02 April 2011

Reading "How to be Sick" - Pain Management I

This is the seventh in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's book, How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers.

Although I have written posts on pain management before (July 27; September 12; September 14; and August 31),  I want to re-visit the subject in order to refresh my own practice and keep this blog updated.  Pain management is an on-going activity that becomes less effective as it sinks into any sort of habitual rut.  Plus, there's a lot to say about pain management (I'm already tired of typing that phrase, so from now on, it's PM), thus a series of posts instead of just one.  And Toni's book is a perfect place to begin.  (By the way, this is a perfect day for beginning the series on PM -- ahh, much easier! -- as I am on the seventh day of a migraine that Will Not Go Away.  Nothing like a week of serious pain as a backdrop for writing about PM.)

I say the book is perfect for beginning this series even though a check of the "P" section of the glossary yields nothing for pain or PM.  But don't let this convince you that Toni's book is not helpful, something you might think if you assume PM is about physical pain only.  It's not.  I've known for a long time - and this past week certainly reinforced that knowledge - that PM must include the emotional and spiritual aspects of living with pain, or it is only partially effective.  Concentrating solely on bodily pain is historically what Western medicine has done, which, to be sure, has provided us with a huge variety of pain reducers from which to choose.  However, we learn from other traditions such as Eastern healing methods as well as from more recent studies on the effects of prayer in healing and how placebos work, that bodily pain is only one aspect of what we are experiencing.

And that is where Tony's book serves us well.  But before turning to the book, I want to lay a bit more groundwork.

This is a blog about spirituality and chronic pain: how they interact with one another, influence one another, teach one another.  Long before the migraines became chronic, I had made my spiritual journey the most important aspect of my life.  So the idea that pain could be used to enhance that journey did not seem incongruous to me.  Additionally, a broad-based search has led this nominal Protestant through many odd by-ways, including a years-long and deep fascination with the Catholic saint, Therese de Lisieux.  Although her life and words can be ridiculously sentimentalized and, to my view, cheapened, I found her spirituality to be muscular, practical, and courageous.  She lived with terrible pain during her final years but found in it not misery, but nurture for her own spiritual growth.

Similarly, Toni has turned to her Buddhist philosophy and practice as her primary way of living with a devastating flu-like virus that has lasted more than ten years.  Redeeming her physical ills through the life of her spirit has resulted not only in her own growing wisdom, but in the book that is affecting and aiding thousands of us who otherwise can feel terribly isolated and stuck.  May these posts, in which I will share how Toni's book has affected my PM practices, serve as help and benefit to other readers.

A disclaimer: I am not an expert in pain management, so nothing I write about is meant to take the place of professional advice.  I simply seek to share my experience in the hope that it might help others.

And another disclaimer: many blogs are fonts of information about diseases and pain, pain medication, and how to deal with professionals in the health care field.  Because there is already so much information out there, I do not choose to treat those topics in this blog.  

I first want to discuss meditation as an important PM technique, but this post is already long enough, so I'll just set the stage for a next post by referring to a practice Toni writes about: sky-gazing.

"I lie down in my back yard [or in bed, looking out a window], look up at sky, and relax my gaze.  After a while, the experience takes on an openness and a spaciousness.  All notions of a separate self - in body or in mind - dissolve.   There may be a sound or a sensation of a breeze going by or a thought arising, but it is all just energy, flowing through.  Although this spaciousness may last only a few seconds, in those seconds, there's no Toni Bernhard."  page 42

Toni's sky-gazing illustrates perfectly why I find meditation to be a wonderful PM tool.  When I am in that spaciousness, the pain takes on less significance.  It is as though the spiritual connection with Being, with Creation, with the fullness of Life, grants me the feeling of a vast space that allows the point of pain to be relegated to minor importance.  And that, along with my own gleanings from meditation as a pain management tool, will be the subject of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment link, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.


  1. Thank you for writing about PM. This is my first time reading your blog so I appreciate you bringing up the subject again. For almost five years, every moment of my life has been filled with physical pain. The physical pain has indeed moved me on to a spiritual path. I love it! I desire for the pain to pass and the journey to continue. Stress makes my ability to deal with the pain much harder. I look forward to reading more about your thoughts on the subject.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Pamela, and for taking time to write this comment. I agree - stress makes both the pain itself and my ability to deal with it much harder. And stress, in the final analysis, is a primarily spiritual issue that has physical and emotional effects.

  3. Thank you for sharing this Carol. I deal with PM on a daily basis and one of the best things for me has been meditation. Another thing that has been helpful for me has been http://onlineceucredit.com/edu/social-work-ceus-pain. It offers a lot of advice about pain management. I think this is a great resource that people should look into.