How I Learned to Stop Kvetching and Embrace Mindfulness

I have a thing about the word “mindfulness.” Maybe it’s just my Santa Cruz background, but whenever anyone says “mindfulness,” I picture those way-far-out-there types who have no grip on reality because they’re too busy being “present” to consider their actions in relation to the past and the future. No judgment or anything – it’s just not me. I also associate mindfulness with meditation. Meditation is definitely not me. I don’t like being still. I don’t like slowing down. I don’t like focusing on my breath when I’m trying to solve a problem. I like to just solve the problem and get on with it already. Who has time for anything else? When I want to see change that I cannot enact, changing my thought patterns almost always works best for me. It feels more active, more proactive, and more productive than mindfulness teachings, which encourage people to “just sit with the feeling” instead of arguing or rationalizing yourself out of negative thinking.

 

But last March, I learned that my ankle pain isn’t going to go away without another surgery. There’s no rationalizing. There’s no arguing away the the negativity. I am going to be in pain daily. Whenever I try to “look on the bright side,” it feels forced and fake, like I’m trying to pretend it doesn’t hurt, or trying to pretend that I’m ok with all of the continuing limitations on my life-with-one-foot. I felt panicked, frustrated, and furiously angry when I found out about my failed surgery. Then I felt desperate and lost and alone. Then I felt like I needed to talk with someone, anyone, who has been through this before. I felt like the real me, who loves to dance and run and chase kids at camp, is trapped in this cage of a skeleton and I can’t get out.

I put out a call for help on Facebook. If there’s anything I’ve learned from living with this injury, it’s that it’s totally ok to ask for exactly what you need, because otherwise, people don’t know how to help you. I asked if anyone with chronic pain experience had time to talk through this with me, and I was flooded with responses. One of the first things I noticed in my conversations with all of these people is that they all mentioned something called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I blew it off the first two times I heard about it because it has the “M” word in it, and I know these MBSR classes are really expensive. But after I heard about it from five different people, all of whom suffer from severe chronic pain, I figured there had to be something to it besides fuzzy meditation stuff.

I had counselor training coming up that weekend, and I didn’t have time to do any further exploration of the “m” word beforehand. I’d been pretty nervous about training because I always want to help. I want to support my coordinators in every way possible, no matter what that means for my foot and my pain levels. I’ve always tried to fight the pain and do everything I normally would, and in the past, this hasn’t worked too well. But it’s hard to fight my natural instincts, and I thought I might be in for a tough weekend, arguing with myself, pushing through pain, and trying desperately to pretend it’s all ok.

In the end, training went beautifully, for the counselors and for me. In reflecting back on why it went so much better than I expected, it all came down to acceptance. By acceptance, I mean acknowledging the pain and just being “ok” with it. Instead of trying to fight it or getting angry about it or having any kind of negative response to it (followed by an attempt to correct any negative response to it) I just accepted it. Yes, I’m in pain. And that’s ok. I can’t help with meal clean-up if I want to go up the hill later. I’d rather go up the hill to participate in the next activity. And that’s ok too. I’m allowed to be in pain. There was nothing I could do about it, so I might as well accept it, right?

It turns out that this is actually a version of mindfulness. Accepting the feeling, giving it space, and then moving on, rather than shoving it back down, or forcing yourself to move on before you’re ready to do that. The result was that I was able to move on far more quickly once I acknowledged the pain to myself.  Saying “It really hurts right now. I think I’ll sit down” instead of “Ok, it hurts, but that’s not going to stop me. I can power through it! Now move it!” actually meant that I could get up again sooner.

Then I got to thinking…what if we applied this to depression? So many times, people end up feeling worse when they try to talk themselves into a better mindset. We associate “making space for the feelings” with “wallowing.” It’s not the same thing. Acknowledging is different. It means saying “I’m sad. And I don’t like being sad, but I just am. That’s ok,” instead of saying “What’s wrong with you? Get off your butt! Do something about it!” Sometimes, there just isn’t anything you can do but find a level of acceptance, acknowledge the storm, and let it pass.

It feels so counterintuitive to me. I want so badly to be in control. I don’t want to wait for the storm to pass. I want to swim through it, I want to throw the raindrops back into the clouds they came from and show that storm what I’ve got. Mindfulness feels, to me, like rising above the storm instead. “Oh look, it’s raining. Things are going to be wet for little while.”

Next thing you know I’ll be one of those people who refers to meditation as a “practice.” Actually, if I ever do that, feel free to just slap me. But seriously…there’s no stopping the rain, no matter how hard you fight. That’s what chronic pain is like. All we can do is reflect and respond, and, as I’ve learned, accept.

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