I used to think that chiropractors were quacks – until I visited a chiropractor who specialized in prenatal care, when I was 10 months pregnant with my third son and miserable with back pain. Not only did she relieve much of my discomfort by ever so carefully realigning my spine and hips, but I went into labor within 24 hours. By that point of my pregnancy, I was DONE, and very grateful.
Fast forward several years. I was doing alot of running, and at some point developed a sharp burning pain along the IT band of my left leg. It would start hurting after only walking a few blocks, and so I let my running regimen fall to the wayside. No amount of noodle rolling, stretching, massage, or rest would keep the pain away. I decided at one point to go visit a local specialized chiropractor who emphasized more than just adjustment – she was into holistic care – nutrition, lifestyle, all of it. During my first visit she took X-rays of my back to find out where kinks were. Meanwhile, she explained that we usually come to the chiropractor for help when we are experiencing physical pain. However, this is a later stage in our injuries. Nerves that supply our muscles also supply our organs, and the same pinched nerves that cause noticeable pain also cause impairment in organ function. Furthermore, pain in the body that seems unrelated to our backs might actually be directly related.
This, as it turned out, was true in my case. As I visited her regularly over several months, she would make gradual adjustments and apply traction to reverse the multiple kinks in my back. Lo and behold, my relentless leg pain went away and has never returned, even after I started running again. Moral of the story? I’m now a fan of quality chiropractic care.
This week Rob Bell interviewed a holistic chiropractor that he had met on tour, and they discussed the philosophy and history behind chiropractic. It was a really good podcast…you can listen to it here. Early on, Dr. Beuerlein talked about the root meaning of the word subluxation, the term used to describe structural displacements within the spine. “Sub” means less than, below, or beneath. “Lux” means light or illumination. So, put together, subluxation means “not enough illumination” or “not enough light”. Or, you could say it this way – there’s not enough energy getting through. Restoration of proper electrical conductance (or energy flow) through the nerves requires gentle manipulation of the injured places on the spine. Kinks must be straightened and the skeletal components must be positioned into correct symmetry for ideal nerve signal transmission once again. Taking a pill won’t help. The specific injury needs to be addressed in order to regain full original function.
Of course, when I heard this, my mind insta-beamed to Rumi. Love me some Rumi. One quote attributed to him is as follows: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” I started chewing on both of these ideas in my mind, considering how this physical idea of subluxations is also analogous to places we get “stuck” emotionally and spiritually.
Our backs acquire subluxations from physical traumas – sometimes from big massives ones, and sometimes through small, reoccurring ones. The same is true for our psychological selves. Emotional traumas can cause kinks within our minds and hearts. They cause tangles of fear and beliefs that block love and life energy from being able to pass. As a result, we become disabled – handicapped in our ability to move through life with ease and freedom. If we don’t address these kinks, we are more likely to grow bitter, resentful, and hateful towards life and those around us.
When we have injuries, physically or emotionally, we usually want people to leave our pain well enough alone. Don’t touch it. You’ll make it worse. And so we nurse our pain, and pull in tighter to ourselves, guarding our wounds. The problem is, this guarding and pulling inwards only restricts energy flow more. We become more contracted and our pain increases.
Pain is actually a gift to us, even though we prefer to avoid it at all costs. It shows us where we are hurt and the places of our lives that desperately need to be addressed. It reveals the kinks that keep our life energy blocked and hinder us from being who we are meant to be.
The trick to dealing with pain in life is to go straight to the subluxations, the source of pain. Attempting to fix my hurting leg where it actually hurt didn’t yield any progress. My pain only dissolved when its root cause was addressed. It is the same with emotional pain. We can treat symptoms out on the periphery all that we want, but this won’t bring long-term results. Light and life energy can only get in at the site of injury. And this requires that we stop contracting ourselves, admit and accept that we are injured, and work with that injury so that it can be healed.
One more quote from Rumi:
“Don’t get lost in your pain; know that one day your pain will be your cure.”
The day before yesterday I was driving along listening to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. As usually happens, an idea for a blog post randomly came together in my mind, and I decided I would call it Black Holes and Rip Currents. But at the time, I only had a faint idea of what I would write about.
Yesterday morning I woke up to the FB headline that Stephen Hawking had just died. My blog post idea timing was very curious because Hawking is well known for his physics work on black holes.
Black holes can currently only be observed indirectly. While they do emit teeny amounts of radiation, known as Hawking radiation, it is still too small of an amount to be measured. Instead, scientists conclude black holes exist because they can see the chaotic behavior that occurs in certain places in space; the black holes influence the movement of stars and slow energies moving by them just a little too closely. If a star is pulled in by the black hole, it passes the event horizon, or point of no return, where it can no longer escape because of its inadequate escape velocity.
