I can feel the general feeling of malaise and a focal ache in the side of my head. My mind slows and I feel that stupid sense of dullness overcome me. I am engulfed in a wave of sickness and pain; I am getting a migraine.
Many of my patients suffer from chronic pain. Their lives become about experiencing life behind a veil of physical discomfort, which intrudes into everything they do. Pain can be a metaphor offered up by the body for other forms of discomfort that are either too hard to solidify or too easy to ignore. When my little dog vies for my attention he cries. Our bodies do that too. Pain can be sticky, it can be complicated and its cause unclear. It can also destroy life; it becomes an unrelenting presence that threatens to ruin every plan or dream we have for a life of balance and well-being. Pain, and more importantly our reaction to it, can succeed at controlling us. So, how can we take back the control and heal through pain?
During this headache, I decided to turn to mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about seeing what is there, in the present moment and cultivating a sense of awareness and, eventually, acceptance of what is. For me it is often about having a tender curiosity and innocent inquisitiveness. I have some questions for this migraine.
For example, where is the pain? Where are the edges of it and do they move? What shape does it take? What else do I feel with it? Where does the pain go? What relieves the pain? What does the pain feel like? I begin to relax into the sensation and realize that my reaction to it is what makes it bad, or worse. This migraine just becomes something that is there. I still don’t like it, but that doesn’t really matter; it’s there and I can choose to look at it if I want to.
I experience the calming effect of medicating myself with ear seeds, homeopathics and Advil. I feel the cool freshness of going for a walk and the sedating effect of humour.
I feel the tenseness in my jaw when I become lost in the pain and I notice that this makes it worse. I realize it’s a part of me – there is pain my head, my left temple to be exact, that radiates behind my left eye, like someone is burning the optic nerve – but it’s not all of me. What do my toes feel? If I shift my focus to them, I notice that they feel pleasant, slightly cool, but benign in the overall spectrum of sensation. In contrast to pain, that feels nice. It’s like trying to listen to a beautiful birdsong drowned out by someone who is screaming and, if I concentrate my efforts, I can still enjoy the music. The screaming is still there but, if I choose to, I can listen to the birds.
A scan of the rest of my body shows that most of me feels fine and normal. And what once felt like it encompassed my whole physical experience is now reduced to a fine, yet still uncomfortable, spot in my head. And for many moments I notice it’s not even there. It turns out that the pain is not constant, but pulses like the blinking light on a cam recorder. If I focus on every moment, I can enjoy the blissful space between the painful intervals.
I notice my tendency to expect the pain’s pulsations before they arrive and to linger on them, even when they’re no longer there. I wonder why we sometimes choose to suffer even when there is nothing to suffer for? In the calm between the painful pulsations things are peaceful, but my attachment to the pain prevents me from experiencing these numerous moments of peaceful, comfortable calm as I anticipate each new wave of tightening. It dawns on me to wonder if the very anticipation I hold for them brings them into being.
When I contrast the parts of me that feel normal against the painful spasms, I notice how beautiful it is to feel normal. Normal, it turns out, is never just normal; it’s a state of pure contentment and luxurious bliss. To feel normal is to feel alive and open. Being pain free means feeling clear and ready to live, like drinking crisp cool water after trekking through a hot desert. I wonder if I’d feel this way without the pain to serve as an antagonist. Just as we’d never know what hot felt like if it weren’t for cold and don’t hear the symphony of silence until the rhythmic hammering has subsided, we can’t appreciate the pleasure of the mundane without having something to contrast it with.
I get to know my headache through mindfulness: where it originates, where it radiates, the quality and intensity, what parts of me are affected, what my disposition becomes like when I’m in pain, where my pessimism is residing and what it sounds like. I learn what soothes the pain, positions that feel better and those that feel worse. I feel sensations of temperature and learn I can focus in and out of the pain, like a camera lens deciding whether to sharpen the foreground or background. Through mindfulness I get to know my headache intimately – and a thing or two about the life experience.
My headache is not gone, but it proved to be a valid teacher. I just had to ask it the right questions. Now pass me an Advil.