Mindset Training Week 15: Pain
I lay in the backseat of my car, the soles of my feet pointed toward the roof. Nothing was stopping the shrieking sensations coursing through my lower extremities. For the previous five hours I’d been running an ultra-marathon. The cramping had crept in during the first six miles of the race: 30 miles over a narrow trail of roots, rocks, and streams through the evergreens of the Pacific Northwest. Initially my mind had panicked. But I was committed to finishing, so I relinquished my fears and softened to the moment.
Breath flowing in and out.
Let go of resistance.
Become one with my surroundings.
Admire the green brilliance of the trees,
The infinitude of iridescent blue of the sky.
The smell of dirt and pine needles.
Right foot left foot over jutting rocks and roots.
Keep going one step at a time.
Moving in a meditation, I didn’t dare to think about how much further I had to go. At the finish line, I crossed with such relief that I fell to my knees in the dirt. As soon as my motion stopped, the needles began, stabbing into every square inch of my legs. Once on the ground, I couldn’t get back up. Two people chatting near the finish looked down at my crumpled form. “Are you okay?” I whimpered a yes, but they’d already returned to their conversation. Wincing, I crawled in the direction of the parking lot, dragging my burning legs behind me. My kingdom for a stretcher.
I took deep breaths, attempting to relax into the pain. It was almost an hour before the sensation of one thousand bee stings subsided and I was able to make the long drive home.
After competing in countless triathlons and running events over two years, my body had started to rebel. My lower limbs ached after every race and weren’t recovered before the next event. Ambition refused to accept defeat. I had a goal to run a half-marathon every weekend in 2016. By the time I made it through my fifth half marathon of the year, around Vancouver Lake, my legs could do little more than hold me upright.
My body was screaming STOP! I didn’t want to hear it. I had to compete. My body had to get better; it was the only option I would tolerate. I went to see a physical therapist and then an osteopath. He said nonchalantly, “I recommend you stop running and we perform surgery on your knees.”
Instant rejection washed over my body. What? This can’t be true. There has to be something else I can do. I didn’t hear what he said next, I basically blacked out for the remainder of the conversation. As I walked to my car, I wept uncontrollably.
I was a runner who couldn’t run. My body had failed me. I was a failure.
Once my mourning period was over, I regrouped and assessed my options—except surgery, which was out of the question. I transferred my fitness fanaticism from running and triathlons to CrossFit. As I strengthened my knees and eliminated endurance events, my knees slowly started to repair.
Just when my body was beginning to cooperate with me, another blockade appeared. I broke my foot jumping up and down fanatically at a Seattle Sounders soccer match.
Well, that’s where the break originated anyway. It was a little sore walking home from the stadium, but I thought nothing of it. The soreness eventually disappeared, and I proceeded with a punishing schedule. A typical day began by teaching 5 a.m. yoga class at my CrossFit box. Afterwards, I’d work out. Then I’d rush to class at the local college where I was completing my bachelor’s degree. Coffee in hand, I’d head to work for eight hours. With three bulging bags of sheets and towels in tow, I’d return home late, exhausted, to do my laundry. Once the last load was in the dryer, I’d hobble to bed and sink into a dreamless coma until my alarm blasted at 3:30 the next morning. Certain activities would make the soreness in my foot crop up again, but then it would subside. Again, nothing alarming (or so I told myself). But the illusion of invulnerability didn’t last. A couple months later while jumping up on a 20-inch box I heard a snap. Ugh, that sounded bad. I forced myself to finish the workout. I had a CrossFit competition in a few weeks, after all. It’s nothing, I thought. I’ll take it easy until the competition and get it checked after.
I was rejecting my body’s messages, though it was speaking quite loudly and insistently. The intermittent twinge in my foot over the course of three months should have alerted me that something was wrong.
The message I was hearing instead was “If something is wrong with the body then something is wrong with me.” I don’t want anything to be wrong with me, so I am going to ignore this message.