Black holes are essentially any body that has an escape velocity greater than the speed of light. Basically, for a particle to move away from the black hole, it has to be traveling faster than the speed at which light travels. Just as a fun side note, for something to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, it needs to be traveling roughly 25,000 mph. But, if the Earth could be squished down into a ball with a radius of 8 millimeters (about the size of a marble), it would become a black hole- meaning that to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, an object would need to be traveling faster than the speed of light (about 6,700,00,000 mph). For an interesting break down of the math, click here.
Have you ever met people that just completely suck you in with all of their drama? Everything in their lives is a problem, and when you enter their orbit, they somehow make their problems your problems, too?
Or, maybe you are that person – you can’t stand being in misery by yourself so you consciously or unconsciously do whatever necessary to entice others to step in and experience your pain with you?
Or, there are people who might not have any real drama or problems of their own, but they feel the need to suck in all the negativity around them and take on everyone else’s problems?
In his writings, Eckart Tolle talks extensively about the idea of the pain body. He defines it as “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field. I see it as a semi-autonomous psychic entity. It consists of negative emotions that were not faced, accepted, and then let go in the moment they arose. These negative emotions leave a residue of emotional pain, which is stored in the cells of the body.”
Tolle says that the pain body in each of us, or sometimes collectively as humans, has a dormant state and also one where it ‘awakens’ to feed. It thrives on negativity, suffering, and drama. The pain body is evident in people that seem to be addicted to unhappiness or are always finding problems in things. I’m pretty sure we’ve all met at least someone who seems able to create problems out of nothing, and who can’t seem to be content without drama in their life. Maybe we’ve even seen this tendency within ourselves.
When I first read about the pain body years ago, I thought Tolle was being a little over the top. But the more I thought about it, the more I could see that each of us has a pain body that is kind of a living being within each of us. Haven’t we all felt at times like we had no control over our anger? Or maybe horrible words flew out of our mouths and we wondered where they came from? Or times when you’re so upset, or sad, or mad that you feel like a puppet being propelled along by some other force?
Sometimes the pain body can be seen clearly in relationships you have with other people. Marriage or romantic partnerships can be prime examples of this. Have you ever noticed cyclical patterns in your relationships? Things may be trucking along just fine, but then something happens and either you or your partner starts getting grumpy, or petty, or negative in some way. The next thing you know the two of you are sucked into a huge drama-filled conflict for a few hours or days, and then, perhaps suddenly, it can vanish as quickly as it appeared. As Tolle describes, your pain bodies have gotten their fill for a while and are going to sleep off their fat stomachs until they need more negative nourishment and come back to pick another fight.
Black holes can increase in size by absorbing mass surrounding them. And pain bodies increase in size by absorbing negativity from around them. These pain bodies are what cause our suffering. It has been said that to experience pain is human, but to experience suffering is optional. The older I get, the more I think this is really true. We suffer when we allow our pain bodies to suck in and hold tightly to the negativity and bad things that happen to us, forcing us to carry the pain indefinitely within us. If we didn’t allow our pain bodies to accumulate negativity, the pain in life we experienced would just touch us for a brief time and then move on, and we would be able to recover much more quickly.
So, how do we deal with our pain bodies, these things that we can’t observe directly but know are there because of the chaos that can surround us when they are awake and feeding?
I’m going to toss out two ideas, or analogies, that feel helpful to me based on what I’ve read in Tolle’s work.
1. Other people’s pain bodies have an escape velocity. Dr. David Hawkins came up with a Map of Consciousness to help people track their movement towards spiritual enlightenment. Now, you may look at this and think it is entirely hokey, but hang with me. His levels are considered energy or vibrations, which he says in his book, Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender, are directly measurable by muscle conductance. Each of these levels is associated with motivation for how we live out our lives. The lowest energy levels, at 20 and 30, are shame and guilt. Moving up a bit you hit apathy, then grief, and then fear. As one continues to grow in consciousness, their motivations cross from being negative energy fields and instead become positive energy fields. Acceptance at 350, love at 500, unconditional love at 540.
Negative particles fall into black holes, but positive particles are freed as Hawking radiation. ‘I’m not claiming that consciousness energy levels/pain bodies and black holes are identical, but analogies are fun so I’m going with it.) Similarly, pain bodies have a greater ability to suck in people who are motivated by negative energy levels like fear and shame, while people operating out of positive energy levels like acceptance, fear, and love are more immune to a pain body’s toxic effects.
