Self-compassion and back pain

Back pain is a big deal. An estimated 80% of the population will suffer from back pain at some point1, and in Australia, 1 in 6 people have chronic back pain.2
Self-compassion can help.

Six months ago, I couldn’t walk.

I was stuck in bed with acute lower back pain. Even standing in the kitchen to make tea was too painful. I’d somehow triggered an old condition of sciatica that gradually got worse and worse.

This condition had previously flared up from time to time, but nothing so dramatic for years. This time however, my approach was more accepting, less resistant. I “surrendered” into the experience.

“Well, if that’s what my body is saying right now, I better listen!”

It didn’t decrease the pain, but it sure felt softer, kinder and eased my tendency to tense up and brace against the discomfort.

As well as following medical advice, I tackled the emotional and mental side of back pain with self-compassion. Every day I practised Affectionate Breathing, Loving Kindness or Giving and Receiving Compassion, specifically for my back.

I religiously asked myself, “What do I need?” and asked friends, family and colleagues for more help. I felt so grateful to them, and this felt new and unusual to my proud, independent self. I gave that self some kindness and forgiveness.

Although I’m speaking about back pain here, as this was my personal experience, the evidence suggests that self-compassion can help with all kinds of chronic and acute pain.³

Mindfulness helped me discern between when I needed rest and when I was just avoiding exercise. I did gentle physio exercises every day. The inflammation died down with medication, and soon I returned to walking and swimming. I was listening to my body’s needs with more sensitivity than ever. Dancing slowly around my living room one night felt so good, answering a heartfelt wish and feeling the joy of moving again.

After a lovely, long Loving Kindness practice one day, I felt like exploring any unmet needs around my back pain. Something that “pinged” for me emotionally was sometimes feeling unsupported in life. So I called a counsellor and started exploring any life events that felt related. This was helpful; a great complement to practising self-compassion.

Five Tips for Working With Pain

  1. Give yourself a break! 
  • Acknowledging we are suffering and bringing loving awareness to the pain can help decrease our resistance to the pain.
  • Asking, “What do I need?” Maybe it’s rest, maybe movement.
  • Lowering your expectations of what you can do.
  • Adding rest and self-care breaks into the day.
  • Dropping work or activities that feel too exhausting. Say no, if you can!

Continue reading “Self-compassion and back pain”

Planning my own personal retreat

Having left it too late to book on a ten-day Vipassana course this winter, I decided to create my own retreat.

On December 29th, I am going to stay in a bungalow on the Pembrokeshire coast for a week.

For the first three days, I am having complete silence. This will involve a full media detox – no phones, no music, no TV, no internet, no books, no newspapers, no MacBook. No conversation.

Just me, a log fire, walks along the coast, plenty of herb tea and home-cooked food.

Every day I plan to do yoga and meditate for at least five hours.

I would like to remain in silence during that time. In case someone speaks to me, I will carry a little card that says, “I’m sorry, I can’t speak at the moment.”

This part of my retreat is about gaining clarity. I would like silence with no distractions, to let my mind settle and return to stillness. I don’t hope for any great revelations, just a little peace and time to listen to what’s inside.

I plan to go silent upon arrival in Marloes, on December 29th and break my silence on January 1st 2011, after three days.

Then, I have invited good friends to come join me. Offers are open, so friends can come if they feel like it.

I am also taking my guitar, some masks, some books and DVDs so I can immerse myself creatively on the last four days.

This part of my retreat is about energising and inspiring myself. I am hoping that the three days of silence and stillness will aid my creativity.

I guess that remains to be seen! Watch this space for an update.

In the meantime, could you do with some quiet time, with no distractions? Or some time to recharge, creatively? Can you make a space for that, in your life?

The Cloud Fancier

Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a beautiful palace. He had everything he wished for: a beautiful queen, beautiful children and a life of luxury and well-being.

He wanted his people to enjoy beauty too, and so he announced that the kingdom would hold a painting competition. The top prize was a chest full of treasure and the key to the kingdom, which meant that the owner had the freedom to travel anywhere within the king’s lands, even into the sumptuous palace gardens themselves.

Heralds went out all over the land to announce the competition. From far and wide, people sent in their artwork. Thousands upon thousands of beautiful paintings rained upon the palace. The king soon realised that there were many beautiful pictures. He did not have enough time to look through them all.

