yoga are useful but I could find no real studies about mantras and whether verbal repetition of concepts created any changes in the brain or behavior. There are plenty of studies on repetition as a tool for learning and retaining information, but nothing (that I could find) on its impact on behavior.

But I think it makes logical sense. In many ways, my poor self-image was forged by repetition of abuse and fear in my childhood. So perhaps positive repetition is the correlating antidote.

With no studies and only Kamal’s anecdote to go on, I have no choice but to be my own guinea pig. I started telling myself “I love myself” today. I repeat it to myself any time I’m not really doing anything or anytime I think about it. In the shower, in the car, on the toilet, while I’m packing up a box to take to UPS, while I’m sitting here typing, in my head while I’m walking the aisles of the grocery store. It’s 3pm and I’ve probably said it 500 times today. I expect it will be 1000 by the time I go to bed. And I’m going to keep doing this as often as I can.

Most of the time I feel nothing. It’s just words. Meaningless. Sometimes the words lose all meaning, just like words do when you repeat them over and over again. And then sometimes, it feels weird. It feels icky, even. Like I’m saying something I don’t believe in. I get a tightness pulling in my chest and a bad taste in my mouth like I’ve just said “I’m going to shoot up a school”. Like I’m saying something vile and wrong. The words “I love myself” shouldn’t create a reaction like that. But those are the brain pathways I need to carve out and replace with something else.

How many times do you have to tell yourself that you love yourself before you actually believe yourself? I hope I find out.


Stumbling out of mindfulness

Week 1 of the Palouse mindfulness program was a revelation. I segued into week two feeling like my world was transforming, excited by new insights, feeling great about myself, excited with the progress I was making. I went to therapy and had perhaps my most productive session ever.

And then the next day, I decided to skip my sitting meditation. And then I skipped it again. And again. I realized that I was losing momentum and I could feel negativity and self-doubt creeping back in. So I re-engaged. But then I missed five more days.

On top of it, I fell into a mini fugue state. Avoidant depression. I ignored my to-do list. I couldn’t rally to do anything but the bare minimum. I wasn’t showering. I wasn’t laughing. I wasn’t happy. I withdrew from the world and into my phone.

About a dozen times a day I had the thought “I know what would bring me out of this. Just one round of sitting meditation.” But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want to do it. It was like I wanted to stay numb. Like waking up last week was too much and I needed numb time to be okay.

It’s a scary feeling to realize that you are miserable and in pain, and you know how to heal yourself, but that you don’t want to do it.

Today I woke up and tried to be more gentle with myself. It helped. I was able to meditate again and reconnect with my goals. The first 20 minutes of meditation my brain was like a jackrabbit, bouncing insanely with a cacophony of noise. My eyes, which I had closed gently, were pulsating and ripping around their sockets like someone experiencing a nightmare. I tried to observe them without fear or judgment and focus on the breath.

And 20 minutes in, everything calmed and dropped away and I felt my brain emerging from the chaos like a beam of light through the fog. It had a sheepish quality to it, like a pouting dog that’s just eaten something from the trash. It was almost a little embarrassed that it let everything get so out of control and that it had to recede.

But it makes me wonder – why did that episode happen? What brought it on? What brought me out? As mindful as I tried to be during the episode, I don’t have answers to those questions.

I suppose what mindfulness would try to say about it is that I shouldn’t worry so much about the ‘Why’. It just is. It just happened. It wasn’t the end of the world, and I can/should accept that it occurred  with loving kindness towards myself. I have tools now, to uplift myself and to help my kinder self emerge. What I need to do is find out what is preventing me from wielding them.

