Outside, the snow collapses
on itself, water finding water
that way it has of shifting shape
and staying the same. The river
roars its full-throated runoff,
wicking away what falls.
The arc of light slants higher
across our hills, days longer
by seconds. Still, it’s winter.
In this quiet expanse of white
lit life, we fall into our own
slant of time. Bones resting
on bones that spark in bright
arcs of pain. You paint. I write.
Fire pops in the grate its long held
breath of rain. Water moving
to start again.
Something miraculous happened yesterday. A confluence of realizations that encompassed my whole Being.
For the last six weeks, I’ve been in the throes of extreme nerve pain radiating down the left side of my leg as a result of two bulging discs in my low back. Despite the maximum dose of a nerve pain medication, Ibuprofen, and a muscle relaxer, I have found each day a trial, functioning just above my pain threshold. Waking in the morning felt as if a faucet of pain had been opened. I rose painful from bed wracked with discomfort, contracted, crunched, humped, and whimpering in an attempt to walk from one room to another, to get my pills, start a fire, make breakfast, slowly, slowly feeling the pills unraveling my muscles until I could crawl, then kneel, then walk haltingly from support to support. In this manner, I’ve taught my classes two days a week and done the various forms of work I do from home on the other days.
Yesterday, I had an appointment with the specialist in Wenatchee, two hours south of here. It was a bright, crisp morning, and the drive wends its way along the Methow River through the small towns of this Valley and the vast, open spaces in between. I drove in silence without music or audio book feeling my slightly drugged mind and aching body. I was praying, as I have been recently, to the Mother of Compassion, accepting my thimbleful of the ocean of the world’s suffering as my due, offering my compassion to those who suffer. As I drove, the shadow of a bird flashed across the windshield, and I looked up to see an eagle soaring over the road from the river. I passed a sign, one of those Adopt a Highway signs that are prevalent everywhere, and beneath it was one word, Zen. In an instant, I merged completely with consciousness. I felt my body as a sort of blade slicing through the emptiness; I was both the blade and the space. I was subject and object. This feeling was deeply reminiscent of my embodied awakening as consciousness in 2011. I had been driving that time, too, and saw a bird in the New Jersey sky and a jet plane, and suddenly, there was a merging, an emergence of knowing that I was That.
In the office of the specialist, wearing the well washed athletic shorts they give me to wear before the exam, I sat in meditation while I waited. Again, I spoke to my body, honoring its process, and acknowledging the presence of suffering. When the doctor came in, I described my debilitating pain, my frustration, reliance on drugs to find a manageable edge with which I could function. As we reviewed the options for treatment, I asked him, “so you’re telling me that this is normal?” And he said yes. “You’re somewhere in the middle of this process. It could get better tomorrow, or next week, or in three weeks.” At this point, I burst into tears. “You mean I might have to continue to carry this for another three weeks?” It felt unbearable to me.
We decided to schedule me for an epidural injection of corticosteroids sometime later this month. He said, “you can always cancel it.” I got into the car and texted my beloved. “The good news is my strength is good. The bad news how I’m feeling is totally normal.” When I got home, we talked about the appointment, and I sketched out the treatment options while she cleaned up the kitchen. At last, we sat together, and I spoke my disappointment in learning that what the deep pain I am living with is normal for the process of healing bulging discs. She asked me what I had been hoping for. I’m not really sure. I guess I wanted him to tell me that he was going to fix it, make it go away. She said that when she got my text, she thought it was good news that it’s normal and felt relieved that nothing bad was happening in my body requiring some drastic invasive procedure.
Once again, the tears came, and I felt so deeply how disappointed I’ve been with this unrelenting pain. By my limitation, the constant fog of the drugs. At the same time, I realized that I’m always aware that I am resting in consciousness and can be present with all the layers of my Being, the drug fog, the pain, and my essential Being.
This morning, I woke a full hour later than usual. I was able to stretch out my legs and pull my knees to my chest to carefully roll into a sitting position. I stood up from bed. I stood up. Straight. No crunching, crushing, crouching; no whimpering. Yes, there’s still some pain in my leg, but I walked upright into the bathroom to take my pills, and then to the living room where I lit the morning fire, assembled my breakfast to slow cook on the stove. I walked back here to sit and write.
