NOTE: I am not writing this series of posts about Melanie Thernstrom's The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing and the Science of Suffering (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) as a book review. I do highly recommend this book for anyone who is suffering chronic pain or is close to someone who is, but I am not trying to make the case for that. It's really a matter of inspiration: a book written by a chronic pain sufferer would naturally hold interest for me, giving me much to ponder in relation to this blog.
What if all this meditation and quiet mind and calm spirit that I am learning from Buddhist spirituality and Christian centering prayer is making me complacent, passively accepting of the painful fate the migraines leave me with? This question has arisen for me before, but never more so than while I was reading Thernstrom's book. I was struck by the active, energized and persistent approach she took with her doctors.
"I had previously undergone treatment with other doctors; each time the treatment failed, I had switched doctors again." (page 215)
"The only thing I had wanted from a doctor was a cure. The first seven doctors I brought MRI films to were not inclined to offer this, and neither, I realized ten minutes into the consultation, was the eighth." (page 245)
My health insurance is a basic HMO which gives me only limited ability to switch doctors, but, truthfully, it had never really occurred to me to switch either from my first neurologist, whom I saw for three years before he left the HMO, or this current doctor, whom I've been seeing for another three years. Six years with two neurologists and still in enough pain that I am not working and am living a relatively constricted life: were I like Thernstrom and other patients she describes, my doctor visit history would look a lot different.
There is a perception about meditation and acceptance and peaceful spirit that these practices encourage passivity in a person: Oh, well, my head is splitting, I'll go meditate (or pray) and endure it. It's my karma. It's God's will for me. Shiva wills it. Etc.
If I have wondered this about my spiritual practices, it has not been too often, because most of the time I am reveling in the peaceful presence that has replaced my anxious self. Not to mention that I do not believe in a God that would "will" either my pain or any of the various and excruciating kinds of pain in the world. But I have wanted to explore recently the question of whether there is enough of the right kind of action in my peace. And I think that phrase, "the right kind of action" is the key.
Action that arises out of my old anxious self is awkward, hurried, driven, off the mark. Even if I were told that such action would lead to a migraine cure, I would likely not pursue that cure: to live life in that kind of fearful anxiety is a small hell on earth. I'd rather be full of peace and manage the pain that isn't being cured. Yet this is not a simplified, either-or proposition: there does exist action that arises out of the peaceful, accepting, surrendered place in which I prefer to remain.
So, "the right kind of action" means action that is founded in the deep stillness that is God's presence within, or right mind, or no mind, however one prefers to say it. Action that arises out of the depths of stillness is graceful, deliberate, focused. Surrendering to peace does not mean inaction in the face of circumstances that call for action, it means remaining peaceful, letting go of the inner dialogue of resistance and judgment, and simply proceeding with what is necessary in that moment.
Perhaps I would have changed doctors twenty times when acting out of that inner stillness. Perhaps I would have turned instead - as I have these past five years - to alternatives like acupuncture, diet, and spiritual practices. The outcome isn't the point in this discussion, because what might arise from my anxious self may look a lot like your action arising from a calm center.
It's a matter for continued reflection and self-honesty. Perhaps I can be more pro-active in suggesting things to my doctor, perhaps I can push a bit harder on referrals to other specialists. It's good to keep an open mind - calmly.
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Carol D. Marsh
- With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90 days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.