Observations and Learnings from Week 1 of the Palouse MBSR Mindfulness Program

Today marks the completion of week one of the Palouse MBSR Minfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. I did it. I actually achieved a week of something and stuck to the program. Here’s are some of my personal observations from the week:

  • I’ve been doing body scans in meditation for a really long time, but I’ve always done them with the goal of changing what I found – of forcing things to relax or be different. Learning to simply observe and accept what my body is doing is a challenging exercise, and much more consistent with the self-love and self-acceptance that I am trying to embrace.
  • My body is as tight as ever, and thanks to body scanning and daily mindfulness, I am more aware of it than ever. I am trying not to be alarmed by my increased awareness of how tight and painful my body is, but it is difficult not to be. I am trying just to accept it. After all, nothing has changed except my awareness and I’ve lived in this state for decades.
  • Mindfulness is exhausting for the brain at first, and something to be eased into lest you end up with a mindfulness hangover.
  • Mindfulness has helped me realize that my inner-critic is one of the only voices in my brain. It is relentless and it couches all of its criticism in “helpful” suggestions about self-improvement and projects.
  • Being mindful of my surroundings made me aware and bothered by clutter for the first time in my life. Perhaps being messy isn’t a personality trait of mine after all, but a side effect of hyper-vigilance and shut-down awareness.
  • Outwardly-directed mindfulness seems equally as useful as inwardly or body directed. It comes from the same place: being focused on the task (of socializing) and the sensory input gained from the task, rather than focused on my thoughts and internal narrative. Mindfulness allowed me to have one moment this week where I watched a friend’s micro-expressions comfortably while they were talking, didn’t think about my self or my reactions, and was able to, from a relaxed state, intuit her emotional state better from her micro-expressions than from what her words were saying. This is something I have always struggled at in the past. It was a brief moment, but a lovely, welcome one that shows that I am capable of it.
  • Something that continues to scare me a bit from my meditation practice is what I dub “The Black Hole”. When I am body scanning or meditating or even just existing, there is always this black hole that threatens to steal awareness. It feels dark, heavy, like the intense pressure of a collapsing star — and it is always with me to varying degrees in the background. I don’t know if it’s the residual perception of my body’s tension, a dark grief from the right-side of my brain or what. But I know it’s not supposed to be there and that it needs to be somehow excised before I can heal. The paradox is probably that I need to accept its forever existence before I can excise it. That’s how these things seem to work, damn it.
  • It’s going to take time to better interpret some of my body’s signals. I have so much pain and tension that is creeping into my awareness, it’s hard to know what to take action on and what to just ignore and let exist. But I’ve learned this week that when a pain will not be ignored or dismissed no matter how diligent your practice is, there’s a reason for it.

A brief review of week 2 shows that I’ll be adding sitting meditation and a pleasant events calendar to my body scans. I’ve been doing sitting meditation for about a year now, and I look forward to what new insights this program can lend to it.

MBSR Day 5: Noticing Pain

Given my history with TMS, I have a complicated relationship with pain.

I used to viciously fight it, avoid it and try to ‘fix’ it with everything I could throw at it. My back would go into spasm, and I would go to the doctor, get pills, get an MRI, get into physical therapy for six months, struggle with my posture, give up the computer for weeks at a time, miss work, do countless exercises and stretches every day, stop picking up heavy things, and stop exercising. My back would ache for weeks, sometimes months at a time with this regime.

Last month I was doing yoga and I threw out my back again. It hurt just as much as it used to when I threw it out. The next day, I went to a theme park. Fuck it really hurt that day. Every time I transitioned from sitting to standing, including disembarking from rides, it would go into heavy spasm to the point where I almost threw up and couldn’t walk. But I just continued with my normal routine and popped a couple of Advil.

The following day I was 80% better. And 72 hours later I was completely healed.

What a difference from where I used to be with back pain with weeks of fear and life modifications and interventions. With no interventions, and simply telling myself it was temporary and would be better in a little bit, I healed a million times faster. A large part of pain is truly in the mind.

But…what about when pain is NOT in the mind? What about when there really is something wrong? I have such a history of pain being in my mind that these days, sometimes I go overboard and don’t give credence to when there really is something wrong.

