The Buddha Dream; a Vision; and an Olympic Challenge
Shortly before I started the Life is Now online program at the end of August, 2016, I had an extraordinary dream. I dreamt that I was sitting with the Buddha. We sat side by side, cross-legged on the floor. I didn’t dare turn my head to take a closer look. He didn’t turn his head either, but suddenly I heard his voice:
“You know, you’re going to have to find a way to be calm all the time.”
The tone was compassionate, but also firm. The words reverberated like a prophesy in the air as we sat there in silent meditation, and I knew that this was the remedy he proposed for healing.
When I woke up I lay in bed for awhile in wonder. The Buddha had come to me in a dream! How cool was that? I remembered the deep feeling of peace that had emanated from his presence, calming my mind, body and spirit, and my eyes filled with tears of gratitude.
But as I crawled gingerly out of bed the pain screamed, the good feelings fled and in their place came discouragement and hopelessness, frustration and anger. How could I possibly be calm all the time? It wasn’t in my nature to be calm at all!
My mind churned furiously as I brushed my teeth. True, the yogic practises Pearson had taught me in 2012 had not only reduced pain, but brought me a wonderful serenity. However, this inner peace evaporated when I was focused on internal chatter, or sitting at my computer, or around talkative people. Then, I reverted to my tense, wound up, excitable self.
Besides, now my exhale was shaky, and if I couldn’t even calm my breathing, how could I possibly learn to be calm all the time?
Anyway, who could do such a thing? Only the Buddha!
I spat the toothpaste into the sink.
In recent years, several friends had remarked that I seemed calm all the time. Even a massage therapist who coached Olympic athletes like Clara Hughes was briefly fooled, until I confessed and he called me on the dichotomy:
“When are you going to make your exterior congruent with your interior?”
How did one go about doing that?
On August 31st, 2016, I began the six-month online self-management Life is Now program.
The educational component, and some of the awareness exercises, were familiar from 2011, when I’d first been introduced to Neil Pearson’s work by a physiotherapist at the Pain Clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
I’d been going to the Pain Clinic since 2009 for upper back pain that was getting progressively worse. The doctor there injected me with steroids and other medications every three months and prescribed oral medication. The physiotherapist used massage, ultrasound and heat. An occupational therapist gave me ergonomic advice.
“Wait!” the physiotherapist said one day as I was leaving. “I’ve got something for you.” She hurried out of the cubicle and returned with a thick stack of paper.
“Here.” She thrust 50 xeroxed pages into my arms. “You like to read.” She shrugged skeptically. “Maybe this will help you.”
It was a book Pearson had written to help patients and clinicians: “Understand Pain, Live Well Again”. The brief bio said he’d graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in 1985, completing both the physical therapy program and the physical health education program at the same time. Then he’d done a Masters in Rehabilitation Sciences and worked at a pain clinic for 7 years, which led to teaching pain science and management.
The pain science in the book was hardly rocket science, but still, I found it slow going. I lacked even a modicum of scientific bent. My Grade 8 Science teacher, Mr. Beard, had gaped in astonishment one day as I made an inane attempt to answer a question.
“How can you possibly be Bob Stowe’s sister?”
My classmates giggled, but it was true that my brother was a whiz at electronica and all things scientific, while I was quite hopeless. Worse, I didn’t care. I was an artist, not a scientist. This attitude was now coming back to haunt me.
It wasn’t just the science in the book that flummoxed me, though. The concepts went against everything I’d been told about chronic pain (which Pearson labelled “persistent” pain, because “chronic” meant “incurable”). Change your nervous system through awareness and talking to your brain? C’mon.
Nonetheless, intuitively somehow the ideas made sense, and I kept reading the material over and over again until I could grasp some of the techniques. Then I tried one out. I went down to the kitchen and opened a cupboard.
“This is going to hurt!” an inner voice warned as I reached up to the second shelf for a glass. Ouch. It did hurt.
