I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like my hands had been injected with gasoline. I lay awake, rubbing my hands on the cool plastic rails of my hospital bed as I tried to relieve the sensation. I had never felt this kind of sensation or pain before. Neuropathic nerve pain was different from anything else I had experienced. Over those first several months of recovery, the nature and intensity of the pain changed as my brain and body worked to make sense of the faulty messages now trickling in from an injured spinal cord. It felt like watching a weather pattern on the news happen inside of me - areas of hot and cold swirled around through different areas of my body with varying degrees of intensity.
I learned that this kind of pain was not uncommon for paralyzed people, and it was likely I would have this for the rest of my life. So, I resigned myself to a life of pain and grieved deeply, believing that pain would extinguish my ability to feel pleasure or joy. I read studies and reports about the way that chronic pain lowered one’s quality of life, and I feared that I would never be happy or comfortable again.
As part of my transformational journey, I made a practice of questioning the assumptions of literally everything I could think of. When I feel suffering, I start asking questions. So, as my pain changed and shifted over the years, I started asking myself, “Can I really not be happy with chronic pain?” and “Is having pain actually bad?” and even, “Is this sensation painful?”
I did this for years, and over time I started to practice just being with the pain as a simple sensation, without all the negativity. I stopped resisting it, letting it come and go as it pleased. My pain didn’t disappear, but it slowly became less distracting and upsetting. I was amazed and excited by how my experience of pain was about my relationship to it. This inquiry is a practice, a way of engaging with my body. Our relationship continues to grow and blossom.
Recently, I found myself sitting in my shower chair in the shower, letting the hot water run over my head and shoulders. Showering is one of my favorite parts of the day. I get to rest and think and connect with my body. The room was thick with steam and tea tree oil as I listened to Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto - one of my favorites.
I sat with my body, feeling and scanning each area - it can be so easy to live outside of my paralyzed body that I forget to check in. I noticed how utterly pleasurable it felt to massage my scalp and face muscles while I listened to the dark movements of the music. I rubbed my overworked shoulders and arm muscles, feeling gratitude for all the work my body does to keep me alive.
As the water ran down my shoulders and onto my back, I could feel exactly where the warmth melted into the familiar icy-hot sensation of my paralyzed skin. I remembered the days I had been so worried that pain would ruin my life - I had been wrong. I thought that pain and pleasure were opposites, that one came at the cost of the other, but I was wrong about that, too. Here I was, witnessing pain and pleasure dancing like two good friends, inextricably connected in a single body.
I don’t know what it’s like to be in your body or mind, but pain is a stunningly common experience. Maybe like me you feel physical pain often. Or maybe it’s an emotional or psychological pain you feel. But the next time you find yourself in the presence of pain, take a gentle moment to ask yourself, “What do I make this pain mean? Am I resisting this pain? Does this pain mean that I cannot experience joy or happiness?” You may find to your surprise, as I did, that all these things are one, pain and pleasure, darkness and light, suffering and rejoicing. And you may find that there is some lovely, simple pleasure to behold that has escaped your notice. A little something that might make your life just a tiny bit more beautiful.