No pain-killers, no chiropractors — pure mind over matter.
BY DANIEL D. WOO — Less than a year after practicing daily meditation and mindfulness practices, my chronic long-term back pain disappeared. Who knew that physical pain could be exhaled in one breath?
Beginning in 1991, I had chronic back pain and periodical acute disabling back spasms. The condition arose partly from long-ago sports injuries and partly, I now suspect, from stress.
I suffered daily for 12 years until, in January 2003, I decided to add a new practice to my regular meditation ritual: Tibetan Buddhist tonglen, which is based on sending and receiving. It begins with accepting whatever specific pain, dissatisfaction, uncertainty, fear, anger and other negative emotions I feel. That acceptance happens on the in-breath, as I take in not only my pain but that of every sentient being. Next, the out-breath sends out the wish that we all be free of that pain.
This is a paradoxical practice. I had to practice releasing the desire to be experiencing anything else at the moment. So as I exhaled, I would silently say, “May all beings be free and released from” whatever was afflicting me – physical, emotional, mental or thought.
The big release
Later that year, I had an extremely severe and acute episode of back spasms where I could not stand straight, sit, lie, walk, or be in any position without severe pain. I felt a hard knot at my spine along the back.
After just breathing for a few minutes, I hobbled to a quiet room where I would practice tonglen on this very specific experience. Breathing in, I completely surrendered to the pain and simultaneously accepted my pain and everybody else’s. Breathing out, I wished that everybody be released from back pain and experience health, joy and love in their lives in that moment.
I’m not sure how long I practiced tonglen that day. It felt like a few minutes but could have been longer. I heard a giant “pop.” I felt a complete release in my back and experienced an exponential drop in pain. My back just felt sore. Although the soreness took a while to leave, I was free of the agonizing pain. It had left.
This came as a complete surprise to me.
After that, I played recreational soccer for 7 years, despite that my doctors had told me I could never run again because of osteoarthritis in my left hip. On only a few occasions since my tonglen experience have I had acute back sprains. Breathing and tonglen relieve the pain. I’ve used tonglen for flu and other illnesses and discover that I don’t need medications. Tonglen has taught me that much of my experiential pain doesn’t really exist — it’s my reaction and rejection of pain that make it hurt.
My early experiences with meditation or mindfulness taught me about a unity of “body, mind and spirit.” Later I learned that “body, mind and spirit” is just a construct. They are not separate at all.
Granted, pain is part of being human. Aging and illness are par for the course. But regarding my supposedly chronic back pain, my unconscious and conditioned mind was misguided and created suffering that turned out to be unnecessary and avoidable.
Over the years, the more I have brought spiritual practices and teachings into my own life, the more I’ve reaped similar benefits in my relationships with family, friends, acquaintances at work and at play, and in all of life’s events. I’ve experienced other “pops” where something is released and spaciousness enters, and again have felt literally lighter when that something departed. My experiences include physical matters and perceptions — where light and colors are more vibrant, and sounds, tastes and sensations are more pronounced.
Of all forms of prayer and meditation from the world’s religions, traditions and faiths, I believe the heart of them is their power to move toward a generous, unconditioned acceptance of life and supply energies to serve life rather than just taking from life. These practices teach me that life truly matters – not as a concept, philosophy, rule, principle or anything in words, but as a heartfelt knowledge. We can express that knowledge by listening to another person, similing at a stranger, or even doing housework. Anything to take us out of our needlessly pained selves.
When we are not absorbed in what we falsely believe is our own pain, we have a capacity to release our suffering and everyone else’s. No wonder that transformation can make a popping sound. Something really changes in us when we live this way.
Daniel D. Woo woke up to an understanding that suffering is not ended until view, intention and action are changed. Dan practices law in Seattle, Washington. You can reach him via Facebook or Linkedin.
Read Daniel’s previous articles for Soul’s Code: The heart whisperer and The best advice, ever, for those who have been abused.
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