5: The Challenge of Living with a Chronic Condition

The challenge of aging
Following a dream, I felt led to look up Castaneda’s four enemies of a spiritual warrior (The Teachings of Don Juan).  I had not read them in over 30 years.  Don Juan tells Castaneda that there are four enemies of a warrior seeking to become a man of knowledge.  The first is fear — fear of oneself, fear of the unknown.  The remedy is clarity, understanding.  Clarity then becomes the second enemy. Understanding provides insight, but does not provide the power to act decisively and with precision.   The remedy is to make an ally of Power.  Power then becomes the third enemy.  Power can be fickle, and has its own rules.  The remedy is to realize that no one commands Power, but that Power chooses which battles we win or lose.  No longer addicted to Power, the man of knowledge faces his last enemy: old age.  With old age, the man of knowledge may decide to become complacent, because he knows the world is as it is and feels there is no reason to engage it.  There is no defeating old age, only staying in resistance, continuing to apply clarity and Power to arising circumstance, without ego or hope for personal gain, knowing that one day he will not be up to the challenge.  Old age will win, and death will claim him.

Castaneda was a good myth-maker, like a Celtic storyteller, who paid close attention to informants.  In this particular parable, Castaneda got the ending wrong.  Yes, old age can wear down even a strong spiritual warrior.  But old age can be defeated, in the same sense that any of the other enemies can be defeated.  The remedy for old age is to embrace the larger aspects of our being, to embrace Soul.  Old age will eventually defeat the body, but not Soul. Our connection to Soul stays open through intentional dialogue (silence, song, prayer, active listening, dreaming, engaged conversation), and a view of our body and the world that includes loving kindness and compassion.

Becoming a man or woman of knowledge, attaining wisdom, and achieving integration do not free us from imperfection.  There are ups and downs to the human condition.  But these qualities do allow the opportunity to engage our world more impeccably, allow the opportunity to draw on inspiration realized from engaged presence, allow the opportunity to blend reality like an alchemist, and allow the opportunity to remember our truest nature and our identification with Soul.

Non-attachment and processing pain in the Now
Temple Grandin (Animals in Translation) states that animals and autistics experience pain differently from average humans.  Animals feel pain, but often feel less pain than humans because they think about it less – they have less frontal lobe activity. They don’t anticipate pain.  They don’t hold on to pain.  Animals appear to experience just the pain itself without accompanying (and intensifying) emotions and associations that project pain as an ongoing condition into the future or hold on to pain associated with the past.  In other words, animals aren’t upset about pain, they are processing pain only in the Now.  (Fear is often worse than pain for animals, she states, for the same reason: animals can’t mitigate fear with frontal lobe activity to put fear in perspective).

This could be one reason why we seek distraction during pain and suffering – to take us outside our thoughts and pain-intensifying associations. I’ve used conscious distraction as a short-term strategy. But we need to move past distraction at some point and engage our soulful shields.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that it is as important to learn the art of suffering as it is to learn the art of happiness.  His prescription is to bring balance to conscious suffering by practicing mindfulness, work from earthschool harmonycompassion, and loving kindness on an ongoing basis.  In addition, he suggests we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (the spiritual community).  There’s another way to say this: take refuge in religious experience and spirit-links, in resonant teachings and a vibrant worldview, and with a community of kindred spirits.  Empowerment provides resilience.

When we become aware of our suffering, we also become aware of a host of non-suffering states (joy, gratitude, serenity, connection…).  We become more fully human.  Mindfulness means becoming conscious of our pain, but also conscious of other aspects of our being.  Mindfulness includes breath and sensations of our body that are not in pain, as well as participation in our larger consciousness (that include love and compassion).  Mindfulness can include undergoing a process of transmuting the dark or practicing non-attachment.  We can celebrate the world in our animal bodies – in the Now.

Wounded or wound-led?
The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” — Rumi

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”  ? Kahlil Gibran

Does the wound challenge you – lead you to greater understanding or another level of healing?  Or will the wound defeat you, like old age?  These questions are posed for mindful contemplation, and should not be rendered as judgements to anyone that gets stuck and blinded in their pain. Who am I to say that – given their circumstance – I would do any better?  Pain is unfortunate, and I have compassion for those whose pain and suffering are greater than my own.  But clearly pain and suffering are part of the human condition, and can teach by encouraging that we seek solutions outside our limited perspectives. Gurdjieff referred to it as conscious suffering – mindful forbearance that generates the energy to wake up and become more conscious.

I strive to maintain my practice during both easy and difficult circumstance. I’ve endured by grace, foresight, necessity, Luck, and the assistance of compassionate spirits.  There have been times when I have felt tattered at the edges.  I have needed to manage my pain with forbearance and through skillful means. Each moment — including moments when we do not feel at our best, or moments on the cusp of difficult transition – holds unique potential.

My fellow travelers: may we breathe to moments of potential, and find therein an amplification of being.

Photo from Facebook page earthschool harmony

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4 Responses to 5: The Challenge of Living with a Chronic Condition

  1. Irina says:

    I enjoyed this essay and found it very helpful, as all the others in your series on chronic pain.
    I was intrigued by your comment that animals feel pain less acutely than humans do, because their mind does not analyze their pain. I wonder if that is the reason they are so stoic about it. To some degree this is true of small children, and it is also a function of cultural conditioning. I am told by people who have lived in third-world countries (e.g, Africa) that people there are much more stoic about pain than we Westerners. This is even true of their children–apparently, they cry and fuss about pain much less than our kids do.
    Anyway, I think you really ought to publish a book on Chronic Pain, not online but in print. This topic is very appropriate for our aging population and for everyone else who experiences chronic pain. it could be a best-seller!
    A point of spelling: I think you meant “wound-led,” not “wound-lead.” Am I correct?

    • Jim says:

      Irina, thanks for your comments. You are right about led, and I changed it (that’s what I had originally, and changed it at the last moment). I recently saw an article that pain has more activity in the forebrain (fMRI) in humans than what was expected. For animals, it is speculation, but according to Temple Grandin animals tend to function better and with less fuss with the same type of injury. Believe it or not, it first had to be proved that animals feel pain (scientists who saw animals as programmed robots).

  2. Katarzyna Sosinska says:

    I woke up early this morning and opened your essay thinking there may be a message for me. And it was. My recent spiritual work is about conscious suffering, put exactly that way.
    I hope I persist in practicing Mindfulness. Thanks for your thoughts.

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