I forced myself to slow down and start again. It was a surprise to discover that my arms and back were incredibly tense. I had no idea I was carrying this level of tension around, and I found I could ease the pain a little, lowering it about 1 point on the pain scale, by making a conscious effort to relax.
I’d believed the doctor at the pain clinic, and other clinicians, who’d told me for years that structural damage was causing the pain. But if that was true, why didn’t my shoulder hurt as much when I relaxed, paid close attention, and made myself calm down?
Over the next week, I continued making small experiments like this, and continued to have small successes. According to Pearson’s book, pain was a protection mechanism. If it persists, that means the nervous system has gotten so worked up that the brain is sending inappropriate danger signals.
Is that what had happened to me? Could I really calm my nervous system down and stop the pain? Had I done that, albeit on a very small scale, these past seven days?
Around this time, a second physiotherapist also directed me to Pearson’s methodology.
My tailbone started to hurt, so that sitting became difficult, and my GP referred me to a clinic at the University of British Columbia. The Pain Clinic at St. Paul’s had given up on me.
“You can’t sit like that,” the physiotherapist scolded, watching me perch in a twisted knot on the chair to stay off my tailbone.
“I know,” I replied, straightening up, but leaving my lower back swayed to relieve the discomfort.
She shook her head.
“If you can’t sit right, there’s nothing we can do to help you.” The OT threw up her hands. The pain doctor stopped the injections, after one made things worse.
All this was very discouraging. But I was not about to give up on myself.
The UBC physiotherapist gave me exercises to release and strengthen and gain more awareness of muscles around my coccyx. She thought the tailbone pain was probably related to an old injury. In 1989, while teaching dance at the Vancouver Children’s Circus, I’d fallen off a unicycle onto my coccyx. It had hurt like hell but I’d iced it for 40 minutes and then it had been fine. Why would it suddenly start hurting two decades later?
“Vertebrae deteriorate over time,” the physiotherapist explained. The nerves might have been damaged and now with aging…I zoned in and out. Now that I’d achieved a modicum of success with Pearson’s methods, my belief in these stories I’d heard for years about structural damage causing persistent pain was wavering.
One day, on my way to the UBC clinic, I went to Emergency, instead. I’d never been to Emerg for pain before but it had shot up to 8 and I was scared. I was proud of the self control that allowed me to hide my panic and appear calm and composed.
The Emergency physician eyed me sternly. “I can’t give you any medication.”
I hadn’t asked for medication. Sensitive to medicines, I avoid them.
“Is there anything you can do?”
He shook his head.
“I think you’ll feel better if you just go home and rest.”
When I told the physiotherapist at UBC what the Emergency physician had said she was furious.
“Lie down,” she said gently. “I’m going to play you a CD. It will help you relax. That’s all we’ll do, today.”
There was something subtly different about this relaxation CD from others I’d heard. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it went deeper, somehow. The voice was different, too. There was no detectable personality, yet it wasn’t detached or cold. From my background in the performing arts, which included, acting and singing I was especially attuned to the unique flavour of voices, and my analytical mind wanted to solve the puzzle of this one, the way my mother would dissect the ingredients in a new dish at a restaurant.
Pearson’s “body scan” didn’t take the pain away, but it took the edge off, enough to take away some of the fear as well as the hurt. As the weeks went by I started wondering. Two physiotherapists had now referred me to Pearson’s work, and it was the only thing that seemed to be helping. The UBC physiotherapist, kind and caring as she was, said I’d done every exercise perfectly. But she still couldn’t reduce the pain, and I was teetering on the edge of a depression. I’d weathered a depression once before, and I couldn’t go there again. Why not find out more about the methods of this Pearson guy?
One morning, sipping tea in my bathrobe and feeling sorry for myself, I idly Googled “Neil Pearson” and was surprised to find out that he lived in Penticton, BC. I thought that an international pain expert would be living in a major urban center.
I found an email address for the clinic where he worked, and, screwing up my nerve, sent him a request. I was using his book, but needed more guidance in order to make progress. Would he be willing to see me on a number of consecutive days if I went up to Penticton and stayed in a motel? The cost would be well worth it if there was any chance of improvement.