“How can we agree on which is the most beautiful?” asked one wise man, “For we all see beauty in different things.”
“Hmm,” said the king, “That is  a very good question.” From his balcony he looked down and saw the marketplace full of people. Some market stalls had attracted a big crowd, while others just a few stragglers. “I’ve got it! Let’s put the pictures in the streets!” he exclaimed. “From here, we can see who the people choose as the most beautiful.”

So he asked his wise men to put all of the artwork on display, in the streets of the capitol.

After two weeks, the king and his wise men and women (for this was a very advanced kingdom) looked down from his balcony. In the streets below, many paintings had attracted one or two viewers. But two huge crowds of people could be clearly seen, standing around two different artists.

The king called for his coach.

“The people have chosen!” he said. “There are two clear favourites. Let us go and see which of them we feel is the most beautiful.”

The king’s coach set off at once into the city’s streets.

The first crowd were stood around a man who looked like an artist. He had colourful baggy, silk clothes and long hair. He had many paintings on display and as the people watched, he painted more, furiously. Above his head was a banner which read The Cloud Fancier.

People were holding his pictures and cooing like pigeons. He was a great artist. In each painting, he had captured the shape of a beautiful cloud. Everything about his paintings was perfect; the colours, the light, the shadows.
“Here is one of a Cloud Angel!” announced the artist, and held up his newest work.
“Oooh!” said the people.
“And here… Said the Cloud Fancier, desperately painting away, “Here is a Cloud Palace!”

He held up a picture of a palace made of cloud, which looked remarkably like the king’s palace.

“Oooh!” said the people, again. The king felt inspired by such beautiful work. The artist had already started on his next.

“Stop!” commanded the king. The people turned to see their ruler and bowed. The Cloud Fancier put down his brush.

“You are a remarkable artist!” said the king. And then to his wise men and women he said, “The competition is over. I think we have found our winner.”

The king lifted up his sceptre and stood up. Just as he was about to speak, one of his wise women said “Sire.”
“Yes?” said the king. “Is it important? Can’t you see I am about to reward our winner?”
“Sire,” said the wise woman, “Remember that we saw two crowds from your balcony? Perhaps it would be wise to go and visit the other artist first. Just in case their painting is even more beautiful.”

The king paused. The wise woman was right. The Cloud Fancier had painted some beautiful pictures, but what if the other artist’s were more beautiful? Then the king would look silly for having awarded the prize to the second most beautiful thing in the kingdom.

“You’re right.” said the king. “Your artwork is majestic!” cried the king to the Cloud Fancier. “Truly marvellous! And among the best we have seen. It is possible that you may have painted the most beautiful pictures in the land. Now please excuse us. We will return with our final decision shortly.”

The king and the coach party departed. They raced through the streets, past row upon row of pretty paintings, to go and find the other popular picture.

When they arrived, they were amazed. The artist was a nine-year old boy, who stood holding in his hand an empty frame. A huge crowd of people were waiting their turn, and others were sat listening to an old beggar, who was joyfully talking about the wonderful beauty he had experienced in the boy’s picture.

“This really must be something!” said one wise man. “Look how happy they all are!”

It was true. Everybody who had seen the painting was shining with joy.

The king got down from his coach. The people bowed, and the queue dissolved, making way for the king to be the next in line.

The boy who was the artist bowed too. The people of this kingdom had very good manners, you see.
“Sire!” he said. “May I show you something beautiful?”
“Yes please!” said the king, who had good manners even though he was in charge.

The boy handed the king an empty frame. The frame was simple and made of lovely wood. Inside it was nothing. The king held the frame and looked very puzzled.

“It’s empty!” he proclaimed.
“Yes, Sire,” said the boy. “But if you look, you really will see something beautiful. It’s just that Beauty takes a little to time to arrive. We must learn how to summon her. If I might give you the instructions Sire, you will certainly see the beauty within.”
“By all means!” said the king, who was very confused.

“Hold the frame up, Sire, for two minutes. In that time, please relax and ask for Beauty to appear. Just keep breathing and trust that she will arrive. When you truly trust that she will come, then and only then, will she appear.”

The king did as he was told. He looked through the frame. He waited. He commanded Beauty to appear.

“Nothing’s happening!” he said. Some of the people who had already seen the picture smiled.

“When you truly trust, she will appear,” repeated the boy.