And that happened in my body scan meditation today. I was doing my body scan practice, and got to the part where I focus on my fingers when I felt an overwhelming sensation of pressure coming from the back of my head. It was all-consuming. Sometimes these things happen to me during meditation, so I tried to just breathe into it and wait for it to pass. But it didn’t. It got worse and worse. It was impossible to focus on my arms. So I shifted my focus into the back of my head hoping if I acknowledged it, it would let go and pass. It didn’t. It got worse and worse.

Finally, as it was unbearable, I realized I needed to quiet the sensation. So I reached up to the back of my head where I was feeling it, and realized that my ponytail holder was pushing into that spot where I was lying on it. I removed the ponytail holder and since my awareness was still so focused on that area, I immediately felt the hot rush of blood flood that area of my skull and spread out from there. Immediately the discomfort and pressure subsided.

I was stunned. The pressure of my ponytail elastic was blocking some key blood pathway in my skull. And my body was trying to tell me in my body scan meditation that something was actually wrong and that I needed to take action. But I ignored it because…well…I have a tendency to feel intense body sensations when nothing is actually wrong.

There were differences, though, between this and my typical ‘ghost’ sensations of tension, pressure or pain. I think it’s important to note them:

  • It was stronger than my typical physical ‘ghost’ feelings.
  • It did not subside after time passed.
  • It did not change with close, meditative observation.
  • It increased in intensity and got worse.

Versus a typical phantom bubble of pain or tension, which:

  • Bubbles up and then passes with breathing and time.
  • Often collapses or changes quality with close, meditative observation.

The next time something happens in meditative practice that does not go away and continues to escalate, I am going to assume my body is asking me to take action and gently address it.

Gokhale Method: The Right Observation, the Wrong Hypothesis (at least for me)

One of the early solutions to my pain that I sought out was the Gokhale Method. I had read several accounts of people who had back pain online who were permanently ‘cured’ by following her teachings, so I bought her book, consumed it, lived it, bought all of the posture-modifying cushions, and watched every YouTube video she ever made. I even briefly considered flying down to Palo Alto to get hands-on training from the master herself.

Esther Gokhale struggled with back pain from a herniated disk, much like I did. She even went so far as to get surgery without results. So she ended up traveling the world and learning that many people that grow up in more primitive cultures don’t experience back pain, despite having lives filled with arduous labor involving carrying heavy things, bending over repeatedly, and spending long hours seated on the ground.

She spent time with these cultures, photographed them, and formed a hypothesis: primitive cultures didn’t have back pain because they had fundamentally different movement patterns than we Westerners. And these movement patterns are imprinted on children at birth. They are learned behaviors, and as such, they can be taught, practiced, absorbed and mastered. According to her theory, the way that we learn to sit and stand and move and bend is all wrong, and thus we have spines that have slightly different curvature – which gives us back pain.

Her book emphasizes how ‘graceful’ and ‘natural’ and ‘at ease’ all of these third world peoples are. And I was determined to emulate them. I would become an elegant, soft-walking wood elf that moved like a dream.

I spent six weeks fervently and religious practicing the way that Gokhale wanted me to sit and stand and walk and bend. And it made me worse. I spent all day trying to hold these unnatural postures that felt like absolute torture. Her book and videos assured me that it would eventually come to feel natural but…

It came to a head one day when I was out walking with my husband. “Is something wrong” he asked, “It looks like you’re limping or staggering around.”

“No, I’m glidewalking,” I informed him. Clearly he wasn’t grasping how beautifully and gracefully I was moving under Esther’s tutelage.

“You look like a drunken sailor angrily stomping on insects,” he responded.

It was then I realized that this wasn’t working for me. I felt constantly tense and unnatural. My muscles were stiffening up – not elongating. And my back pain was getting worse. I stopped practicing the Gokhale Method and put the book away. I chalked it up to my own failure of not being coordinated enough to achieve some of these movements. My broken movement patterns were hopelessly ingrained.

Meditation and mindfulness have been a part of my life for a year now.

And I am becoming that woodland elf.

