The Catch-22 of Chronic Pain, or the Paradox of Mindfulness

Dear Reader,

One of the things I find perplexing about chronic pain is that the best way I’ve dealt with it is the wrong way for a longterm strategy toward my pain.  Historically, my main way of dealing with it has been to do my best to pretend it isn’t there, and to just carry on with my life.  Gritted teeth optional.  Mind over (my) matter, and all that.    Mind over mattress, too, to keep me from becoming bedridden.  Once other kinds of organic tissue damage had been ruled out, I kept telling myself that though the pain was real, there was not much to be done about it, so just keep on keeping on.

Which (sort of) works, until the dear body just won’t cooperate, and more or less collapses.  The pain has gotten so bad at times that it has been impossible to focus on anything else at all, no matter how hard I’ve tried, and no matter how compelling the distraction.

Now, the very best way to avoid getting into that kind of state is to pay attention to the intensity of my pain, and to modify my activity, stimulation, and thoughts on a constant basis in order to help my dear nervous system calm down and stay calmed down.

But paying attention to the pain means that instead of paying attention to all the other wonderful things in my life, I need to pay attention to that which I most want to distract myself from.  Paying attention to my pain makes me realize just how badly I hurt much of the time, and to tell you the truth, that’s pretty depressing.  To sidestep depression I need to focus on other things — the 1001 truly great things that are happening just about every day.

So, to sidestep pain and depression I need to focus on the rainbows splayed on my walls caused by the bright cold winter sun streaming through the front windows.  But if I lose myself in the joy of that, and then become inspired to create a Renaissance doublet out of the upholstery remnant I got at the discount store, I can overdo it.  I’ve mindlessly stretched in too many new and funny ways wrestling with the cheap fabric that melts under the iron, and coaxed my ancient sewing machine to shape the sticky fabric for just too many hours.  The next day my regular achiness is notched up 3 or 4 points on the subjective 10 point pain scale, and muscles I didn’t know I had are saying “What in tarnation did you do to me?!?!” pretty loudly.

Now, having practiced mindfulness and meditation for many years, I know better how to face and accept my body/mind’s reality at the same time as I notice the rainbows inside and the icicles outside.  I better realize how subjective is each of our experiences of the world “out there”, because it is always mediated by the conditions of the world “in here”.  At the same time that I know more, I know less, because while I can discern my own triggers and stresses, I cannot say with any assurance that they will be your triggers and stresses.

So, as the saying goes, “your mileage may vary”.  You really can’t take anything I say here as definitively “the truth”, yet I may very well have ideas and approaches that may help.  I hope so.  That’s the reason I’m writing, dear reader.

In paradox,



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