Our country is polarized right now on so many topics, whether it be reproductive rights, gun rights, Republicans versus Democrats, etc. Primary motivators that both sides of these arguments use to pull people in their direction are fear and anger. These two emotions have escape velocities that are really difficult to reach, which is why I think so many of us fall prey to them on social media and other realms of our lives. We try to move outward and escape all the hurtful rhetoric, but then get sucked back in when our anger or fear receptors are triggered.
I think it’s helpful, when we become aware that we are getting sucked into an individual or collective pain body, or when we feel our own pain bodies being awakened by circumstances, that we consciously stop and determine what is motivating us at that particular time. Are we responding out of fear? Out of anger? Out of pride, or grief, or some other negative energy?
Also, we need to learn to watch others’ pain bodies, and stay away from the people who have bigger pain bodies than we can handle. I’ve had countless times in my life where I get sucked into other people’s pain with the intention that I was going to try and “help” them or “fix” them. Inevitably, these situations just turned out to be codependence; our pain bodies became intertwined, our drama became each other’s drama, and nobody was fixed. I’m pretty convinced now that to really know how to help someone with a big, hungry pain body, you have to be at a high enough level of consciousness (or escape velocity) yourself, so that you don’t get pulled into past the event horizon of their pain where there is little chance of return. Or, to put it in familiar terms: you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you try and put an oxygen mask on someone else. Sometimes, you just have to stay away from people whose pain is too big, or those who are unwilling to address their pain. Boundaries to protect yourself from the black holes of other people’s pain bodies are a good thing.
2. To deal with your own pain body, treat it like a rip current. I realize that rip currents have nothing to do with black holes, but they both are powerful forces that pull things in with amazing speed, so humor me here. Rip currents are a particular kind of current that occurs on beaches near breaking waves that can be really dangerous for swimmers. When people get caught in these currents, they tend to panic that they will be carried out to sea, and fight to swim straight back to shore against the current. Doing so is an exhausting endeavor and can lead to swimmers drowning because of sheer fatigue of fighting against the fast-moving water. The way to get out of a rip current is not to swim back against the current, but to turn and swim parallel to the shoreline.
The first step to dealing with your pain body is to become aware of it and learn to watch it rise and fall within you. Fighting against pain is futile; it exhausts us, causes increased suffering, and the pain body won’t go away just by us struggling against it because our struggle only serves to feed the pain body and help it grow. By coming alongside our pain bodies once we see them, we can watch them and accept the fact that we have them. This, according to what I perceive from Tolle, is the first step in decreasing their hunger and control over our lives.
Just like you would initially relax into a rip current and float, as you gather your wits about you to begin swimming perpendicular to the rip current, so you need to relax into the knowledge that you’ve got a pain monster inside of you before you start dealing with it.
We can’t become completely conscious overnight, and we can’t just make our pain bodies disappear. But if we take the time to stop and observe ourselves and those around us, we will begin to discern the effects of both sets of pain bodies. Learn to watch for the chaotic ripples that flow out from certain people. Pay attention to the ways that you tend to get sucked into their drama and conflicts. And most importantly, begin to look deeply inside and become familiar with your own pain body. As you do this, you’ll soon notice there is a separation between the pain body and the real you. You’ll discover that you no longer have to just “react” to what happens to you; instead, you can accept what happens, and thoughtfully, calmly, choose how you will respond out of your true self.
It was a rough year, but I had made it. Things were on a positive trajectory and I was feeling hopeful. But then, right when I thought I was on the homestretch…..
(Yes, I know I’m splicing together random metaphors).
It was like that scene from Million Dollar Baby. You know, where Hillary Swank’s character dominates in the boxing match, and as she goes to the side of the ring to soak up her glory, her opponent throws an ugly illegal punch that pretty much ruins everything. Oh what the heck, watch it here and you’ll get the idea.
I’m obviously not the only one that has been thrown what feels like a totally unfair and uncalled-for blow, but no matter how intellectually we approach these things, they can still hurt like freaking hell. And sometimes the hardest thing to do is to force yourself to get back up again and to keep breathing in and out, and to believe that life is benevolent and good.
I’m halfway through nursing school, and in that time I have gained an even greater appreciation for the way our bodies work. The intricate balancing system of chemicals, blood gases, and pH to maintain optimal functioning is fascinating. Even when we are diseased or injured or offer them crappy energy supplies, our bodies fight valiantly to keep us moving. It’s quite an elegant set-up, really.
