Monday, April 16, 2007

Church Signs: "Ready to Go Home"

I suffer from chronic pain on the right side of my body. The pain is mostly localized in one nickel-sized spot in the interior of my right knee and one half-dollar-sized spot my buttocks (in the center of my piriformis), although I also have pain in my inner thigh, under my right shoulder blade, and on my forearm, near my elbow. The upper body spots are explained by repetitive stress, I think; the others have been with me so long, it's hard to remember when they began.

Over the years, I've tried acupuncture, physical therapy, surgery, yoga, various types of exercise, special (expensive) types of shoes, orthotics, chiropractic care, stretching, anti-inflammatories, homeopathic remedies, and other alternative remedies. I have consulted with podiatrists, orthopedists, general practitioners, physical therapists, massage therapists, energy workers, acupuncturists, osteopaths, friends, relatives, books, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and more. Nothing has worked. Not meditation. Not exercise. Not changes in diet. Not Tylenol, Advil, or Motrin. Not percoset, darvocet, codeine, or vicodin.

The severity of the pain varies from week to week, but it never goes away. Never. The most uncomfortable things for me to do are sitting and lying down. It's maddening that I cannot lie on my back and read a book or sit and watch a movie. I can't work without squirming. And I haven't been on an airplane in several years because it's just too painful to endure. These limitations severely impact my quality of life because it limits my access to fun, travel, entertainment, and most essentially, rest. My nervous system is always on alert and this affects my sleep, my mood, my digestion, and my anxiety. During the Year of Healing, I have redoubled my efforts to find a solution. I am determined to find a cure for this pain. I want to live in a body that is pain-free.

Part of the problem is that there appears to be no explanation for the pain. Nothing is visible on x-rays or in MRIs or in blood tests. No answer is revealed in a chiropractic exam or other physical examination. Yes, one leg is slightly longer than the other—but that's true for most people, and my orthotics correct it. Yes, my sacrum is out of alignment and one hip is much tighter than the other, but even with regular chiropractic adjustments, an ergonomic work station, frequent stretching, physical therapy, etc., the pain is not relieved.

When I was three, my right femur, the strongest bone in the human body, was snapped and I spent several months in traction and in a body cast. It's possible that the experience caused a slight misalignment that no one can quite locate in their tests. Or it's possible that the trauma of that event is stored in my body and continues to trigger my pain sensors, even though the cast is long gone and the emergency ended three decades ago.

For the past eight months, I have been receiving regular physical therapy and chiropractic care. This work was complemented by occasional massages and regular (weekly, then monthly, now occasional) energy work. I also began taking yoga twice a week and seeing a very expensive homeopath who specializes in Bach Flower Remedies once a month. A few months ago, I also started working with a therapist who practices psychosynthesis.

My pain has diminished significantly through this work and I have met some gifted healers. I am better than I was when I began this leg of the journey toward wellness, but I am still not well. There is still pain in my body, 24x7. I cannot relax completely. I am not free.

On Thursday, after my regular anusara yoga class, I had a private lesson with my teacher, Amy. In our classes lately, she has been teaching us about the principle "vasudeva," which is the act of making a home for yourself in your body. I like this idea. I like the idea of building strong walls and a solid foundation. I love the idea of incorporating fresh air and nourishment and love in my home. I love conceptualizing my body as a home for me to dwell in, to expand into, or be wrapped up in.

The private lesson was very intense. The principle of alignment that she was teaching me was mind-blowing to experience. I thought that I was taking my yoga to a near-peak level in class, but in this lesson, I realized that I was only about two steps up the mountain. It is magical and liberating to discover how much more power one can manifest in one's own body. I shook and sweated and filled my lungs with breath that I had to work hard at remembering to exhale. (One of the great gifts of yoga is the discovery that your breath can guide you through almost anything.)

At one point, I began to feel weak and frustrated. What she was asking of me was so difficult, so complicated and unfamiliar. It was confusing and challenging and required that I operate and engage muscles that I didn't even know existed in my feet and legs. My teacher saw this dip as it was happening inside me. She saw the light in me dimming, and she coached me through it by calling on the power of my desire to be free from pain. All along I have felt diminished and trapped by my pain; but Amy spoke directly to the part of my spirit that is fighting so hard to be free. Rather than focus on the walls, she drew my focus to the part of me that can climb them, the part of me that can be earthbound and still look intently skyward. I felt that part of me rally and burst forward. I felt a surge of strength unlike almost anything I've ever felt before. I could have lifted cars. I could have leapt over mountains. I arrived fully in my asana (my pose) and she cheered for me.