The king returned to looking. Slowly, breath by breath, his mind cleared. He started to relax. He started to feel confident that Beauty would come. But what if she doesn’t? he thought. Oops, he said to himself. I’m not trusting again, am I? He cleared his mind and kept on breathing.

The world softened. Everything started to change shape, before his very eyes.

In the next two minutes, the king saw many beautiful things. He saw the dew glinting on a spider’s web. He caught a quick, shy smile from a young girl. He saw two old friends sharing a sadness. The king sighed. He felt a wonderful feeling in his heart. It was like inspiration mixed with contentment. He breathed into this feeling and was overcome with beauty and love.

The king put the frame down and turned to his wise men. The king’s face was radiant.

“Sire! What did you see! You must tell us!” called the wise men and women. The picture must be wondrous, they thought, for His Majesty to look like that. They had never seen him so happy.

“You must see for yourselves,” said the king, and he sat down on the grass with a big smile.

All afternoon, the people of the kingdom queued to see the beauty within the frame. Thousands of people smiled and shared its pleasure in hugs.

The crowd around the Cloud Fancier soon emptied when they heard of the king’s bliss.

“Where are they all off to?” wondered the Cloud Fancier, and set off to paint his two-hundredth picture, of a Cloud Chicken.

And so the winner of the competition was announced. A nine-year old boy with a picture of nothing had shown beauty to the whole kingdom.

Even the Cloud Fancier stopped painting to see. When everybody was asleep, he snuck down to the boy’s place. The boy was tucked up in bed, but he had left instructions next to the frame.

The Cloud Fancier read them. “Pah!” he exclaimed, “And he calls himself an artist! There is not even a canvas, let alone paint!”

He peeked through the frame. Nothing. He looked again. Still nothing. He stared desperately. Where was this thing of beauty? What did it look like?

“Ridiculous!” he said, after his two minutes were up. “There’s nothing there!”

He threw the frame down and went back to his own paintings. He was angry that a boy with no picture could come first, before his own marvellous work. The people and the king are stupid, he thought. They wouldn’t know great art if it ate them. Then he tried to paint cloud devils but after three attempts, he had made so many mistakes that he snapped all of his paint brushes in frustration and went home alone to cry.

The boy was awarded first prize and the picture frame was given place of honour in the city. Every day, visitors could look through the picture and see the beauty for themselves.

The boy kept some of the treasure and gave the rest to his village, so that there they could build a School Of Art.

The boy enjoyed using the key to the kingdom, and went to visit the king many times. He and the king spent hours walking together in the palace gardens, walking and talking and finding beauty in all kinds of unexpected places.

And as for the Cloud Fancier, he kept on painting. After his ten-thousandth cloud picture he went a little bit crazy and painted himself a Cloud Wife and persuaded a drunken priest to marry them.

It wasn’t until he fell out with his Cloud Wife and punched a hole in her picture and hurt his hand so much that he couldn’t paint, that things changed. After a few days of painting in pain he finally let himself rest. While lying in bed with his hurt hand bandaged and feeling very sorry for himself, he heard a small bird singing. It was beautiful. It broke through his deep despair. He felt warmth in his heart. And, for the very first time, he felt beauty.

So moved was he that when his hand was better, he dedicated himself to creating artwork inspired by nature. He spent many hours in the forests of the kingdom listening to birdsong and feeling the breeze in his hair and letting the world around him inspire his paintings. One day he met a simple farmer’s daughter gathering firewood, and they fell in love and got married and had two wonderful children who ran and laughed and played in the woods ’til the church bells rang.

They could see Beauty too.

The End.

Love, Lovers and The Loved One

What is it about love? That it can be so amazing, so wonderful and then so painful and lonely. It can lift you up and take you to the heights and then make you feel so small and tiny.

Love hurts!

…but love heals.

So what’s the deal with love?

Is it attachment? When we get fixed onto an idea? That I must have you, that you must have me, that we must be together. That the only way I can be happy is through you; you are the key, you are the door to my happiness.

So much suffering when we cannot get the fix of love.

So much suffering when that one does not call, does not text, when you feel that that one is ignoring you.

So much suffering when we must ache alone, lovelorn and gone cold turkey, veins throbbing for a needleful of pure love to deliver our euphoria.

And where is love? Is it something I can be given, something I can hold and taste? Is it something I can go and buy, today? Because I have a credit card…

Is it something you have for me, like a gift? And what happens when it’s not my birthday any more? Will it still be given?

