My friend Lynne’s back is tweaking, so she asked me to write about how I recovered from 2 1/2 years of chronic back pain using a combination of mindfulness and John Sarno’s book, “Healing Back Pain.” I found it helpful to incorporate my mindfulness practice into the process of recovery, even though the book was extremely helpful.
My first incident was actually triggered by going on a week-long silent retreat. I came back full of bliss, but got dumped by my boyfriend; that night, my back went into excruciating spasms of pain.
When I got myself checked out, an MRI showed two herniated discs. The doctor speculated it was from too much sitting and told me to get physical therapy. Thus began a 2 1/2 year journey of ineffectively treating symptoms while never getting to the true cause of my pain. I tried everything: chiropractic, acupuncture, regular cortisone injections, epidural cortisone injections, physical therapy ... you name it.
Nothing helped. I got a lot of advice on how to lift objects and how to move and what activities to avoid. My life became increasingly circumscribed, as I diligently took all the advice I was given and tried all the methods of help offered.
However, when someone suggested Sarno’s book, with the explanation that it was psychological, I initially balked. As the daughter of two psychotherapists, with a BA in psychology and having done my time “on the couch,” I couldn’t imagine that out of nowhere my mind would play such an excruciating trick on me. I thought the person didn’t understand that my pain was absolutely real. I didn’t read the book.
Eventually, when I could no longer sit for more than five minutes at a time, I got desperate. I started looking into surgery. But when I investigated, my instincts kicked in. Surgery has very inconsistent results. How could that be, if the issue is truly structural? Something wasn’t adding up. Plus, the pain seemed to move. Sometimes it was in my lower back and sometimes in my neck, or down my sciatic nerve. If it was structural, why didn’t the pain stay in the place it supposedly originated from?
So I bought the book, and that was the beginning of a full recovery I still find nothing short of miraculous. To heal from my condition, I simply needed to see clearly why it was taking place: My mind was trying to protect me from certain emotional reactions to life stressors. Ironically, the mindfulness retreat had actually triggered my pain episode and all the methods of treatment I tried were reinforcing the problem.
Practicing mindfulness acts as a poultice, initiating a process known as purification. Just by opening up and turning toward our inner experience, we allow the poison and pain of our past to rise to the surface and be released. When my boyfriend dumped me, my reaction was more intense because I'd been opened up through the retreat experience. And at the same time, I unconsciously fell back on my old familiar strategy of trying to sublimate my feelings. I did that so well that I wasn't aware of feeling angry. That combination of factors was the true cause of my pain.
So here are a few quick tips on how I used mindfulness together with Sarno’s book to turn things around for myself:
1. Sarno recommends telling yourself your symptoms are psychological, not physical. I made this message a mantra. During any given meditation period, I would repeat the message over and over, concentrating on it fully.
2. When physical discomfort came up during my meditation sits, I turned my focus towards any emotional reactions to the discomfort. Frequently when I did that, the physical pain would dissipate.
3. If the pain was too intense for me to implement any strategy effectively, I just gave myself compassion, but from a place of truly understanding the cause of the pain.
4. Each day, I took an inventory of any life events that could be triggering the pain. I wrote about them in detail and uncensored.
5. I worked to create a safe inner environment to feel whatever I was feeling. I didn’t rationalize feelings away.