One of my missions in life, particularly in this post-medicine meditation stage of my career, is to help people understand the power of the mind-body connection. Too often in my medical career, both patients and docs interpreted ‘your symptoms are stress related’ as ‘you are a wack-job and a faker’. Here’s a personal story that I love sharing with my clients to illustrate just how much control we have over our bodies, and just how attached (consciously or subconsciously) we can become to our symptoms.
It’s about menstrual cramps. Yes, that’s right. I’m going there. In addition to monthly menstrual cramps, I also get this horrific body ache- almost like I have the flu. My skin hurts. Everything hurts. It even hurts to exist. I describe it as feeling like I am taking on the collective menstrual pain and suffering of every woman in the history of the universe. How do I normally treat it? Heaps of advil. Around the clock, for days.
Cut to several months after my meditation teacher training. I was on a 3 ½ week trip to India for an Ayurvedic detox. Clearly I’m not bringing advil on my Ayurvedic detox, so when my flow started, I hunkered down and got ready to SUFFER BIG. Then a thought occurred to me- maybe I can try a technique that I use with my students when they have intense pain. The basic idea is to put my attention on the most intense sensation in my body (my uterus. And the collective angst part too), and try to describe it objectively, like a scientist, without all the narrative, labeling and judgement of the sensations. Minimize the ‘here we go again’ suffering bit.
What happened? About 3 minutes into the exercise, all of the menstrual pain and anguish vanished. Completely. What did I notice next? I was DISAPPOINTED. That’s right. Disappointed. I had hunkered down, you see. For a night of suffering. The pain was gone, so then what was I supposed to do? What was I to do with all those years of monthly suffering that I had already endured?
So, the pain came back about 5 minutes later. But then I did the technique again, and after another 2-3 minutes, the pain was gone and didn’t come back for the rest of my cycle.
The moral of the story? The mind is CRAZY POWERFUL and it can create some SERIOUSLY intense physical symptoms and diseases. There’s a deep (or not so deep) part of us that LIKES our pain. We like to suffer because it’s all we know. Maybe we get some attention from it. Maybe we can use it as an excuse to not be as productive or as successful as we think we should be, maybe because we are afraid we don’t deserve it. Change can be scary, so even if the status quo really sucks sometimes, at least it is a known entity.
The coolest part? We can fix stress! Not just cover it up with a bandaid, but actually FIX it. By allowing the body to attain extremely deep states of rest, meditation can REVERSE the damage done to our body from years/decades of stress. ‘Your symptoms are stress-related’ is the best news. We just have to be willing to acknowledge that our SYMPTOMS are not our SELF. That’s when the fun really begins.