One idea that is really pushed on us in school and clinicals is the importance of open airways and proper breathing. When in doubt, the best action is always to check a person’s airway to make sure nothing is obstructing their breathing. And second, when someone has had surgery, even if it’s just a C-section, or a lung illness, the patient needs to perform incentive spirometry.
Incentive spirometry is slow, forced breathing to help fully open the air sacs deep within the lungs and help a person regain as much lung capacity as possible. The problem is, when you’re in pain, you don’t want to breathe deeply. You want to take short, shallow breaths and use as few muscles in the process as possible. When you’re in intense pain, you also likely feel completely bone-tired.
Can’t everyone just leave me alone, God dammit? Breathing hurts and my body hurts and I’m exhausted – I just want to lie here in my misery and not move!
Forcing yourself to breathe in these medical situations is exactly what needs to be done for the body to restore itself. It may hurt like hell to use that stupid incentive spirometer (and I know from experience, having had three C-sections and my gall-bladder removed), but pushing through that pain to help your lungs open up and allow for optimal gas exchange is paramount. Without going into too much detail, gas exchange (oxygen and carbon dioxide) is crucial…for proper cell metabolism, for maintaining a narrow-bounded blood pH, for minimizing anxiety and confusion…the list goes on.
Emotional pain can cause the same kinds of breathing problems as physical pain. I doubt I’m unique in this-when my heart is broken or I’m panicking or I’m descending into the depths of despair (thank you for that sentiment, Anne of Green Gables), my chest physically hurts and I find myself taking those short, shallow breaths. When I realize it and attempt to breathe deeply out of my diaphragm, the emotional pain seems to intensify rather than abate, and it takes all the courage I have to let my lungs expand.
Failure to breathe deeply from emotional pain can lead to some of the same negative side effects caused by physical pain. But what is worse than just failing to breathe deeply is when we stop breathing and hold our breath. This, however, is our tendency.
Because breathing deeply or breathing at all during these times feels like you’re endorsing or condoning what is being done to you or the situation you find yourself in. Breathing is necessary to bring in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide, and those gases are necessary for life, and life doesn’t feel like a good thing right now because it is what brought you this pain in the first place. Our natural reflex is to want to close ourselves off from breathing, pain, and all that life brings because we want to protect ourselves. How could a rational human being sanely accept and embrace the hard things that come our way, uninvited?
We unconsciously think that if we hold perfectly still, the pain will go away. But this isn’t the way it works. When we hold still, the pain remains trapped within us. It can’t lessen because it has nowhere to go. And then, the lack of life movement within us accompanied by this body of pain, creates bitterness and resentment and scar tissue on our hearts. We become small, immovable, hard, unchangeable.
Breath creates space inside of us for new things to happen. It provides a vehicle for the pain to start moving, within us and then eventually, out of us. To ruin the moment here, I’m thinking of patients who have tracheostomies. Their trachs and lungs get all bound up with phlegm and mucus, but if they can get a good, long, deep breath in and cough hard, all the gunk in their lungs is loosened up (or potentially flies across the room at you and you’d better duck fast) and they feel better.
This is where spirituality beat science and modern healthcare to the table. Mystics and contemplatives have known for ages that to heal and to get through pain, we have to keep moving and we have to keep breathing deeply. There is no other way to convalesce if we want to live.
So many spiritual practices focus on the breath. Watch your in-breath, watch your out-breath. Count to five on your inhalation, count to eight on your exhalation. Place your hand on your abdomen and feel your diaphragm expand. On your exhale, push back into downward dog. On your inhale, press up into cobra pose.
Practices like yoga teach us how to sync our breathing with our movements. It’s not just about exercise; it is about learning to live and be with the pain that is within us, how to hold it long enough to transform it, and then how to let it pass through us without destroying us.
So…I know and believe all that I’ve just written at a head level, and to some extent at my heart level. When I breathe my chest still hurts and I just want to go crawl under the covers and not move. But I choose to believe that life is good and what comes to me is what I need. I choose to feel the pain and not run away from it. I choose to transform it and let it transform me. I’ve run away from hard things too many times in the past because I was afraid of the pain. But I’m not afraid of pain anymore, and I will breathe deeply into life, and I will get up again and again and again. So bring it, 2018.
This might seem an unusual choice for me, because I certainly orbit on the outer fringes of mainstream Christianity. I first stumbled across Mennonites when I lived in Upstate New York. I drove past a little Mennonite USA fellowship for two years before I got the courage to try it out. All I knew at the time was that Mennonites are cousins of the Amish, and that they are staunch pacifists. I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I entered the church; would I be out of place not wearing a head covering or plain clothes? Would I be way too progressive for them?
As it turned out, I fit into that church quite nicely, and they helped continue me on my journey of exploration into pacifism, non-violence, and how we as humans should approach pain and suffering in life.
Fast forward a few years – I am now back in Indianapolis. Once again I found myself hovering around the edges of Christianity, unsure if I wanted to be in or out. And once again, I stumbled across a Mennonite church, and again, it is the right fit for me. It’s a community that asks the hard questions and wants to listen to all the answers given in response, even the ones that might sit uncomfortably or require change.
As of late, we have been discussing what it means to be Mennonite andof Anabaptist heritage in today’s world. At one time, Anabaptists were a group that were being persecuted for their faith and ideals, and they felt the need to retreat and seclude themselves in safety away from mainstream culture. But, from what I’ve learned, since WWII, many Mennonites have realized that they have a great deal to offer the world, especially in living out the non-violence teachings of Jesus.
In our Sunday classes, we have had vigorous conversations on the requirements for real, long-lasting peace, as well as the myth of redemptive violence. At one point, someone suggested that instead of fighting back against violence only in overt, active, aggressive ways, we as followers of Jesus need to absorb violence from the worldto keep it from being perpetuated.
So, my mind making the weird connections it does, I immediately thought of : Apollo 13 – you know, that amazing movie with Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton (RIP), and Lieutenant Dan. There is one period in the movie where a crisis evolved over the high levels of carbon dioxide building up in the module the astronauts were in, the result of them exhaling gaseous wastes from their bodies without a working air filtration system. The scientists on the ground in Houston saw that the required oxygen levels were fine, but CO2 was gradually increasing and would reach toxic levels if not dealt with quickly. NASA engineers frantically went to work, using materials available to the flight crew, to create scrubbers that would draw the excess CO2 out of the air and safely contain it.
I picture in my mind non-violent followers of Jesus or Buddha or name-your-guru who act as violence scrubbers in the world. People who can handle bad, hard things and pull away the violent spirit of those things from humanity. But what does that look like? And how to people who scrub the world free of violence not be hardened and broken from the horrors and injustice that occur everyday?
Richard Rohr, that great Franciscan contemplative who I love to quote, frequently remarks that if we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit it. And the problem is, most people have no clue how to transform their pain. We do everything possible to distract ourselves from it, cover it up, blame it on everything outside of ourselves – but we continue to suffer and remain imprisoned and burdened by suffering.
This is what Rohr says true spirituality is about: learning what to do with our pain and suffering. And when we learn how to deal with our own personal suffering, we carve out space to be able to hold the suffering of others. Not in a neurotic, codependent way, but in such a way that transforms it, changes it fundamentally. My mind is now going to the idea of catalytic converters….I will refrain from jumping onto that metaphor here.
One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, teaches a practicethat reminds me of violence scrubbing and pain transformation. It is called Tonglen meditation, and if I understand correctly, is part of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. According to Pema, we each have a soft spot inside of us, where we are vulnerable and have the capacity for compassion towards ourselves and others. We often close this space up because of fear and involuntarily harden ourselves against our pain and the pain of others. Tonglen is a breathing practice that is about learning to be willing to take in the pain and suffering of others, and then sending back happiness to everyone. She writes that if we can learn to tolerate and sit with pain and hard things within ourselves, we learn not to fear them, and “we increase our capacity for fear and equanimity.”
“We breathe in what is painful and unwanted with the sincere wish that we and others could be free of suffering. As we do so, we drop the story line that goes along with the pain and feel the underlying energy. We completely open our hearts and minds to whatever arises. Exhaling, we sent out relief from the pain with the intention that we and others be happy.” ((The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times).
Every so often a great person rises that embodies violence scrubbing. Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Desmund Tutu…just to name a few of the more well-known ones. Somehow, they have taken on the corporate pain of thousands of people without having it break them, and we have all benefited as a result.
It seems like the last year has seen ever-rising levels of toxicity in our world, with countless varieties of violence threatening the achievement of a lasting peace. At the same time, so many people are turning their backs on religion, with good reason, especially when religious institutions align themselves with the propagation and endorsement of violence. But we can’t rely on a few greats like those I mentioned above to save us. We must find in ourselves the courage to face our pain so that we don’t keep passing it on to our children. Like the astronauts of Apollo 13, we don’t have the choice to sit back and hope we’ll arrive at our destination before we breach a toxicity threshold. We need to grasp on to mature spirituality, use the tools we have at our disposal, and “be the change we want to see in the world.” (Ghandi)