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.

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