Monday, July 18, 2011

Chronic Pain and the Freedom of Constraint

Every North American I've met on the spiritual path (including myself) was forced onto it by chronic pain - physical, emotional, or relational. For me it was all three.

For 30-odd years, I suffered from depression and terrible insomnia. During the worst of it, I slept less than four hours a night and often not at all. Suicidally depressed, I dragged myself through an unending land of sodden ash--no color, not even grey.

In a desperate search for relief, I stumbled onto spiritual practices. Yet I never stopped crying for pain-free "normality," or railing against my unfair burden. It took a good long time to realize what a gift that pain had been. I had to uncover and heal my childhood wounds or die of suicide. I had to do spiritual practices or be consumed by a hell of regret, self-hate, and anger. Eventually I became grateful I was forced onto the dark road--despite the dangers. Because the dark journey bestows spiritual gifts of great value that can not be gained any other way.

Near two decades out of the dark, rigorous sleep hygiene still limits my life. More constraining is growing, chronic physical pain. Pain radiates from my back down my thighs and legs into my feet. Sometimes I gasp as a sharp pain shoots down a leg; more often it flows in a slow burn like lava. The first wisps appeared in my mid-forties. Now at 57, I'm never not hurting. At night, the low ferrous rumble of pain mutters in my dreams. No chair is comfortable, and I often can't stand for more than a few minutes. Occasionally my legs just melt away, as if they'd turned to mushy jello. To date, the last feeling comes and goes fast so I haven't fallen.

Yet, supported by a nightly 600 ml of ibuprofen, I'm in this play with duels (of which I have two) and a song & dance number. My part is minor, but I volunteered for a lot of crew (taking set pieces on and off). It feels better to move than to sit or stand still waiting (in a tiny theater where every backstage noise can be heard by the audience). Luckily nothing is heavy--even the swords are foam.

We are in tech week. The light crew is amazing--a smoothly-running team of mostly high-school-age kids who have been together through theater training. Watching them scale scaffolding to shift large light fixtures, I tell an equally young actor that at her age no one could have kept me off those scaffolds.

"You could still learn," she replies.

"Except that I now lack the physical ability," I say.

She commiserates, but I feel calm. Peaceful. No longing and no railing against an unfair universe.

"The thing is, if you turn your desire away from what you can no longer do, physical disability can open you to something you would never have found otherwise," I said, then stopped, astounded. The words came out of my mouth ringing with indisputable truth. Yet, I had no idea what they meant.

I once heard a calligrapher talk about the soaring creativity she experienced within the draconian constraints of her art. Strong limits gave her freedom to express herself. And energy, I imagine.

This was true in the monastery. I once spent so much energy deciding what to wear and when to wear it, what to eat and when to eat it, which entertainment to go out for or to stay home, running errands only to forget one thing and run out again--not to mention deciding when, how, and if to do my spiritual practices. All that energy was freed. All that mental space was freed. All the emotional space consumed by "should I or shouldn't I" was freed. I found myself in a huge space reverberating with energy, light, and creative possibility.

I no longer have the monastery's lovely schedule constraining my life by holding me in a rigid, outer carapace of no-choice.

But I do have chronic pain.

Perhaps when I learn to relax within my physical limits, and turn from mourning what I have lost, that same infinite inner space will open before me.

A little pain to live in such freedom? It is a worthwhile exchange.

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