Ah, the suffering of not receiving any more love presents.

Rumi said:

The Loved One’s all, the Lovers just a screen,
A dead thing; while The Loved One lives unseen.

Real love, what he calls ‘The Loved One’ is ‘unseen’, out of our sight behind the ‘screen’ of the lovers.

Rumi seems to be saying that your lover is not love itself. It is just the signpost to love, The Loved One.

And while falling in love and orgasm seem to be the heights of love, they are also the heights of despair, when we no longer get them.

So what, who or where is this ‘Loved One’? How can it possibly be ‘all’?

Well, all by definition, is complete.

When I am in love, I feel complete.

I feel like I need nothing else. I have lain awake in the early days of relationships, gazing into my lover’s eyes for hours. Not wanting anything else. Not sleep, not food, not to be anywhere else in the world.

Love is wanting nothing else but this.

This is all. This is The Loved One. This is true love.

Recently I have been working very strongly with my desire.

Circumstances mean that I am currently spending time with somebody for whom I have an attraction. Although I am attracted, I am being a good friend first, as this person is going through a healing process with their own relationship.

What I didn’t expect was that this process would be healing me, too.

I am a dreamer. I love to imagine and make up stories. Old Me would by now have dreamed up a future for my and my attractee, a whole ten year plan, a gorgeous feast of nothingness, fanciful castles in the air; a giant bubble that would burst as soon as I realised that this love was unrequited.

But this time it is different.

I sense I am attracted, but I am not inventing stories.

The attraction is powerful, but it is workable.

My desire is very strong at times (Aries Moon), but is not an inferno that consumes me.

These feelings are there, but they have space within me.

Thoughts of attraction come up, but they do not fill my mind.

Maybe it is because I am going away to Tenerife for a year.

Maybe it is because these days I love myself a little bit more.

Maybe it is because my spiritual practice calls me to help end suffering first.

Maybe it is because I am training to see my own mind and my emotions through meditation.

I feel freed. Being with someone I find attractive and not acting on that attraction has freed me. For years I allowed desire to cage me. I have totally lost my cool, lost my head, lost my way over love prospects. For years I have told myself epic tales of what if? when in reality mi amor was not the slightest bit interested.

This time, I am witnessing what my mind does with attraction. Attraction is like a beautiful flower seed. Like all seeds, it can only grow if it receives energy – from sunlight, water and nourishment. I can see the seedling of attraction there, but I refuse to give it energy.

Sometimes I want to water that seed, but then I remember the other two plants in the greenhouse, the plant called ‘helping others find happiness’ and the plant called ‘going away for a year’. These two plants are not invisible. They are real; they are my pride and joy and I would not risk their health for a seedling that will die before the summer ends.

Maybe too it is because I experience The Loved One more and more, without any partner.

When I stop to admire a cherry blossom tree, or breathe slowly through an intense yoga pose, or suck a piece of dark chocolate until it melts in my mouth, The Loved One is there.

In The Loved One I am complete. I am happy, contented, loved and not wanting for anything.

Love is wanting nothing else but this.

And we can have this any time : )

The love experiment

Over the last week I have been running a Love Experiment. The experiment was inspired by this quote, from my good friend Verity Pabla.

When all the people in the world love one another, then the strong will not overpower the weak, the many will not oppress the few, the rich will not mock the poor, the honored will not disdain the humble, and the cunning will not deceive the simple. And it is all due to universal love that calamities, strife, complaints, and hatred are prevented from arising.

(Mo Tzu, Chinese Philosopher)

Verity texted me this quote while I was asleep, after a Skype conversation about love and making a difference in the world. I woke up and read the quote she had sent and was immediately inspired. I wondered, is it possible to love everyone? Could I love everything that I did?

So I set out to run an experiment. My research questions were:

  • Is it possible to put love in every single waking moment and action?
  • What would be the effect of cultivating inner compassion and placing that compassion into everything I do?

Recently I had observed that when I felt carefree and at ease, the way I combed my hair changed dramatically. When I put love into brushing my hair, it softened my actions and my hair felt and looked nicer. I wondered if there had been an energy transaction here. Had brushing my hair in a kind and loving way given my hair some positive energy? Had this energy allowed it naturally to fall in the way I preferred? Could an energy begot from love yield a happier life?

