Monday, October 25, 2010


I have been thinking about pain. Maybe I’ve been thinking about it because I have been experiencing it. For at least two months, I have had a deep persistent burning ache in my left shoulder. I can’t sleep on my left side. When walking my 8 pound dog, I now only use the right arm to hold the leash. (In my defense, she is quite a handful.)

A tear? I doubt it.

Tendinitis or bursitis? Maybe.

A tweaked nerve? Who knows.

Simple rotting of middle-aged tissues? This strikes me as a distinct possibility.

Over the last twenty years of committed physical activity, a number of minor inconveniences have peppered my day-to-day. Sesamoiditis in my foot. Some floaties in my knee, apparently leftover from my exploits in the womb, which required a little scoping. The garden variety of pulls and strains. Most have cleared up on their own.

As I recently considered making an appointment with my doctor, I came upon Ron Siegel’s chapter (in The Mindfulness Solution) entitled “Beyond Managing Symptoms: Transforming Pain and Stress-Related Medical Problems.” His major point is that pain has at least two components: the physical and the mental/emotional. The two are tightly entwined. I KNEW this… but reading it in the midst of my personal experience made it more real.

Sometimes, Siegel says, pain begins as a physical insult to the body. In many cases, a second insult is to the mind as the injured begins to overlay the physical experience with some gymnastics inside the mind (such as interpretation and fear and dread). This, then, feeds back into the body, contributing to tension and tightening and protecting. A cycle begins that can extend the reach of the original injury.

This resonated with me. I walked by a large glass window the other day and secretly surveyed myself. (You know you do it, too). I was struck by how my left should appeared hunched up, almost to my ear. I tried to relax it but when this failed, I realized that I needed to use my right hand to push my shoulder down. This, of course, hurt. Immediately, I felt fear sidle up, like an old rival (I thought "how long will this continue?" "will it last forever?" "am I doomed?"). As I wallowed in the fear, my shoulder began creeping its way back toward my ear lobe.

Siegel notes that many people begin to favor their painful part, using it less and less until it begins to atrophy. The physical pain and the psychological pain meld together into one conglomeration that is no longer subject to rationality. He argues that healing often involves pushing through pain (once given the doctor’s all clear) to regain physical mobility and circulation. Healing requires some discomfort.

I can’t help but draw a parallel to other areas of my life. Soft, painful parts, not in my body but in my psyche. Parts that I hide and built thick walls to protect from discomfort. I am not sure how my shoulder nor my tender emotional parts are going to react to some tough love. But something has to change.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Intentional Mindfulness

Intentional mindfulness.

Repetitive? Maybe, but given my tendency to veer off any path into the distraction offered by underbrush, the notion bears repeating. I have found myself so far in the thicket at times that I have met Goldilocks, coming and going. I am studying mindfulness as a way to ground myself more in the present moment and address the anxiety that has plagued me in all of my memory.

In his book “The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems," Dr. Ronald Siegel explores a definition of "mindfulness." Drawing on ancient Buddhist teachings as well as more contemporary thought, he lays out the pillars of mindfulness. Each of these has personal meaning for me.

Awareness: Much of what happens around me is out of my sphere of consciousness. The wind moving the leaves outside my window does not exist for me until I bring it into awareness.

Attention: Once I am aware of the wind, I may attend to it, drawing it into my senses… watching it with my eyes, smelling it as I open the window, feeling it brush across my skin. I must focus my attention on the “now.”

Remembering: As part of mindfulness, “remembering” involves gently bringing the awareness and attention back to the present moment. As I watch the leaves dance in the wind, my mind is likely to wander as I notice the itch on my knee, then realize that I need to shave my legs, then find myself distracted by my need to clean the bathroom… wind and tree long forgotten.

Acceptance/non-judgment: Siegel reminds me that an attitude of acceptance toward my experiences contributes to wellness and harmony. He believes that acceptance is the heart of mindfulness. In my example, when I am experiencing the wind in the present moment and my knee begins to itch, I can scratch it gently then return to the moment. I can acknowledge the thought that I need to shave my legs then let it go. Without criticizing myself for my inexcusable lapse of hygiene.

My example is trivial, of course. That said, I have a budding awareness of my unawareness, and it is vast. (I attempt to type that in the least judgmental way possible.) I spend the majority of my time skating from one experience to another with very little attention to anything in the present moment for more than a millisecond. And I am the Queen of Criticism. Self-acceptance is a foreign language to me, probably one of those with tonal nuances or mysterious clicks.

In reading Siegel’s book, along with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” I am struck by their discussion of mindfulness practice. I am a little relieved, too, since practice might mean that perfection is not expected. I am coming to believe that I must intentionally cultivate mindfulness.

I am still learning. I am exploring meditation, journaling, and relevant reading. I have integrated yoga into my typically more self-punishing forms of exercise. While still evolving, I have a feeling that I am on to something here. The next time I find myself in one of my briar patches (metaphorically or on my legs), I hope to be a little more mindful.