It’s hard to believe, really. When I walk, sometimes I am gliding. My feet are soft pillows of air. My neck has all of this space to move and breathe. My legs, instead of being the stomping, plodding things they were, feel supple and lithe. I am standing up straight. I am naturally sitting straighter.

And it’s all because of one thing: I am more relaxed and more connected with my body.

I think this is what Esther got wrong. The movement patterns of a relaxed, mindful individual are fundamentally different than the movement patterns of a chronically tense, hyper-vigilant, traumatized person. It just so happens that people who live in primitive cultures are more relaxed and mindful than we are. There are lots of happiness studies that back this up. There’s less judgment, a more profound sense of community, more interconnectedness, less pressures and stressors, and so the people in these cultures are just more relaxed. And what do you know, a relaxed body actually moves differently. It aligns differently. The muscles yank on the spinal column differently from a relaxed state than from a tense.

This is something that I figured out almost immediately when I started meditating. On day eight I had my first experience with spontaneous posture correction. Where about 15 minutes into my meditation session, my breathing darkens and deepens, I feel a wave of relaxation pass over me, and suddenly I sit up straight. My shoulders open up, my neck is long, my chest is reaching for the sky, and I literally feel three inches taller.

This has happened for me now almost every single time I have meditated. At some point, my body just lets go, and suddenly I get a small glimpse of what it means to be relaxed.

Every day as TMS forces me to process my repressed emotions, let go of my fear of pain, and embrace a relaxed, mindful state, I find my body more and more able to adopt this relaxed posture naturally. It started about eight days in. It’s almost an instantaneous result.

I hope that some day this becomes my natural state, and the tense state is the temporary one that I can recover from.

In the meantime, I would advise people to not force posture. Good posture isn’t something that should be integrated into you by strictly monitoring and constantly correcting yourself. Your self-critic does enough of that already. Instead, be mindful of your body and how it feels. Meditate. Accept what your body is doing with its alignment today. Good posture will begin to fall out as the natural byproduct of acceptance and self-love.

MBSR Day 4: A Mindfulness Hangover

Today I awoke with an unexpected side effect of my latest mindfulness efforts: a massive headache.

I should have seen it coming from the night before. Around 6pm, I felt my brain just kinda shut down. I had been really good all day about constantly checking in with my body, redirecting my thoughts away from my self-critical narrative, and keeping my focus immersed on my current task. I was really pleased with how well it was going.

Then at 6pm, I put my credit card in the refrigerator. About ten minutes later, I put a kitchen utensil I had already used to stir up cooked food back into its drawer while filthy (we discovered it later that night). I was mixing up words and couldn’t remember what I was doing. My brain was done and it had checked out.

The next morning: massive headache. In the front of my head towards my eyes pounding. It lasted all day and pain relievers didn’t do anything to help.

Apparently, it’s possible to overdo it on mindfulness and meditation. I looked up whether mindfulness has caused headaches for anybody else, and couldn’t find anything but there were a lot of people who had similar experiences with meditation, particularly on retreats where they were meditating all day long. Apparently the brain is like a muscle, and it needs to be eased into activities it is not used to or there are negative consequences. Like energy and strength in muscles, we have a finite amount of focus in our brains (particularly when we have never practiced it before).

I suppose that’s why my MBSR program has two assignments for this week: a 30 minute body scan meditation and then being mindful in ONE moment over the course of the day. And here I went, throwing myself into this and overdoing it (like I normally do) and trying to be mindful all day long.

So my Day 4, I did my body scan but then I really eased back on the whole mindfulness thing to give my brain a break. Day 5, and I already feel better. It’s a good reminder that this is something that needs to be eased into, with small changes, instead of throwing myself into it headlong. It’s my internal critic that wants me to change immediately. This is a marathon, not a sprint and I will have to continually remind my critic of that.

A beautiful mess

I’m literally on day 4 of my mindfulness course and something really crazy happened today.

