September 30, 2022
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Photography by Anna Artemenko/Stocksy United
Pain has taught me a lot about who I am. My contemplative practice has been an important part of my journey into knowing myself.
In the fall of 2013, I woke up one morning with a headache behind my right eye and have essentially had one every day since.
I’ve tried just about everything that several neurologists have thrown at my headache. It has been deemed “intractable” in my medical records.
In the years following the onset of my head pain, I experienced a whole slew of symptoms and received several new diagnoses. My experiences suggested some kind of systemic immune-mediated disease, but my team of doctors just couldn’t quite pin down which one.
I received an array of positive test results, but nothing aligned perfectly with particular diagnostic criteria. Autonomic dysfunction, check. Autoimmune neuropathy, check. Muscle weakness and rigidity, check. Immunodeficiency, check. Mastocytosis, check.
Throw in a recent deep vein thrombosis, some odd skin reactions, and Raynaud’s, and it seems that I am a bit of a medical mystery for the time being.
This all amounts to me experiencing near-constant pain, throughout my entire body.
If you ask me at any point throughout the day “what hurts?” my response would probably be “what doesn’t?” You can imagine the physical fatigue this causes, not to mention the mental and emotional toll. There are a few treatments that have helped with symptom relief, but nothing has lasted long, and nothing comes anywhere close to a cure.
So, what do I do with all this pain? That’s a loaded question.
I have tried some alternative treatments, and while I am so happy for others who have found relief from alternative medicine, different types of supplements, and elimination diets, these haven’t been the right path for me.
I am a deeply spiritual person, and I would say my spirituality has been the cornerstone of my emotional health throughout my pain journey.
I believe strongly in the benefits of slowing down, living a contemplative lifestyle, and tapping into mystic wisdom. These practices have been immensely fruitful for me. But, and this is a big “but,” there are a few contemplative practices I just can’t make work for me.
As you’ve already probably gathered, anything physical is difficult. Yoga is out of the question: I can’t sit on the floor without everything below my waist going numb. I can’t hold poses for more than a few seconds before my nerve endings fire in protest.
I am starting to have issues with my balance too, so standing poses lead to falling poses, which lead to me once again being on the floor. If I’m being honest, the only yoga pose that I have the ability to perform even slightly well, and without pain, is the Corpse Pose.
Perhaps tai chi, or qi gong, which is even more relaxed, would have benefits for me. Particularly, there is a lot about Qi gong that appeals to me in theory. It’s about grounding oneself and focusing on the qi, the energy, or inner light, flowing through our bodies.
This idea appeals to me spiritually, but even the most simple tai chi and qi gong movements cause pain for me. Long periods of standing also trigger my dysautonomia and I start to drip with sweat and feel like I’m going to pass out. Again, not the best for relaxation.
Plus, grounding practices often take place outside, so we can take our shoes off and feel the earth between our toes. I love this, but I am also essentially allergic to the sun. So again, it’s complicated.
This brings me to meditation, the basis of most contemplative practices. There are so many different ways to meditate, and I have found a few methods that work in short bursts (I’m a big fan of mantras or reciting short passages), but I haven’t been able to master any kind of mindfulness meditation on a regular basis.
It turns out that when you quiet your mind and strip away the background noise of the world around you, you are left sitting (or laying) in a body in pain with no walls of thought to protect or distract you.
When I sit down to meditate, every nerve ending, sore joint, or stiff muscle reminds me of its presence. My meditative practice becomes a giant pain party. Maybe some of you have experienced something like this. I’ve spoken to others who know exactly what I’m feeling, but others may think this sounds a little out there.
I went for a biofeedback consultation once where the practitioner took some base levels (I won’t pretend to know what the numbers mean or how that works) and then had me sit in a very comfortable chair for several minutes. I was told to meditate: to let go of my stresses, release my tension, and basically, just relax.
