23 May 2011

Pain Management: Staying in the Moment

For most of Friday, all of Saturday, and half of Sunday I had what a call a "crasher."  This is a super-migraine, the writhing on the bed and moaning kind of pain that teaches me the value of staying in the moment, or what Eckhart Tolle calls staying in the Now.

When pain is that bad, an essential part of pain management is simply staying with each moment as it is.  This may seem counter-intuitive: don't we want to flee the present when it is so uncomfortable?  There are contradictory answers to this question: (1) yes, a bit of distraction is a good thing; and (2) no, because remaining in the moment helps keep us from the all-too-easily accessed place of self pity and/or worry about past and future that layers another kind of suffering - the mental and emotional kind - on top of our physical pain.

I'll get to the value of distraction in a moment, mainly because the practice of staying with the present moment makes distraction more effective.  That sounds like a conundrum or at least a paradox, but embracing life's paradoxes gets me to the place in which most of my creative energy resides (I learned this from a wonderful book called "The Promise of Paradox" by Parker Palmer). 

Staying in the present moment is a life skill that I am learning from two main sources: my Buddhist readings and Eckhart Tolle, who has written the books "The Power of Now," "A New Earth," and "Living A Life of Inner Peace," among others.  Without trying to sound like an expert, which I am not, I'll share how what I am learning about living in the moment enhances pain management.

Staying in the moment wards off the temptation to worry about past and future.
It is bad enough to be in severe pain.  Why would we want to make it worse with our thoughts?  Yet we do, adding the frustration of anxiety about things over which we have no control make us more tense; tense muscles add stress to the body; added stress means more pain.  So there we are, not only in the miserable physical pain that comes with our illness or disease, but stuck in a mind-set that both adds to the physical pain and slathers all over it a generous layer of mental pain.  Being aware of this temptation to add to our pain helps us catch ourselves when we begin to fret.  "What about dinner - I can't cook today."  "I haven't finished that [insert task, responsibility or other activity that has been aborted due to the pain] - what will happen now?"  "What if I can't go to the fundraiser on Friday?  Those people are counting on me."  Etc.

Not that these are not legitimate concerns: they may well be, but during the period of debilitating pain, their legitimacy becomes irrelevant in the face of the need to manage the pain that is happening right now.

Staying in the moment opens the way for calming the body and mind, thus allowing us to practice pain management skills

Worrying about things over which we have no control keeps us from whatever productive and more freely creative work we could be doing.  And just what is productive in the midst of pain?  The ability to relax and quietly inhabit our bodies*; the practice of dropping otherwise unproductive worries about past and future in order to free the mind; the resulting clarity that allows us to take those deep, slow breaths and relax those tense muscles; all of which leads to the ability to remember and practice other pain management skills.  From that place, we can decide to find, or ask someone to find for us, that especially helpful relaxation CD and/or remind ourselves of other practices that have helped our pain in the past; we can figure out whether or not a call to our physician is indicated, then actually be coherent when we make the call; and we put ourselves in a place where distraction is more effective.

Staying in the moment opens the way for distraction to be more effective
The value of distraction is obvious.  What might not be so obvious is the truth of the paradox I mentioned above: in order to be effectively distracted from my pain, I must be willing to be quietly present to it in my body and my mind.  This is a bit complicated, and something that I have learned only gradually, yet I know it is a fact: when my mind has ceased fleeing desparately from the pain and accepted it instead and when my body has relaxed into the pain instead of fighting it and when I am thus quiet enough to breathe deeply into the stillness then am I able to allow something to actually distract me from the pain.

We all have different ways of diverting attention, but I will share a few of mine: listening to the radio - NPR is a life-saver in this regard; relaxation and meditation CDs; DVDs of favorite TV shows - Seinfeld and Golden Girls are current favorites and I know them well enough not to have to look at them (I always put on a blindfold during a migraine due to light sensitivity); music, of course, although somehow talking usually does a better job at distraction.  I will add that I believe our distraction should be conducive to a quiet mind: upsetting news programs or violent entertainments cannot promote peace within.    

* The phrase, "quietly inhabit our bodies," is possibly not one that you know.  It's something I have learned from Eckhart Tolle and is a practice that now informs both my pain management and my spiritual life.  It 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

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