The day of the competition arrived, and to my relief, my foot felt fine. By the final workout, I was in contention for first place in my age bracket. At an open ball field on one of the hottest days of the year in Seattle, every athlete was overheated and dehydrated after many delays. The organizers announced that they were canceling the final event for anyone who wanted to leave, but those who wanted to stay could still compete. I knew I was approaching heat exhaustion, or already in it. But I was so close to my podium spot. I stayed.
100 feet of weighted lunges. Pull-ups. Another 100 feet of weighted lunges. I was leading the pack. I stepped forward with my left foot. When my foot met the grassy earth, a loud pop rang in my ears. I stumbled forward trying to maintain balance and not drop the barbell. I completed the final lunge and limped over to the pull-up bar. I was sure my foot was broken at that point. I refused to stop. Another 100 feet of lunges. Then another. Somehow I reached the end. Then I drove straight to the hospital.
What was initially a stress fracture in my left foot, incurred at the Sounders match, had turned into a full-on break of my fifth metatarsal. A Jones fracture, they said. Had I stopped and slowed down when the initial break happened, I would’ve been confined to a boot for six weeks and the bone would have healed itself. Because of my ego’s misinterpretations and denial, surgery was my only choice left. I’d be out for much longer.
My body, perhaps getting desperate to make me slow down, manifested more issues: a precancerous lesion in my eye, and dental problems as well. Three surgeries in one month.
Lying on the couch with my leg up, foot pinned together, eye patched, and drinking my food, I finally heard the message loud and clear over the clamor of my ego: “You cannot do it all, Amanda. STOP!”
TRUST THE PROCESS
When the body experiences pain and injury, our initial response is to deny it, hate it, hate the body for being damaged, hate ourselves for being injured. Feel broken.
The urge to succumb to self-defeating thoughts at these times is powerful, and creates resistance. Learning to soften and accept the unexpected trials is to trust that there’s a reason for them.
A higher power intervened in my life that summer and shifted my trajectory. By shifting my mindset to find gratitude each day and meet each road bump with a “what can I do” approach, I enabled myself to not only get through the year but to end it at my proudest finish line: my education. In my debilitated state I had all the time I needed for my studies, and the workload of my classes demanded it.
Had it not been for my injuries and the love of my friends, I would’ve struggled to survive that year, let alone finish school. I didn’t complete my goal of running a 1:35 half marathon and I didn’t win any fitness events. I achieved something much greater. I graduated with honors from Washington State University with a major in Social Science, emphasizing in business administration and political science. It was a moment I thought would never come when I’d dropped out of college. I stood triumphant in front of my class of fellow graduates as the commencement speaker, celebrating all who overcame life’s challenges to receive their diploma.
HEART HEALING STEP 3: ACKNOWLEDGE LOSS
When injury or illness hit, people will say “You need to listen to your body.” It can be a bit dumbfounding. The road trip of thoughts begins:
“I thought I was listening.”
“I must have interpreted the messages wrong.”
“What was the message even saying?”
“I did something wrong.”
“It’s my fault that this happened.”
The mind turns down the side roads of shoulda-coulda-wouldas. You swerve left and right, always ending up at the dead end of what didn’t happen. It’s easy to continue down these roads of blame and self-loathing. “I did something wrong.” “I didn’t listen, now I’m injured.” Or “now I’m sick.”
A more productive route is to first assess where you are. There is no point to blame, guilt, or shame. It’ll lead you in circles right back to that same dead end. When you get tired of that loop, stop. Reset yourself to a new path. Find your course by asking “How do I listen to the body?” and “Do I respond with its best interest in mind?” Find out what the pain is trying to tell you.
When pain is experienced in the body and mind, you turn thought into action with your willpower and decide how to respond to the body’s messages. The initial reaction of the bodymind is to resist the pain, and this rejection creates identification with the bodymind experiencing the sensations of the nervous system. Thinking “I am my pain” causes an automatic fight, flight, or freeze reaction. Just as you learned in the acceptance chapter, rejection will not make the situation magically transform. Thoughts of “I don’t want this to be happening” or “I want this to stop” creates tension against the intensifying pain.
