Pain without an energy signature. Or at least without a pattern I’ve seen before. Nerve nails, muscle rugburns, tendon ache, the way bone moans when it’s inflamed down to the marrow: understood. I’ve used that plus ten kinds of non-painful sensation to map the hard, soft, subtle and empty places in the spine. I have compared this map of my own inner body with the self-reports and of others’ interiorities. I have contrasted these subjective maps with the objective maps that science (from physiology to old Indian texts) provides. Suddenly useless research. The present pain defies the maps! I do not understand it, can not predict it, and am not in control.
To try to get control, I could go cause-jumping like usual. Or reduce it to a revisit from the pattern of 2007. I could wrap a lot of words and MRI tape around it to solidfy everything. But six days in, it honestly still feels weeeeird. It’s got a kind of foreign, impersonal "new car” smell to it. So… I’m driving it around as such. God knows where we'll end up.
I went through an injury and opening in the sacrum in Spring-Summer, 2007. I’ve thinned this blog’s archives, but some of the posts from that time are still up. In any case, yes, it was both. The “injury or opening?” question seems useless. Calling openings “injuries” is just the mind stuck in talky-talk beta state turning sensation into a problem. That’s what beta state does—it creates and solves problems outside the body. Beta state can wire a house, but it can’t wire a nervous system for shit. But, on the other hand, calling injuries “openings” is the dumbed-down devotional heart denying that yoga causes physical harm. Hello, a torn hamstring insertion or a torn rotator cuff is not an opening… it is not the kundalini ripping you a new nadi.
I’m saying both narratives are cliché. Ashtanga soap opera! Maybe there’s no point in talking about pain at all? Talking about pain just whips gooey formless sensation in to a “solid” suffering merengue. Continued talking about pain bakes that merengue to a crisp… and then feeds that ashen, toxic, high-GI confection to whoever is has the idiot-compassion to eat it. [EDIT: Meringue. See comments.]
Ok. Overstatement. Talking about pain patterns can be really useful. Great. But talking about patterns in certain ways can also solidify them and slow down their interesting, useful changes. This is because the way we talk when we talk about pain is mostly (1) inventing causal narratives or (2) amping up emotions, all while (3) not watching the breath. Maybe that’s totally necessary sometimes for getting protection—both from oneself and from teachers and intimates. But beyond that causal narratives and emotional amping do contract the mind-body around certainty and knowingness. Kinda hafta reify to protect. Having a body is like that. It’s allright.
Anyway. From the very beginning of my yoga practice, I’ve distrusted my natural tendencies toward the three patterns I just described. But now that I am driving around this New Car of mine (the all-new 2011 Ashtanga Painintheass), I notice a few attitudes that have changed since 2007.
1. I am more interested in taking personal responsibility for my body – not just physical, but emotional, subtle, energetic, etc, layers of my particular embodied organism. I am watching myself for projections, denial, avoidance, and blame, and looking for practical ways to take responsibility.
Even without stories of how I picked up this pain as others’ psychic or emotional flak (two such stories are available), I’m constantly tempted to disown it by either (1) getting all spiritual (so my “self” is some kind of transcendent awareness that sees my particular body as arbitrary) or (2) talking in the second or third person. Falling in to addressing a “you” when I’m talking to myself (see the glitch I left in above) is the easiest place to see displacement. It’s funny to contrast this with my all-out willingness to step up to the me-ness involved in my body’s sense pleasures—kale, kittens, dopamine swings—of course. My favorite things are part of my personality, right? No harm in that.
Voodoo Kumar (the ayurveda teacher I called Woo-woo Kumar until enough people heard me wrong that Voodoo stuck) talks about this like his teacher Osho. This is dualistic as hell, but try it. We all arrive on earth in a space suit of a certain make. As we ambulate the planet in this suit, sometimes it gets dirty or damaged, and that’s fine. But any tears or stains in the suit—that’s the owner’s doing. The suit isn’t a victim of circumstance. Its strange condition isn’t mysterious… but if it seems so, this is explained by the suit-wearer’s limited self-awareness. Before it is possible to fix the suit (i.e., before any healing can take place) the owner has to take full responsibility for it and for whatever harm it has sustained.
2. I’m more up on how projection and transference work. Human beings are little opinion-tornadoes. We throw our energy around and suck it out of others. It’s old-fashioned psychoanalysis—getting really tough feedback from someone whose energy is clean—that shows me this best.
