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Chasing the pain

March 10, 2011

I haven’t written anything on here for quite a while and I was asking myself “Why?”.

Possible answers?

1. I think that much of what I might say is unoriginal

2. Much of what I could say is personal to me and thus pretty trivial in the grand scheme

3. Similarly, because it is personal it can rapidly degenerate into navel-gazing and self pity.

Of course, navel-gazing (in the sense of meditation) was one thing I was going to write about – mindfulness meditation. But any thoughts on that, if they are to be meaningful, are slow in coming – because meditation, in any form, can take a long time to produce any fruit.

But one thing about which I have come to an insight  might be worth sharing.

Mindfulness meditation, in its formal practice, asks you to “note any thoughts that cross your mind, give them a nod and say ‘OK, that’s interesting, I’ll come back to you’ and then move back kindly and gently to following the breath (or whatever the subject of your meditation is)”

That’s a hard thing to do! Once a fascinating thought or, possibly, what appears to be a brilliant insight (and turns out to be rubbish) enters your mind, off you go!

“The brain is made for thinking. Don’t be surprised, or think you have failed because this happens, time and again. Be kind to yourself, just say thanks, gently, and go back to  the breath”

I struggled (and struggle) with this.  Then I found an mp3 entitled “labelling your thoughts”.  The speaker suggests that it might help to categorise the intruders. “Call them “Distraction” or “Anxiety” or “Fantasy” – find your own names – and, when a thought comes into your mind name it. You may find that only a  few categories suffice and can give you a handle by which to catch yourself – before you’re back on the thought train””. I tried that; surprising how many got labelled “fantasy”, but that is probably too much self-disclosure!

So I poodled on, putting aside a regular time to meditate. As I think I said, I started this whole meditation lark because it is the subject of a number of courses on Pain Management. I have to say that it works but it’s a bugger to remember to use it when you are completely obsessed with the pain itself.  Finding a “meta-viewpoint” is nigh impossible as you squirm around trying to find a bodily position which will disarm the “tormenting devil”.

The guy who wrote the book which started me on this road, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has recorded a guided mindfulness meditation called “the body scan” which is a useful introduction if one is using meditation to reduce stress or pain.  After a 20 minute session, as you are coming back to earth, he says a few closing things about keeping up the practice and, ” hopefully”…. “seeing it spill over into your life outside this formal practice, as the ‘doing mode‘ gives way to the ‘being  mode‘”.  “Well” I thought, “If I can’t get the pain management right, there’s sweet Fanny Adams’ chance of my seeing this!”.  But maybe I was wrong.

I woke up, as isn’t unusual, at 3.30 that morning; a dull pain in my right thigh slowly escalating into a muscle spasm that would have me  rolling around, desperate to find some way to head it off at the pass. I ended up curled in a ball where the bedhead meets the side wall.  Slowly, I untangled my legs and arms, feeling tentatively towards a stance which would be comfortable.  The pain was too much to let me go back to sleep, but not enough to overcome the tiredness.  So I lay there, thinking.  Bloody fool!  “This is not the time to deal constructively with a problem – and problems is surely where you’se heading”.

And I was right.  I thought about how I had tackled my daughter’s partner about his angry outburst; how he had reacted by throwing something he had in his hand onto the table and storming out and whether I had done something wrongly and how I might retrieve things for her. Round and round I went.  Anger at his behaviour> self-blame for handling it wrongly> rehearsal of tomorrow’s conversation> self- contempt at not telling him how p…..d off I was with what he’d done> anger at myself for compromising> anger at his behaviour ……..  By the end of this maelstrom, I was almost shaking with emotion.

I tried breathing regularly, I tried concentrating on different parts of my body and relaxing them but, still, another and yet another angle jumped into my mind … and off I went on a train of narrative thought.  I desperatelyneeded to detach enough to look at the process.  I became aware that what was kicking it all off was not the issue itself; I was continually coming back and poking the emotion and stirring it up again. I think I was trying to relive it all in the hope that a different solution or view would present itself, miraculously. But it won’t, will it? Once the emotion engages, off you go in circles, doing it, over and over again.

And that’s when I found the label.  “Chasing the pain”. That’s what I was doing, picking at the scabs of the situation, rehearsing all the possibilities. And I do it, time after time.  I have spent a great deal of my life  going round these circles of “What did I do?” ;”Was it my fault?”; “I know what I’ll say next time I see her/him”,  continually plotting strategies for potential conflicts and problems – trying always to foresee problems  – in preference to a balanced survey of things – wasting time, wasting my life. Oh, yeah, one of those strategies might pan out, but it’s more than likely that either the situation will be one I hadn’t foreseen or, if only I had confidence, I would have thought of it anyway at the time.

I went back to following the breath. Every time that situation tried to catch my attention, I said “chasing the pain”, “chasing the pain”. And eventually it became “Chasing the pain”, followed by some logical interruption “deal with it tomorrow”, ” you won’t forget it, deal with it tomorrow” and so on. I found I could stop “Chasing the pain” and just lean a little towards it and try to see it calmly; if it began to rise up,  back I went to the breathing and voicing the label I had given this mode of thinking. I fell asleep.

And the problem? He came round and apologised profusely, explaining that he was stressed over, what was it? ISO Standard 9001? OSHAAS 18001? Or whatever.  Enough to stress me out! I forgave him and calmly said what I had to say and we were over it.

Now, all I have to do is remember to do it next time I wake at 3.30 in the morning, there will surely be many more next times. Maybe I’ll remember to write  about it!

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 14, 2011 7:47 pm

    I only skimmed this when you first posted it Ian. Now I read it properly. Picking at the scab, yes. I do that a lot; done it massively today. It’s trying to find a mental position where I can effectively be comfortable with the pain. I must learn mindfulness properly.

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