Why is the process of interpreting pain so difficult? Sensing into pain is acknowledging the frailty of the body. It would be great if the mind could tell pain, “Go away, please, I don’t want you here,” and the nervous system magically responded with a flood of ambient sensation. Sadly, this is usually not the case. As a result, we reach for things outside of ourselves. We eat our pain, we drug our pain, we drink our pain away; anything not to feel the pain. Running away from pain only magnifies it.
Addressing pain by consciously thinking “I am in a body that’s experiencing an uncomfortable sensation” allows you to listen, feel, accept, and respond with the higher mind. Through the mind training and heart healing steps, you acknowledge what you don’t want to acknowledge: everyday grief. Grief is the loss or unfulfilled want that brings pain and suffering.
Most people think of grief as a deep sadness one feels after a cataclysmic loss. It is this and so much more. It’s the little losses and the big losses; it’s the time we can’t get back. It’s the limited time you have in this body. Life is a perpetual motion of grief one moment to the next.
Freeing yourself of pain means turning toward it and acknowledging loss. The ultimate fear, the one most avoided in life, is the fear of endings. It’s the fear of death. By turning and running toward our grief and pain, we break through the fear and cross a line into a vast expansive world of possibilities. When you do not fear grief, you do not fear pain, and you do not fear death. This is liberation.
While liberating yourself of the fear of death may seem far off, start by addressing grief as you work through the mind training and heart healing steps. Step three of the heart healing steps is acknowledging grief and setting a joyful resolve. This gives space to loss and opens you to absolving grief with the intent toward joy. Even in the most difficult times, you can admit that you want to be happy, even if you are feeling a sinking sadness. A joyful intent prevents getting stuck in grief.
I lost my identification as an athlete but gained growth in the direction of my soul purpose. The processing of turning toward grief is personal and individual. It requires looking within and asking “What is here?” It requires acceptance. It requires unconditional love. It requires the grace of God.
Managing pain becomes a skill honed by manipulation of the breath and letting go of resistance. Conscious breathing initiates calmness of mind. In this mind state, the body can heal. Your heart rate slows on your exhale and encourages the relaxed state. Ask pain “Why are you here?” Relax into the pain for it to answer you. Let it run its course in the spaciousness of the body. Instead of my pain and my body, think the pain in the body. Surrendering and softening to discomfort acts as an analgesic to pain.
STEPS TO MOVE THROUGH PAIN
Completing numerous endurance and CrossFit events has taught me how to move through physical pain. Moving through emotional pain is done through a similar process. Presence in the body and mind will move you forward in times of fear and give you courage when you want to retreat. Follow these steps when you meet discomfort, and the act of facing your pain will surface your fearless soul to get you through what seems intolerable.
Focus the gaze.
When in motion, concentrate on a fixed point in front of you. A focused gaze brings the mind to focus. Become one with your surroundings by noticing and naming what you see in the periphery of your vision. This will keep you present in your body, countering fear of what is to come.
Bring awareness to the breath.
Pay attention to your breath. Count your inhales and exhales to pace your movement. Expand the chest cavity to allow oxygen in. Exhale, let go of clenching. Consciously engage the muscles that are needed and relax the muscles that are not. Name the muscle groups being used, and send your breath and awareness to activate those areas.
Increase your energetic awareness.
Circulate energy in through the front of the chest, out through the back. Then in through the back of the skull at the top of the spine and out through the third eye point. Repeat “Heart”/“Mind” as you cycle the energy. Imagine drawing and recharging with energy from the infinite powerful forces of the universe.
Give the body instructions.
From the perspective of the soul, tell the body exactly what to do. You power the body from an unlimited source of energy. Instead of listening to the mind say “Stop! This really hurts!” instruct the body as to what the next step is. If possible, determine these instructions prior to the pain coming in. Break down the movement you’re doing and give the body specific commands. The body feels pain. The spirit does not. Keep moving forward.
