“Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” ~ Rumi
It can be frightening to experience physical or mental pain. It’s not something anyone wants to deal with; nobody wants to race against the clock hoping that some future experience will take away their pain. Nobody wants to question the purpose of anything, like seeing a friend or even traveling, just because they feel their pain will ruin it.
During my freshman year at college, I woke up one day with horrific nerve pain in my legs and in my pelvic area. What was this? My instinct told me this would go away in a few days, and when it didn’t, I took to Google to diagnose myself. According to Google, I had hundreds of different diseases and infections. That only kicked up my anxiety.
I started seeing doctors—neurologists, urologists, and pain management specialists as the time went by. Over the course of few months, the pain not only spread but also got more difficult to deal with. The doctors were stumped. I was stumped. No MRIs or nerve conductive tests had any conclusive results. A spinal tap came out clear. I didn’t have any type of autoimmune disease.
During the course of all this, I was extremely depressed. It was difficult to leave my bed, go out with friends, and enjoy the simplest things. I loved learning and I was in the midst of very exciting classes, but I identified with my pain—I believed I was pain and I was hopeless—so I cut out anything that interested me or could bring me happiness or joy.
I was eighteen, young, and adventurous, but my pain caused me to fear the future. What was going to happen in next six months? I was convinced I would never get better.
It seemed the only thing I could do to escape the pain was release anger and tears and do different drugs. Though I had this new pain and was now a different person, I could not accept that and let go of the person I’d been before it happened.
I finally had a breaking point when I was studying in Greece but couldn’t enjoy myself because of all the negative, terrifying thoughts my mind could produce. I kept fantasizing about life in the future, in situations that didn’t exist and situations that could “save me”:
- I’m going to move to New York one day and then I will be fine, and I will be so happy.
- This pain won’t stop me from meeting someone and gaining a beautiful partner, and I’ll be saved.
- One day my writing will be published, I’ll be famous, and I will be so good!
What I now know is that I was just feeding my ego. None of those scenarios were going to stop my pain or save me.
The following year I decided not to go back to school. I had to ‘fix’ my broken self. It started off with many psychological TED talks. Many books on Eastern Religion, then meditation books, books on medicine and illness. It wasn’t always easy to find the motivation to research and read, but some part of me knew that it was the only way to free myself.
After so much reading and many different books, I had to jump to action.
I started meditating because I’d heard that it could help you tune in and listen to your body. This opened up a new world to me, and after some time, I realized my pain could have purpose and could be managed with meditation and other meaningful activities, including:
- Creative expression
Creativity has always been a passion of mine, and I had fiddled with meditation in the past, but not in a serious manner. All of these activities not only helped me deal with physical pain, but also helped me discover more about myself and my interests.
I realized when there isn’t a cure for your chronic pain and the medications prescribed only make you feel worse, you have to take responsibility for yourself. And that’s what I decided to do.
Journaling freely with no restraints took the focus off the pain and put me in the present moment. It helped me realize I could create my own reality, my own narrative.
Through journaling, I was able to see how much I had to be grateful for. I was able to develop my intuition, let go of the day’s anxieties, and keep track of how my choices affect my mood.
I recognized that I kept writing “I am pain,” and “I am depressed and scared” in my journal. It brought me the awareness that I am not pain, nor am I my depression. I was aware that I was in pain and I had feelings of depression, but I would no longer identify with those feelings.
Journaling unlocked a new world. I physically felt the anger around my heart. I felt the pain in my legs. I felt my migraine. So, I wrote about it. I started writing directly to the areas of my body that hurt. “Dear Legs…” I asked my pain specific questions. I was ready to learn from the pain. It had to have a purpose, and I had to become present with it in order to recognize it.
Journaling allowed me to see the repetitive patterns in my life. The things I was writing about were the same things I was worrying about two years ago. The same issues that I never took the time to actually acknowledge. Could it be that these issues needed attention so badly that they had to manifest physically within my body? The more I journaled, the more I started to believe that was true.
I wrote, and hours went by, and eventually, I was writing about my childhood. I was writing about book ideas, TV ideas, I was creating characters. I was writing about how much I love to learn.
And I didn’t put any pressure on this creative expression. I didn’t tell myself, “This has to be a bestseller!” and “This has to be the next Hamilton!” I just began creating. It made the time fly by, it was productive, and it took the energy away from my pain.
While writing, my pain and mind transformed. It was as if each word written took a little bit of pain with it and transported it onto the paper. My writings became deeper and more creative, and my pain became less villainous and distracting. The more I journaled about the pain, the more I discovered about myself.