I was standing in the kitchen, trying to just pay attention, and suddenly it was like my perception shifted. And in the moment of that shift, I SAW the kitchen differently. And I saw that it was a mess. And what’s more, it bothered me.

You’re thinking: “Your giant breakthrough is that you realized your kitchen was messy?” I know, it sounds ridiculous.

But my entire life I have been a messy person. I shower and throw my towel on the floor. My dinner plate stays where it is until I decide to clean it later. The only times I deep clean are for other people: when I think my spouse can’t bear it anymore or when we are going to have company over. And it doesn’t bother me! I can sit in a room filled with mess and barely even notice it.

But today I looked at the kitchen and suddenly, it was like a switch flicked in my brain and the disorder of it popped out into crystal clear view.

I did not realize my high tolerance for mess was another symptom of being disconnected with my body and my environment. I did not realize that it was yet another thing that wasn’t some curious aspect of my personality, but instead a symptom of my trauma.

I swear to God, I shed tears. It felt like a watershed moment. To perceive disorder and to be genuinely, personally bothered by it. It was a brand new feeling. A sensation that I have literally never experienced.

Of course, the moment I finished crying, I realized this was a complete double-edged sword. Because now I’ve just given my inner critic a whole new thing to complain about: that things are messier than I thought they were.

Perhaps that is something that will shift in time too. But for now:

bless this mess

Bless the mess in my house and the mess that is me. And I bless the mess that is all of you as well.


MBSR: Day 3 of Mindfulness

It’s day three and I’m already fed up and ready to give up on this experiment.

When I step back from that statement, I can see how silly it is. But the urge is still there. Like when you’re holding a plank and your arms start to shake and your brain says “Collapse! Give up!” but you also know that you have 30 seconds left in you once the shaking starts. That urge to collapse is strong.

Mindfulness is hard for me because of judgment and fixing. When done perfectly, it’s supposed to be judgment-free and just in the moment. But instead, I’m constantly judging myself on whether I’m being mindful or not. Also, I have this idea that mindfulness is the insta-fix to all of my body tension and mental problems. That I won’t rely on my coping mechanisms anymore. That I won’t binge eat. That I won’t disassociate. That I will work harder. If I can just be more mindful I can conquer anything, right?

But that’s not the way this works. I need to realize that the BFF and necessary companion of mindfulness is acceptance. Loving mindfulness. Accepting mindfulness. To witness what is happening and to allow it to happen and to love yourself in spite of, no, because of it.

So I am going to press on. This is a lifelong study, and to rewire my neural pathways is going to take time. I’m interpreting mindfulness currently through the well-worn pathways I’ve trod over a lifetime: achievement, fixing, being goal-driven, and judgment. But that’s not what this is about. I don’t really have pathways for just ‘being’ or for ‘acceptance’ or for ‘self-love’.

So just like in meditation, when I notice my thoughts converging on judgment or fixing, I will gently redirect them to self-love and acceptance instead. Perhaps if I do this enough, I will eventually see real change. But if and when it happens, it’s going to come from within. Not from the executive functioner in my head brow-beating me into doing it. It’s going to come from a place where it finally feels right.

It is far too early to give up on this.


Good Morning, I Love You: Day 1

As part of my self-guided MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) program, I watched the following TED talk by Shauna Shapiro.

In it, she discusses her life’s work: the power of mindfulness, and how mindfulness has to be accompanied with kindness towards the self in order to eradicate shame.

One exercise she suggested was to wake up every morning, put your hand on your chest and say “Good morning <my name>, I love you.” Seems simple enough right?

It seemed like an easy thing that I could add to my daily practice. But like Shauna, when I attempted to tell myself that I loved myself in an earnest way, I choked. I couldn’t do it. Because I don’t. I want to, but there are parts of my psyche that deeply despise myself. The words feel wrong.

So like here, I am beginning with just acknowledging myself. “Good Morning, Mackenzie”, I said this morning, hand to heart, and even this simple gesture pricked tears in my eyes. Perhaps I can work up to expressing self-love eventually with practice.