Chronic Pain and the Spiritual Life, Part 3

I have officially been a chronic pain patient since my late thirties, when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  Fibromyalgia is a diagnosis that has struggled to gain acceptance in the medical community, not unlike other related conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome. Essentially, fibromyalgia involves chronic pain at muscle insertion points – places where muscle attaches to bone.  It is much more common in females than in males, and is often accompanied by other conditions such as a sleep disorder, mood disorders, and a history of trauma.  When I was first diagnosed I was having such bad pain in my joints that I couldn’t stand without assistance.  After being worked up for things like MS and lupus, I was relieved it was “only” fibromyaligia – although my primary care physician was stumped and I had to research what my illness might be and suggest that she refer me to a specialist before I was diagnosed.

It was at that time that I was first forced to begin coping with the idea of being physically limited.  Shortly after receiving my fibromyalgia diagnosis I also developed asthma, which also pressed the issue of limitations to the front of my consciousness.  Over time, I began to understand how medieval theologians in particular began conceiving of limitations as spiritual gifts.  There was for me something very spiritually profound in having to admit that I wasn’t completely independent.  Of course, none of us are completely independent, but our egos love to try to convince us that we are.  When I suddenly couldn’t stand without assistance, all illusions of independence faded away pretty quickly!  I am fortunate in that my symptoms from my fibromyalgia wax and wane, and so I didn’t need assistance in standing for more than about six weeks.  Within a couple of years I was diagnosed with a sleep disorder, which is a common co-morbidity. Although my first pulmonologist wasn’t very good (I have learned there are quite a few mediocre physicians in the world) and under-treated me, resulting in my sleep disorder becoming more severe, even the initial inadequate treatment improved my fibromyalgia symptoms.

I found that my contemplative prayer and meditation practice was the single most effective tool in my coping tool box.  As I got better and better at watching my responses to my feelings and avoid getting trapped in my story, my suffering (as contrasted with my pain level) decreased.  So many times when we experience pain we get caught in our imaginary stories about it.  We say, “this is never going to get better,” or “I’m never going to be able to do what I want to do,” or “I’m going to lose my identity,” and a host of other very normal but very spirit-entrapping fears and concerns.  Spiritual practices like meditation and mantra practice help us to see that those stories are elaborate fictions that our ego develops because our ego clings to the belief that it is possible for everything to stay just the way it is right now.  If we can take a step back and regain our objectivity we will see that nothing ever remains the same.  In fact, everything changes all the time.  Every living thing is subject to aging, to limitation, and eventually to death.  If we try to convince ourselves that we are the exception to that rule, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

Another great blessing that has arisen from my chronic pain is that I have developed not only the ability but also the willingness to listen to my body.  Western males in particular are socially conditioned to ignore their body, to fight through pain and run through walls.  The fact that I believed that nonsense when I was younger is the major reason that I have had three major orthopedic surgeries in the last five years! When we are in pain our bodies are trying to tell us something.  We do well to listen to them.  Of course, when pain is a chronic issue in our lives we need to learn to carry on despite the pain, but assuming that just because we have chronic pain we can’t also have acute pain from something like a ruptured appendix would be a potentially deadly mistake.  I’m certainly far from perfect at it, but I am much better than I used to be at listening to my body.  Meditative practice has been an essential component of that journey, as well.

Finally, much of institutional religion has seemed to suggest that if we are pleasing to God we won’t get ill or suffer.  That is a load of nonsense.  As I said before, we all age, we all get sick, and eventually we all transition this life.  Our God is a God of journeying with – especially because we are all made of God-parts and so carry God quite literally within us wherever we go.  While I certainly don’t counsel that anyone go and intentionally seek out suffering – masochism is never a spiritual virtue – it is just as big a mistake to believe that suffering means that our standing with God is somehow compromised.

There’s more, of course, much more.  I’ll be writing about this issue from time to time and, as I suggested in the first post in this series, I am working on a book about my experiences.  It is my sincere hope that my contributions to the discussion help all beings to avoid suffering and achieve awakening!  If you would like to share your experiences with me, please email me at craig.bergland@gmail.com.

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