Meditation was another form of journaling for me. I was able to watch my thoughts, and on days when I experienced heavy pain, I could see how they could change quickly and violently.
On days where my pain was mild, my thoughts were filled with hope and excitement. I wanted to get out of bed and go out and see the world. However, if five minutes later aches came, my thoughts completely changed. I would glue myself to the television, waste my day, and fantasize about those “one day” experiences I would have: New York, a partner, fame.
When I noticed this pattern, I stepped back and laughed. It was insane to witness how fast thoughts can change. How much easier it was to identify with a depressed mindset rather than a happy, hopeful one.
I realized I had a choice: I could feed into the negative thoughts or choose to view the world optimistically. I decided I was not going to follow the negative, depressive narrative my mind provided for me. I was going to choose to identify with a more positive, open, and loving mindset.
Meditation revealed that I am more than my pain. I was aware that I was in pain; I was seeing my thoughts. How could I be those thoughts if I was aware of them? And more importantly, if I wasn’t my thoughts, I couldn’t be my pain either!
All of this, in time, helped show me that I didn’t need to be fixed, because I was already perfect. Sure, I was still messed up and my body didn’t feel right, but I was more than my physical body.
Regardless of what would happen in the future, I had the tools my pain had brought me. I had the awareness to start creating my own reality. I knew I was bigger than whatever pain I would face.
For a long time, I thought I had to achieve the maximum level of consciousness possible in order to free myself of pain completely. I had to be perfect.
However, I soon realized that that my pain may never fully be gone, and I may never have complete Buddha nature. But that didn’t and doesn’t matter.
An extraordinary life is not a pain-free life. An extraordinary life resides in the in the ordinary of the everyday. There is no need for perfection.
I came to realize that I always was and always will be whole and complete. Regardless of where I live, regardless of my relationship status, regardless of my health.
Nothing—good or bad—could define my life anymore. The only thing I could be from here was authentic and mindful to what I needed.
I believe my pain needed expression; my inner child, the neglected being I had shut off for so long needed a way out, so it manifested in pain. All the times I listened to music I wasn’t into to impress others, all the times I spent hiding my sexuality from others and myself, the times spent stuffing my feelings down because of a large ego, I was neglecting my inner child.
Not getting the right amount of sleep, going on ten mile runs and having a bag of Doritos for dinner, never drinking water but constantly drinking Gatorade and other sugary drinks—I hadn’t even provided the basic necessities for a child to thrive, let alone given that child love and expression.
So that’s where I had to start. I had to start giving my inner child proper hydration and sleep, and much, much love. As I did with my pain, I had to sit down and talk to my inner child. I also started to spend time with my present self. Taking myself out on a date to a movie I wanted to see, going out to dinner with a nice book, taking long walks without a phone and other distractions. I had to show my inner child and myself unconditional love.
I realized that previously, I was scared to be unique. I was afraid of expressing myself. What would people think? It was much easier to neglect, suppress, and resist feelings rather than be wrong or be judged.
Gratefully, I was able to curb my pain and take it down many levels. It seems the more I discover about myself, the more I express my authentic self, the more I free myself.
Now I make sure I do something every day to connect with my true self. Writing. Meditation. Sitting in nature. Having a cup of hot tea, focusing deeply on the present moment. In the present moment, you are truly saved.
It’s still hard to wake up in pain and believe the Universe is rigged in my favor, but the experiences my pain gave me, the people I met through it, the maturation I developed from it, confirms that it is the truth.
Meditation, journaling, and expressing myself awakened me from my pain. It provided more insight and compassion to those around me because we are all in some type of pain. Pain cannot be compared, because pain is a lesson constructed for each of us. The best thing we can do is make friends with our pain so we can understand what it’s trying to teach us. To meditate on the normal anger that arises with pain and sympathize with it.
Ask your pain questions. Give yourself a hug. When it’s one of those days, be there for yourself. In the end, all you can do is surrender to the Universe and choose to graciously learn from it.
It’s not always easy, especially when the pain takes control. It’s hard to step back and look at everything through a lens of positivity, but it is possible. All you can do is keep breathing, keep encouraging yourself to focus on the moment—the breath—and like everything in life, the pain will pass.
Illustration by Kaitlin Roth
About Evan Neff
Explorer of mindfulness, on a gap-year to find more purpose in the little things in life. Hopefully in the future launching a blog to guide others in chronic pain.