After a brief email exchange which convinced him that it would not be a waste of both our time, and my money, he said yes.
Pearson scheduled three 2-hour appointments, one per day, for several months later, and by April I was packing a suitcase to fly to Penticton. One thing niggled at me, though. Neil billed himself as not just a physiotherapist but a “yoga therapist”. What the hell was yoga therapy? Flaky, my brain sneered, and I stopped thinking about it. I didn’t want to know.
This was true even though something had happened at the Pain Clinic before they wrote me off that I could only term a mystical experience, one I continued to ponder with a mixture of bewildered gratitude, curiousity and fear.
It had been a typical appointment. The physiotherapist had massaged my back and left me lying on hot wet pads with knees propped over a bolster. It was very relaxing and as I lay there I usually enjoyed eavesdropping on conversations I could overhear in nearby cubicles. Sometimes professional hockey players or dancers would be talking about their lives. But today there was only silence.
“What should I do with this time?” I wondered idly. “I think I’ll just watch my mind.”
This was a very strange thought to have. Meditation meant sitting to me, and because I couldn’t sit properly, I’d given it up. Besides, I’d never done it for longer than 10 minutes. I was something of a spiritual diletantte.
As soon as I had the thought, something impossible happened. I saw my mind.
It was like a big movie screen suddenly appeared, a few feet in front of my face. All the thoughts I’d ever had in my whole life were there, all at the same time. There were images, too.
A tiny, faraway voice said this wasn’t possible, but it was drowned out as a bitter disappointment swept through me and another voice said, those thoughts are so mundane! Those images are so banal! This was my mind? Was that all there was?
Then the faraway voice shouted, “This can’t be happening!” and like a bubble popping the screen was gone and I was back, staring at the ceiling and wondering what the hell had just happened.
The physiotherapist came bustling back into the cubicle and I got dressed and left. I didn’t say a word about what had just happened. This was not the kind of thing you talked about.
I needed a reality check, though. People got locked up for seeing things that “weren’t there”.
When he was younger, my husband had journeyed into the meditative realm with far more intensity than me, even if he eschewed all things spiritual now. He is not easily phased so when I got home I blurted it out to him and felt comforted at his calm response. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. The veil of the world as I knew it had been lifted, and I’d been given a glimpse of something beyond the everyday reality I’d been raised to accept. Inner questions arose. Was it possible that all this pain had a purpose? Was the vision a message?
Messages from other worlds. Who do you think you are? my rational mind sneered.
Months later, with some trepidation, I confided in my brother, the neurologist who treats brain disorders.
“Do you have an explanation for this?” I asked.
“What do you think happened?”
“It’s possible that you had a transcendental experience.”
Finally, I told my best friend, a hard-headed lawyer allergic to all things “woo woo”.
“If it had been your mind, or my brother’s mind, maybe the thoughts would have been more interesting!”
She laughed. Then she shrugged
“The brain can do all kinds of things. We have no idea of what it can do.”
According to Pearson, we could rewire our brains to stop persistent pain. My kitchen cupboard experiments had given me a glimpse at this.
I couldn’t wait to go to Penticton.
On our first appointment, Pearson let me talk. He just sat there listening calmly, without interrupting or rushing out of the cubicle to attend to other clients. I’d never been heard like this by a physiotherapist before. I was embarrassed at the length of my “pain story” which had been going on for so many years. Furthermore, he listened with the utmost patience as I tried to convince him that structural damage was the only reason for my pain.
I knew I was wasting both his time and my own, and felt ashamed of this charade I felt somehow compelled to play. I knew that according to his methodology the problem included a wound up nervous system, and was not only due to structural damage.
But I was confused. My brother had viewed my scans and declared that at my age (56), deteriorating discs were “ubiquitous”.
“Your scoliosis is mild,” he observed, “and a Grade One spondylolisthesis doesn’t correlate with the amount of pain you have”.
But the doctor at the Pain Clinic widened her eyes in alarm when she viewed the same scans.