And so over the last week, I have cultivated feelings of love and tried to be with them in all of my interactions. I have not tried to force feelings of love, but have noted when it became more difficult or more easy.

Sometimes I feel like my life becomes a to-do list, as activities are ticked off or ‘achieved’. I wanted through this experiment to pay greater attention to the means rather than the end.

And so, one week on, how did it go?

Well, I have found feelings of love easier to maintain when alone, with plenty of time. To wash up and really put my heart and soul into that one bowl I am washing is beautiful. It is like a meditation.

I have enjoyed the softness I have experienced when typing tenderly, loving each key rather than making it my slave, and bashing it to death. I have found a femininity in loving every action, and this feels new and vulnerable and rich.

I have appreciated the people I work with even more; been even kinder to children and been even more grateful for every mouthful of food I have eaten. All this has come from living with love.

I have felt happier and more at ease; more relaxed. Being more loving has given me a better quality of life. I have found it easier to get along with people and easier to forgive.

Creatively, I have felt more drawn to poetry. I found myself listening to lots of Rumi this week, particularly Podiobook’s free audio downloads of The Masnavi, read by Jawid Mojaddedi. I was inspired by The Masnavi so much that I composed my own verses in my van. I would like to dedicate a future blog entry to this.

I have found the Love Experiment more challenging the more people I have to deal with, when deadlines loom, when I feel rushed or stressed or have a lot to accomplish in a short space of time. Sometimes during a faster-paced period, that loving feeling has become more urgent, and felt more passionate. Sometimes, in the words of the Righteous Brothers, I lost that loving feeling.

However, the experiment in itself has enhanced my awareness. It has brought greater awareness into how I act in life. Many times I noticed when I lost that feeling of love, and was sometimes able to shift into feeling loving again.

I also became acutely aware of when love arose naturally. When with good friends, during yoga and meditation or singing in my van it seemed to spring forth! When working with children, love is very present.

This experiment has helped indicate when I am in great natural flow, and might be a good indicator of my true role in life.

Eckhardt Tolle discovered a similar ease, although rather than run a love experiment, he awoke unexpectedly with such a feeling and it lasted for over two years. In that time he felt deep bliss and inner peace. His mind was uncontrived and undisturbed. He was able to be in the moment at every single moment, and writes about it at length in The Power Of Now. This book is particularly useful as a toolkit of exercises for keeping you calm and aware and present.

I have experienced a time in my life when I felt something similar.

It was in Tenerife. Over the summer, I had spent three weeks on a working retreat at Casa Saraswati, the retreat centre of sacred clown and spiritual teacher Didier Danthois. Our schedule there was morning meditation, followed by an organic breakfast; work, then an organic lunch and rest time; then more work, yoga practise, organic dinner, relaxation time and finally bed. This schedule suited my body, my emotions, my soul perfectly. Didier helps people find their own sacred clown; a fool, full of childlike awareness, who has no concept of time and space and savours every new experience. His workshop method transferred to the running of his farm on working retreat, which was similarly easy-going and all about quality of experience. The banner photo on this blog is a picture of sunset at Casa Saraswati, by the way.

Without even forming a concept or conducting an experiment, I was living in the moment, and putting love naturally into my actions. A retreat space is perfect for this as there are fewer responsibilities and deadlines than in daily working life.

Sogyal Rinpoche is an esteemed Buddhist teacher and the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He talks about an old Tibetan phrase:

Water, when not stirred, will become clear;
The mind, when unaltered, will find peace.

In my experiment, the times I felt love were also very peaceful for me. Peaceful and simple. I only had to do one thing: love. Love everything.

I feel that modern life is hectic. I feel that the education system places higher emphasis on passing exams than how to life our lives as successful people. I feel that love is not something that comes from outside you, but from inside you. I would love to see greater teachings on love in the school system, in the workplace, in the home. We spend a long time chasing a love outside ourselves, when we can find it in an instant in our hearts.

I believe that it is possible for me to try and live with even greater love in my heart, and give love more freely, more openly, with less limitations.

Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.

(The Buddha)

This does not mean we have to say yes to everything. It means that we can choose to find love, and give love. It means we can notice when we feel love naturally, or when it becomes a struggle. We can spend our time on the things we love. We can improve the quality of our lives and those around us by putting love into the tiniest action.

Have you ever eaten a homemade meal, cooked with love? You would choose to eat such a meal over a microwave dinner any day, right?

I guess that’s my point : )