The practitioner was fascinated that my numbers did the opposite of what they should have done in a state of relaxation. I was told these results were likely due to my autonomic nervous system dysfunction. It’s almost as though there is a physical barrier preventing my body from relaxing.
I would venture a guess that this barrier is, of course, pain.
There are many people who have found tremendous pain relief in all of the practices I’ve mentioned so far. I also know there are others who struggle in the same way I do to find practices that are compatible with their pain and symptoms.
All I can do is speak to my own experiences with pain and note that every body is unique and what works for some doesn’t work for others.
However, this is not meant to be a sad story of all the things that don’t work. In figuring out what practices don’t work for me, I have found several contemplative practices that do work quite well for me. I will share them with you now.
I have found a lot of benefits in the use of guided meditation as a part of my contemplative practice. Guided meditation provides the opportunity to focus on relaxation, hone in on my senses, and let go of stress and anxiety. The guided aspect is distracting enough that I don’t fall into that pit of focusing on every ache and pain I’m feeling in the moment.
Finding practitioners and styles you respond well to can take time. If you are looking for a place to start with guided meditation, the Calm app or Headspace app are popular and have a vast array of options. Both of these apps require paid subscriptions for most of their offerings, but there are tons of guided meditations all over the internet you can find for free.
You can even Google specifically for guided meditations for pain management and relief.
This is my truest and most-used meditative practice. When I need to just let go of everything around me, music is the answer. I prefer to organize my playlists by mood. The Dark Academia Classical playlist on Spotify is a particular favorite, as is the soundtrack from the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice.
I don’t always choose instrumental music. I have all kinds of playlists I’ve created for different moods or ambiances, and I definitely let what I need in the moment guide what I choose.
Music and meditation have been in a relationship for ages. Sound bathing is a popular style of meditation involving singing bowls, chimes, rattles, all sorts of noise-making. For me, music allows me to empty my thoughts and let go but also have something to focus my mind on so that I don’t go straight into my pain.
As an added benefit, listening to music has a plethora of added health benefits. Music can influence heart rate and breathing, stimulate areas of the brain needed for cognition and emotions, reduce levels of stress and anxiety, and even improve your memory.
These are all important tools in pain management as well.
The literature on the benefits of journaling is immense. There are many different types of journaling you can try including bullet journaling, gratitude journals, guided journaling, free writing, and even coloring or doodling. The possibilities are endless, and I encourage you to play around and find what feels the best to you.
The consensus is that journaling is a powerful tool for contemplation and self-reflection.
For someone like me, even just the idea of writing in a paper journal hurts my hands. Luckily, there are many journaling apps available that can make the process easier.
My favorite is the Grateful app. It’s simple, clean, and easy to use. The free version is more than enough. It also provides prompts like “What made you smile today?” for those days when it’s a bit harder to think of what you’re grateful for.
I would consider reading to be the single most important part of my contemplative practice. And I mean all reading.
Whether I’m reading a translation of Hildegard of Bingen, the poetry of Rumi, a gripping memoir, or the hottest new mystery on the bestseller list, I believe that putting myself into another world, taking in the words and thoughts of another human being is contemplative and world-widening.
I’m also a big believer in bibliotherapy, the idea that there are certain books that we can prescribe to ourselves (or others can prescribe for us) for the times in our lives when we need them most.
Having a constant headache has definitely made it more difficult to cultivate a regular reading practice, but you can read more about how I’ve done that here.
One more note on reading, I just got a Kindle Paperwhite for my birthday and the adjustable, glare-free screen has been an absolute game-changer for my ability to read e-books.
I highly recommend it for anyone who struggles with headaches or eye strain or (as I suspect we all do) too much screen time.
Pain is hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life, and I deal with it every single day.
Pain has taught me a lot about who I am and the things that matter most to me. Going deeper and deeper into my contemplative practice has been a huge part of my journey into knowing myself.
I hope that some of these suggested practices can provide you with whatever you are needing in the moment: escape, focus, relief, or transformation.
Medically reviewed on September 30, 2022
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