"Disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of; not the disease but the patient does the damage...pain serves a purpose. Without it you are in danger. What you cannot feel you cannot take care of...pain and sensation define the self; what you cannot feel is not you...your extremities become lost to you." -Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
This thoughtful musing on pain came up in a conversation with my partner shortly after I broke my nose in a somewhat embarrassing surfing accident this past summer. He was reading Rebecca Solnits' excellent memoir, The Faraway Nearby, in which the narrator is making a connection between Leprosy, Che Guevara, and pain. You may wonder how they all fit together, and if you know anything about the early medical school days of Che, it will make sense. If you don't, please just trust that they do fit together, and that there is a real beauty in the author's way of teasing it out. Anyway, because my face was covered with an ice pack and I was kind of out of commission for the remainder of the 40th birthday weekend, I was the receiving end of much reading aloud, which I adore. This part of the book quoted above sparked our ongoing conversation about pain and self-care, and it is still currently energizing our household.
It made me think of both my Acupuncture and yoga practices, about pain and self-care, in a way that was relatively new to me, which is odd considering I have been practicing yoga for more than half my life, and treating pain directly as an Acupuncturist for more than 13 years. But this perspective on pain and its application in self-care was a revelation. As I protected my own face and nose from any sort of contact for those first days following the break ("Don't let the pillow/scarf/wind/cat touch my face!" was the anthem of the weekend), I understood that this previously neglected, unknown, and thus uncared for part of me had suddenly become known to me, and it was startling.
"Physical pain is often lonely, felt only by one person who must trust that others will believe and empathize, and convincing doctors of pain is one of the tasks of the sufferer without overt symptoms or causes." ~Rebecca Solnit
As a practitioner of Physical Medicine, I learned early on to believe and trust that people in pain are indeed suffering, and their presence in my office was their signal that they were ready to deal head on with, to take care of, their pain. Often disbelieved by doctors or labeled "drug-seeking" or "malingerers" these patients had no choice but to turn to something outside of the norm like Acupuncture. Fortunately 13 years later we are seeing a change in that thinking, but early on this is one of the reasons that I turned to pain as a specialty. I wanted to help them be a part of feeling whole again, of retraining their brains to process their self in a very real way again, and to learn to feel better. Not to feel better as in "we were sad and now we are happy" but to feel with more intelligence, depth, and awareness, and thus to take care of the sensation that is truly them. I also needed, on a very personal note, to learn how to listen better, and this, too, is an ongoing project.
On a not entirely separate note, learning to feel more intelligently is part of a maturing yoga practice as well, an intimate and deep awareness of the self that grows by attention. This is part of a potentially larger conversation about the process of engaging in yoga practice as community service, which is showing up all over the place these days in yoga service projects. What a terrific and specific use of this practice, to extend outward and have empathy to care for one another, to see that we are integral to the health and well being of the collective body. I believe that we are only as healthy as the most vulnerable among us. If we turn our attention inward, and make positive changes in self-care in our own lives, those changes will inevitably current outward and help the larger whole. By beginning to give in this way, we are thus given so much by way of compassion, and start to really integrate the lessons of real, intelligent feeling into our lives.
"Physical pain defines the physical boundaries of the self but these identifications define a larger self, a map of affections and alliances, and the limits of this psychic self are nothing more or less than the limits of love. Which is to say love enlarges; it annexes affectionately; at its utmost it dissolves all boundaries." ~Rebecca Solnit
When we suffer we can care for ourselves, protect ourselves, seek transformation, prevent further pain, and recover fully. From suffering we can also learn. Its a shame that those that are suffering are made out to be worse off than the rest of us. When we cannot feel we shrink, when we feel for others we expand. Once we realize the potential to feel compassion for all beings (which is not to say that any of us are actually doing that, but knowing the potential to feel this is huge!) we must become without boundary. To do this, we must learn to care for ourselves. We must learn to want to care for ourselves.
The lessons were simple yet profound: what is unfelt is thus unprotected and untended. We make ourselves either larger or smaller by our own self-care.
Broken nose notwithstanding, something came together for me with this piece of writing that has had a great effect on my own self-care and attention. More on that later. For now, the bones have healed up nicely, thought the lesson is still fresh. May we all learn to feel, better.