“C3…C4…C5…C6!” Her tone rose one note on the scale with each successive number. “Just don’t ever get in a car accident!”
Pearson backed up my brother.
This was it. The more Pearson listened patiently, the more I let go of my hope that there was some surgery or exercise regime, some magical bullet that would “fix” me. The fear and near-despair lying beneath false hope and bluster gripped me, and I lowered my head to hide the tears I was blinking away. Changing the nervous system is not easy. Pearson’s book had made that clear. I’d had only a small success with his methods so far. What if I couldn’t get any further?
But I’d come all this way.
It was time to commit or go home.
The next day, Pearson showed me into his office instead of a curtained cubicle. I couldn’t help but notice that the walls were the same colour as his clothes, an unobtrusive tan, and I was reminded of his voice on the CD. Blending in. Not making the self known. The ego was hidden. I knew there must be one. But the humility, the self-control, impressed me.
He started with a calm breathing technique.
“Slow down your breath,” he instructed, pulling his wheeled stool closer so that he could see my abdomen moving. “See if you can bring to about 4 counts in, 4 counts out.”
“Try to make it as smooth as you can. No pause at the end of the inhale or at the end of the exhale. Now, make it softer.”
He was watching me intently. It was difficult enough to watch my breath and stay relaxed, without having someone else watching me breathe, too. But I felt perfectly safe, and after 5 minutes a wonderful calm settled over me.
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
He gave me a few more exercises and sent me back to the motel with instructions to do this calm breathing technique once an hour for the rest of the day. Also, he gave me a CD of body scans.
“Start listening to these.”
When it came time for dinner the night before I’d looked down the long corridor that led to the dining room and thought, “this is going to hurt”. By the end of the day, walking even a short distance exacerbated the constant burning, achy soreness in my upper back. But now as I walked down the corridor I was floating in a kind of bliss. My back still hurt, but the pain was muted by inner peace and the knowlege that I could bring it on with only 5 minutes of breathing differently.
My mind struggled with this knowlege. How could I hurt and be in such bliss?
It was very odd!
Needless to say, I arrived at the next and final appointment full of eager curiousity.
“How are you feeling today?” Neil asked.
“Look how much better I’m sitting!”
It was a long time since I’d been comfortable sitting in a chair without twisting my hips or swaying my back to sit off my tailbone. As Neil talked, I still had to move at times, to shift around, stand up, or lie down on the examing table, but there was no doubt that I could “sit right” with no pain at all, at times, and in general the pain was more like a 3 than the usual 5, 6 or 7.
Neil said that challenge would be an essential ingredient in my recovery.
“I like challenge!” I exclaimed with relish.
His eyebrows rose in surprise. “Most people in pain don’t like it.”
I understood. Wasn’t it enough, just getting through the day in constant pain? But I sorely missed testing my limits. The idea of not only being given permission to do so, but basically being ordered to do so, even with ongoing pain that felt crippling, sent a frisson of excitement down my spine and a tingle of adrenaline rocketing through my body.
He wrote me a prescription:
Plan each day, to include:
5 minutes calm breathing, 5 minutes each.
3x a day for 10 mins.: monitor body, pain, emotions and breath while doing an activity.
3x a day: respite from pain.
Body scan daily
Allow time daily for joy and for grieving
Challenge fears daily
Celebrate the previous day’s accomplishment of these tasks while planning the next day’s list.
“You have to become an Olympic athlete of pain management,” he said. Daunting! but it also appealed to my appetite for reaching for the moon.
Then he said, “You have to challenge your fears every day”, and
my insides turned to ice. Every day? Surely that was impossible.
I’d seen Neil’s car in the parking lot. It had a bumper sticker about a half-ironman triathalon. When I asked him about it he mumbled, “I know, not very “yoga”, is it?”
I found it inspiring that anyone would subject themselves to such challenges. I’d been a ballet dancer; I knew what it was to challenge yourself to the utmost.
But really, every day? When you were in pain?
That was going too far.
I’d do everything else Pearson said. But challenging fear would just have to wait.