Updated: Nov 17, 2022
Think about a relationship you have in your life that you value, but that also brings an element of suffering along with it.
I want to tell you a story. Actually it’s two stories, but they share the same plot.
I had a very specific and persistent pain in my lower back for almost two years. It was on the right side, close to the spine, and too deep to touch easily. Although it was with me all the time, I was most aware of it in the middle of the night when I turned from one side to the other. In other words, what made it worse was when there was a heavy weight (my leg) being pulled across my body.
Since I was already a massage therapist, yoga teacher and student of the Feldenkrais® Method of somatic education, I tried all kinds of elaborate positional release techniques on myself and sought answers from several trusted colleagues. Each strategy and perspective helped a little and offered a fresh lens through which to view the pain, but nothing really made it go away for good.
I finally invested in a series of Functional Integration® lessons with one of the teachers from my training. When I showed her the action that made me most aware of the pain (rolling passively from one side to the other), she gently took over the weight of my leg and rolled my pelvis a little from one side to the other several times. When she gave the weight of my leg back to me, I was able to carry it across my body back and forth without pain. It was SO EASY.
She had me practice it a few times myself before asking me to pay attention to how I was doing it. Intellectually, I knew the answer: I was using the surface below me to help me roll by pressing my ribs and lower side of my pelvis into the table– which made my leg light.
I stared at the ceiling and wondered out loud, “Why was I doing an action I know to be inefficient and which would eventually cause shearing in my vertebrae?”
She offered a few possibilities before adding, “And sometimes we just rehearse pain”.
We sat there together in silence while I breathed in this very human truth. For as far back as I can remember, pain has been front and center in my experience of life and in the lives of most of the people I know.
Here’s where the second story comes in: On the same day that I had that lesson with my teacher, I had already scheduled an overdue meeting with a person who oftentimes unknowingly hurts my feelings.
As I drove to that meeting, pain free for the first time in two years, I began to wonder what else I habitually rehearsed. For instance, what was I rehearsing on my way to this meeting? Resistance, dread, judgment, and self protection readily came to mind.
What would happen if I rehearsed qualities that I associate with healthy relationships? Like personal agency. Honesty. Compassion. Presence. And what about joy?
When I arrived at my meeting, I felt genuinely light and curious. I took more pauses before speaking. I asked more questions. I even practiced saying, “No, thank you”. There were some awkward moments for sure, but our meeting was productive and mutually respectful. Most memorable for me was the kindness and brilliance of this person that I have long admired.
Today I write this letter without a trace of back pain, and with a newfound interest in that which I have a choice about and that which I do not.
I want to be clear here that my intention is not to imply that pain, emotional or physical, should be overridden by positive thinking. Research shows that pain is a warning. It is a signal from the brain and body to wake up, to pay attention, and to make a change. It is nothing to be ignored or replaced with anything contrary to its message.
But pain is not a destination. It is not something that we need to practice or orient towards, like pressing repeatedly on a sore spot in our mouths. It is an opportunity to learn–or, in my case, an opportunity to practice something I had already learned but forgot I knew.
Remember that relationship I invited you to think about at the beginning of this letter? What do you most appreciate about that person? What qualities do you wish that relationship had more of? And what will you rehearse the next time you are about to engage with them?
I am a beginner on this journey of actively choosing the things I aim to cultivate in my life. But like all of my favorite lessons, I hope to stay in the questions and to be in good company along the way.
Until next time~