I am still an opinion-tornado, but psychoanalysis sensitizes me to the especially stupid part of myself that wants to project my body-pain on to you. Sympathy-fishing is really human. So is outright energetic sabotage that happens on a level subtler than psyche. Most people seem wired for it. At the moment, I’m interested in the really dark side of us all that wants to find kernels of our own particular suffering in others, either as a way of getting it out of ourselves or just not feeling alone. It’s kind of a beautiful weakness because so tender.
But it’s also stupid. Incredibly stupid; and we’re stupid when we fall for it. When there’s pain, sometimes the sheer intensity of it—and the urgency and desperation it can generate—makes it easy to see projection and transference at work. With that highlighted, it gets easier to give people space. To not onload the shit they want to displace (which is not nice for anyone), and to spare them our own shit. Energy awareness, yo!
3. My perception of the physical difference between anguish and body pain is a little more clear.
4. I might not hate pain. I do dislike suffering really a lot. Suffering is the combined product of pain and resistance, and that’s something I pretty much want to go away for everyone and every thing for ever. (So sue me: don’t some people or prophets you admire feel the same?)
But pain—raw, non-narrative, present sensation—is this something to hate?
The year before SKPJ died, I tracked down Mark Whitwell and started asking him to hang out with me. He has a really strong transmission from both Krishnamacharya and UG Krishnamurthi, and at the time ashtanga was hemorrhaging shakti in internecine warfare. I didn’t want to do a practice that had lost its transmission, and Mark renewed my faith and connection to the tradition by telling me I was vata-imbalanced, trying to get to god by “works” instead of grace, and generally beating myself with the right-handed path. That ashtanga was obsessive, isolating and ungrounded. He was right for that dark time, but I still didn’t believe him when he said that pain is a nuturing force. What a bunch of freaky Krishnamurthi horror.
But yeah. Maybe pain could be a nuturing force. Maybe letting pain run a certain course—especially if I’m not hurting myself on the level of muscle and bone and psychological structure—maybe it’s got something to give. And not just “character.” Rather: awareness, balance, actual nervous system change, I dunno. And I won’t know unless it actually does leave something I didn’t know to look for.
Something that has not changed from 2007…
I get on the mat at the same time as usual, for the same amount of time as usual. There’s just no question. For me, this is because I’m still testing out this method—my organism is a case study, that’s all—and I don’t want to screw up the science. I expect 10-20 more years of using this method before I can say whether it works.
Practice is something that’s done for a long time, without interruption and with devotion. That’s a weird, obnoxious thing to say, but what else do you expect from a mythical shaman with a thousand white heads and a halahala distillery?
Anyway, daily practice has built up a bunch of triggers to shift my focus in to contemplative awareness of the inner body’s rhythms. Sitting alone and watching my pain is pretty easy once I push the usual buttons.
Tuesday, the shape of practice was entirely unrecognizable as ashtanga. The pain was nauseating and felt like it filled the room. At one point, I lifted my arms and blacked out, collapsing to the floor. That would have been perversely enjoyable if I could congratulate myself about how hardcore and intense I was acting. But it wasn’t hard or intense. It was… unglamorous, tiresome, absorbing, and vibratory. The pain literally felt encouraging. If I had opened up to discursive thoughts during practice, they would have included: Hello, if this is a taste of my worst nightmare, maybe I can let go of some of the primal anxiety. Also, wait, my body is more spacious inside and out than I realized. And damn, that nervous system packs a punch. Nice work, nadis!
Today, during a crumpled Utthita Hasta, I felt an influx of the feeling and ability in the occiput, soft palate and inner jaw that I’ve been striving for the past 3 years. And striving is the right word… I have been somewhat obsessed with Rudra Granthi. For now, I feel like I can knuckle down for a fast “comeback” to go back to what I think is normal. And, by contrast, I can also let this pattern do its thing more gradually, on the off-chance that new developments I want (even though I have no clue what they are) may come.
Ashtanga is really good with the paradox that Shinzen says shows up in every spiritual practice—the question of when to bear down and when to let nature run its course. This is because just getting on the mat in the morning and going through the motions takes care of a lot of bearing down. In the context of really clear method, once there’s a sort of “do your practice and all is coming” take on it, grace pretty easily comes in all the empty space the structure holds. Why dismantle that structure as soon as its straight lines get squiggly? It doesn’t matter what it looks like.
There may be no opening coming, no grace. Just pain and chaos. My mind may always manufacture something to hope for, even on a barely-conscious level, even if all that I’m hoping for is equanimity. For now I’m curious enough to set aside the option of mandating my body to calm this down and risk the most scary possibility—that I won't learn anything from this pain at all. This leaves me smack in the middle of a big don't-know mind, with a nervous system ping-ponging in indescribable, untrackable sensations. For now, not at all a bad place to be.