Am I healed? No. But something deep inside me has relaxed. My body, my embodied Being, has heard the news. There is a deeper surrender.
This is normal. It is normal for the body to break down. It is normal to have pain. It is normal to want to feel better. This is healing. This is how it feels to be alive in a limited, temporary, fragile body. I’m continuing to drop into this experience and savoring the sweet mystery of Being.
I’ve been on a two week long journey into embodiment and pain. The source of the pain is unknown. Did I injure a muscle skiing the flat and reasonably unchallenging Nordic trail where I celebrated my first ski of the year? Did a follow up ski a week later reinjure it? Was it activated in some way by a massage I had, or yoga? Am I simply experiencing my body’s slow and inevitable decline, or genetic history of spinal degeneration?
To question is human. We want to know. Why? How? When? As if their answers will give us some purchase on the slippery ground of Being. It’s easy for me to rest in Being. I’m a recovering Transcendent, so the old pattern is there to accept what happens with a sort of fatalism, to try to impose a patience on the effects of life.
In this case, though, the pain got the better of me. I have used the word “excruciating” more times in the last 15 days than in the last 15 months. On a scale of 1 – 10, my pain has at times hung in at around a 12. Finally, I went to the “doctor,” actually a Physician’s Assistant whom I trust and respect. Time for answers. She ordered medication and X-rays, a first step toward finding out the cause of the pain.
The X-rays found no breaks or herniated disks. Somehow, the pain got worse. It was difficult to move, to turn over in bed an impossibility. The toes on my left foot started to tingle and go numb. I woke on a recent morning and felt completely done in. I went back to the doctor to go over the results of the film and let her examine me further. This is a very kind, patient person with a deep source of empathy. I felt so vulnerable in my pain. She prescribed another medication that “50% of people found helped nerve pain,” and upped my allowable level of Ibuprofen. I took a pain pill and headed home.
My days in this limbo of not knowing are punctuated by pill intervals. The medication helps immensely and fortunately does not have a significant negative effect on my thinking or sense of well-being. In fact I have experienced long periods of bliss and ease when the pain is present but like a ghost of itself, a mirage that slowly reasserts its grip on my body.
I find myself ever present. The pain increases, then decreases, then increases. I do laundry, read, drink coffee, work online. I grieve a little each day that finds me indoors instead of out on the beautiful, beloved ski trails of my home. I think of my mother, severely limited by chronic pain for the last twenty-five years of her life. I remember my occasional impatience with her. I wonder if I am slowly moving in her direction. I cry when I think of her and with the frustration of the gnawing pain in my leg that comes back online as the drugs wear off. I rest in that feeling, let it sing its song throughout the finely tuned cathedral that is my body.
For me, on my path of awakening, embodiment has been an edge. I was trained by my father, dead at fifty-seven of lung cancer, who used to say, “It came by itself; it’ll go away by itself.” And by my never-the-less long suffering mother, whose favorite response to pain, sickness or difficulty was to “persevere.” I remember when she sent me an article about meditation and pain management years ago, long before her death. I embraced this idea that we could get out of our suffering, out of our bodies; that this was noble. That equanimity was the ability to transcend our humanity and respond to life with serenity, no matter what.
Ha! That will only get us so far. Life is a beautiful and horrifying venture. We are typically born in blood and pain, and we are likely to die in it as well. Along the way are poignant stops that bring us great blessings and joys and then the unfathomable grief of their loss. We must allow ourselves to live the full spectrum of this truth. Anything else is a lie, and we will leave this body and the life it has either enjoyed or endured without having known our full potential, without having known God, Love, Truth. Whatever we call it, the only way to know it is to let ourselves descend fully into each experience, to make room for it, to live it to the fullest of our ability. This is the path to wisdom; this is the path to living a life in and as consciousness in whole Being realization. This is the path to awakened life.
I continue to follow life’s path of mysteries and mishaps with an open heart and trust in Being. There’s no right or wrong way to Be. We are as we are in the moment, in pain, in bliss, in emptiness, in love, in anger. The fabric of Being is rich and varied. Let it enfold you, and see what I mean.
Like us, trees are never alone.