Thursday, March 20, 2014

Chasing Meaning Rather Than Avoiding Discomfort

I recently listened to a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal; no, not the Hogwart's teacher, the Stanford-based Psychologist/Neuroscientist. I attended a workshop led by her for people dealing with cancer, shortly after I was diagnosed, back when I lived in California. She's a great story-teller, as well as an inspiring scientist and all-around blend of quirky, intelligent, nerd, compassionate explorer of body awareness and consciousness. In her TED talk, actually after the end of her talk, when the moderator asked her a question she said,
"Chasing meaning is better for your health than avoiding discomfort."

I'm not sure I could have come up with a better one-line summary of my life right now. I've spent the past 4+ years listening to my body and learning to care for myself more deeply and I've learned a lot about living with pain and discomfort. I've spent a lot of time avoiding discomfort and I'm entering a new phase in which (some of) the avoidance is over. I'm moving head-on into using my body in new ways (more on this theme in a future blog entry when I tell you about Tango). It feels deeply meaningful and it hurts.

Avoidance of discomfort has many subtle gradations. How do we learn to listen to pain and interpret its message? Sometimes rest and immobility are crucial for healing. When you break a bone, it needs to be immobilized in a cast. When my ribs and sternum were about to burst with growing tumors, I needed to lie still and not move on a gross physical level. I learned to "fly under the radar" and move in subtle ways that didn't evoke pain. I learned to breathe with as little movement as possible, and focus on my movement at a cellular level, or on the change of the shape of the microscopic spaces between cells. I trusted that my combined knowledge and imagination would provide a map that would lead me to the territory where I could find what my body needed.

There came a point, when I realized that I had rested enough, perhaps too much. I was weakened from resting. I had to start exploring my gross physical limits and push those limits. I don't mean to imply the push was a brute force action or an abuse of my strong will. Sometimes it's valuable to push and feel the feedback that speaks through the body's response to the pressure of pushing. I had to find a way to call forth a level of exertion from within that was necessary for my recovery. There's a fine line between resting and fading away, and another fine line between doing and over-doing, and pain is an unreliable guide. 

Coming back from such profound disease and de-conditioning involves pain: pain from the weakness of unused muscles, pain from tumors that still might be active, pain from compensatory patterns gone awry, pain from movement of joints and connective tissue distorted by cancer and inflammation, and the emotional pain, which is frequently indistinguishable from what is happening physically. I'm learning to more precisely distinguish when the pain I experience is due to a good thing. It's sometimes painful to use our bodies in new ways. Tissue needs to breakdown and remodel to accommodate a new movement. Building strength involves microscopic trauma to muscle and connective tissue. The remodeling that occurs in response to this stimulation is ultimately good for us in the long-run, but it can be painful in the short-run.

This time in my life is about meeting discomfort and finding stories to help make it tolerable. It is these "explanations" that grant meaning to my suffering today. Tomorrow my story might change; in fact it will definitely change. Nothing in life is stagnant. We can't explain everything, and fooling ourselves into thinking we can only makes it harder when we are faced with how little control we have over some aspects of life. As long as I'm not attached to any one fixed meaning, I derive great satisfaction from creating new narratives to make whatever sense I can of my life. I enjoy chasing the next meaningful story that will help me to creatively cope with whatever unfolds next. 

Here's the link to her TED talk and her website: