Recently I've been learning about meditation. Among other things, I've been reading a couple of books by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The first is called Full Catastrophe Living, and it's directed in part at people living with chronic pain and illness. The second is a more straightforward discussion of meditation, called Wherever You Go, There You Are.
Meditation is not what I'd always thought it was. It's not about forcing yourself to be calm, or your mind to be empty. It's just about really being present; not always dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
Sadly, not me.
Because of this, I have always been pretty skeptical about the usefulness of meditation for people with chronic pain. Wouldn't being present in my body just make me more aware of how much it hurts? What I'm finding, though, is that while meditation may not do much for the pain itself, it does seem to be changing my response to pain.
I am a worrier. I worry about people I love, about school, polar bears and rainforests. And sometimes I think the worst part of chronic illness is not the symptoms themselves, but the anticipation of more, or worse, symptoms, and the disability and disappointment that may come with them.
Last week I took a trip with my parents. It was lovely and a lot of fun, but it also involved hours of driving. Car seats and scoliosis are not a good mix, and after a few hours, my back felt horrible. I usually just take a deep breath try to ignore it, but this time I cried. Actually, sobbed - quietly, because I didn't want to talk about it with anyone. I had a total meltdown. I thought I would ruin the trip for myself and my family. And we were going to a concert that night; how would I enjoy it when each breath took so much energy? I was so angry at myself.
I probably cried for a good half hour (it didn't help that I was exhausted) before some switch in my mind flipped and reminded me that here was the perfect opportunity to give this meditation business a try. So I started to think about why I was crying. It wasn't just because I hurt.Yes, I was in a lot of pain, but I was crying because I was worried about the next few hours and the next few days.
I brought my focus back to the present, noticing the car, the trees going by outside, and even my stiffness and seizing muscles. I reminded myself that I was already in enough pain to want to crawl out of my skin. I was already handling it. Surprisingly, this actually worked. My back didn't feel any better, but after a while, I did. I stopped crying, took pills, got out of the car and walked around.
I'm definitely no master of meditation. I'm still full of worries and neuroses most of the time, and I don't often remember to bring myself back to the here and now. I'm trying to, though, and when I do, I am surprised by the difference it makes - if not to the pain itself, at least to my confidence in my ability to handle it.
Before the concert that night, I soaked my back in a hot bath, did yoga in our hotel room, and loaded up on painkillers. And it worked! The concert was lovely.