Perceive pain as sensation.
Pain is sensation in the body. Rejecting pain creates resistance. Give the pain space. When the feelings of discomfort arrive, breathe into any areas of the body that are unnecessarily tense. Relax into the pain without slowing your movement. Think of the nervous system like a series of hoses through the body. Tension tightens around the hose and creates a kink which then builds up pressure, intensifying pain. Softening releases the kink in the hose and will reduce the pain and discomfort to disperse or at least allow the mind to move away from focusing on the unwanted sensation.
Repeat positive affirmations
Smile and tell yourself, “I trust my body.” “I am not afraid of pain.” “I am not afraid of grief.” “I am not afraid of death.” “I will win.” “I am free.” “I can do difficult things.” This turns the focus to what is gained by the pain instead of lost. The loss of time and pleasure of other things due to working out is not a significant loss. However, it’s training your bodymind to respond to pain with a growth mindset. You are gaining physical health, strength, confidence, and the ability to work through the discomfort life throws at you.
While sitting in silence, the inner ears can hear more clearly the signals of the body. During meditation, heighten your sense of listening to what your body is telling you. Let go of trying to search for an answer. Ask a question and let it come in without effort. Listen to the voice of your soul intuition by going deeply within.
ON-CUSHION: 15-MINUTE MEDITATION
Meditate first thing in the morning and just before bed. Begin your meditation practice by repeating a statement of intention and liberation. Filter the truth of the words through your heart and mind. I listen intuitively to my body. I am safe in my body. I love my body.
TEN-MINUTE EMOM + FIVE MINUTES OF STILLNESS
- Set timer for 15 minutes with 10 one-minute increment bells.
- Sit with your spine in neutral, shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders.
- Close the eyes and focus gently at the third eye point between the eyebrows.
- As you breathe in, imagine a golden light entering your chest and exiting through the back of your heart.
- As you breathe out, imagine the light entering the back of your head at the point where the skull meets the spine, then exiting through the third eye point.
Minute 0:00 to 10:00 (5 Rounds)
- Circulate energy from the heart to the mind as you inhale and exhale.
- Inhale: Silently repeat “Heart.”
- Exhale: Silently repeat “Mind.”
- Keep count of the ten bells by extending your thumb for 1 then, placing your thumb to each finger pad for 2 – 5. Repeat for count 6-10.
- Retain breath.
- Concentrate at the third eye point between the eyebrows.
- Silently repeat “Love.”
Minute 10:00 to 15:00
- Sit in silence for five minutes.
- Concentrate at the third eye point of intuition.
- Circulate the breath.
- Silently repeat “Om.”
Notice the feeling of self-love awakened from meditation. Affirm I am worthy of love.
OFF-CUSHION: OVERCOME MENTAL DISCOMFORT WITH PATIENCE
During your day, notice the little things that prevent you from getting to where you want to go. How do you react to a red light when you’re in a hurry? Practice staying calm by following the steps to work with pain and deconstruct emotions as you sit at the red light. What is the emotion? Frustration. What is the story you’re telling yourself? I don’t have time to wait. Rewrite the story. I have plenty of time. I am patient. I can breathe. Frustration won’t get me to my destination faster.
Ever wonder why waiting in traffic is so maddening? It’s eating up time, a finite resource. The grief felt while waiting is the loss of time. This fear is the fear of death. When you acknowledge this loss, you become more present in the moment and can easily adapt—perhaps by starting a podcast and sending loving thoughts to all the people waiting in traffic with you.
By maintaining a peaceful mindset, you’ve navigated the mental challenge of waiting without allowing it to upset your mental continuum. You arrive at your destination later than planned, but in a state of calm. It won’t affect the rest of your day.
Practice remaining calm through times of stress today by deconstructing the emotions arising, acknowledging loss, and seeking growth through challenge.
Complete introspection questions and Chapter 15 exercise from your TMHH Workbook.