"Yes! Yes, Naomi!" she said. And it was amazing.

At the end of our session, Amy asked me to sit cross-legged on a folded blanket (to protect and support my lower back). She invited me to close my eyes and fold my palms in prayer position in front of my heart. And then she spoke of things that touched my soul profoundly. I don't know how she knew just what to say, but her words made me feel seen by her, and known, as though the walls of my home were invisible to her, and she could look tenderly in and know what wounds lay there, what aches and disappointments.

She said that for most of us, we have no idea what home should feel like. We are not familiar with home as a totally safe, totally protective, self-affirming place. As we practice vasudeva, we struggle to build a home that offers us that safety. We struggle to understand what that feels like, to create it and get comfortable moving around in it. She affirmed that our home can be so strong that all of our emotions can be safe there. That whatever trauma or fear or emergency might be stored in our bodies, our home can be a safe place to let that loose. Our homes can be strong enough to handle it.

We closed our practice by saluting the divinity within ourselves and within each other by exchanging the greeting, "namaste." I opened my eyes and looked into hers and I said, "thank you." When I said those words, I gathered up everything of value in my partially constructed home and I offered it to her, in gratitude.

I felt myself tip over on the inside, and I began to cry. Big shuddering waves from deep inside. My teacher had offered me this class free of charge because she saw how much I struggled and knew that she could help. She accompanied me on this difficult journey through fear and pain and over the crest, fully into the experience, where I could breathe and delight in my body and its power. She introduced me to the strength contained in my longing. She showed me how beautiful this desire truly is, and how to access it as joy instead of frustration, as limitless supply rather than as limit.

I wept and her bright eyes glistened as she supported me and took me in. Even though I wanted to just let myself give in to it, even though being with Amy is a safe space, I held back my emotions and I smiled. I smiled apologetically, self-deprocatingly, sympathetically.

"I smile through my tears," I said, laughing to break the tension, "because I don't want anyone to feel bad. It used to confuse my Reiki healer because he would press on something and it would hurt me, but I would grin at him and say, 'That hurts.' I didn't realize I was doing it until he finally said that I was sending him mixed messages. He had to directly point out to me that smiling and pain are incongruous."

We laughed together because she knew what I meant, and because I said it in a way that was meant to be funny. She knew how it is to feel that you must keep your pain from bothering anyone else. She said that as a child, she had to be the grown-up, and I nodded, because I knew what that was like.

"It's funny," I said. "One truth about human experience is that the very things we did to keep ourselves alive as children eventually become the things that keep us from living fully as adults. We did brave and necessary things as kids to adapt and to survive. But as adults, we reach a point where those same coping skills become destructive."

The ability to smile through problems, to not bother anyone, it served me when I was little. It was necessary. But now, I need to learn that I have a right to my feelings. I need to learn how to say, "I'm sad," and not also smile.

Today, I was sad. I was very, very, very sad. When I arrived at therapy and my therapist said, "How are you?" I said, "I'm sad," and I started to cry. I tried hard not to smile, but I couldn't stop it.

I told my therapist, Pru, the story about Amy and vasudeva and making a home in my soul. I told her about crying with Amy and how I couldn't do it without smiling. I've been working on authenticity in my therapy. I am learning how to give myself permission to be angry when I'm violated; sad when I'm hurt; frightened when I'm afraid. It was a victory to answer that standard question ("how are you?") with an honest answer: "I'm sad."

Halfway through therapy, I was still crying and my therapist—who is my wise and loving teacher—let me know that, at that moment, she could see that I was sad. My inside self and my outside self were matched up, and this is authenticity, this is my goal.

Of course, once she pointed it out, I started smiling again, because I felt self-conscious, but for a moment, I had a taste of what it was like to be sad and to look sad; to not spend any of my energy creating a diversion or worrying about how my sadness will affect others or pretending it's not really true or running away from it. It felt good—even though I was in pain, the authenticity felt good. Telling the truth is almost always a relief, even when the truth is hard.

My original home was not a safe place to be; it was not a safe place to have my feelings or my needs; it was not a good place to be alive. But the home I am building now, through vasudeva, through work with Amy and with Pru, is good for me. This home is strong. In this home, I can be who I really am. I can be ugly and sad and frightened and broken. There is room for all of that-- not just room, but loving acceptance. My home is strong enough to hold the deepest rage and the brightest joy. It can withstand anything I bring and never fall down. Whatever emotion might be behind the pain in my leg, I am building a home where it can be welcomed and given everything it needs. In my home, there is an infinite supply of love (sri). I am extending an invitation to my pain and every emotion that sustains it. I hope that soon, it will be ready to go home.