Last year, (November 11th 2014, to be exact) while bending over to pet my cat, I felt a sudden “oh sh%#” moment, as my L5 disc bulged, my right SI joint locked up, and my right psoas muscle pulled and seized in a moment of dimension shifting pain. If my friend Dan wasn’t in the room, I would have cried.
Funny moment in retrospect: frozen in stationary position in my hallway, bent at the waist, petting my cat as he purred and stared at me. I stood there for a few seconds, contemplating how to take the next step. This moment left me immediately unable to walk, stand straight, or sit down without being in deep pain. Now, this pain, and the resulting injury is nothing in comparison to others I have had which left me disabled for both months and years… but it was enough to remind me of the following important lessons:
- I self identify strongly in one area of my life.
- I am a victim of my monkey mind.
- Nothing in life is permanent.
I am a pretty active and healthy person. A large part of how I view myself is through physical activity, eating well, and taking care of myself. I practice capoeira 5 days a week, and strength train or stretch the other two. Now, it’s not that I’m particularly fit, but I do enjoy activities and pushing my body farther than I would in a regular, day-to-day city life. Suddenly since last November, I have found myself unable to do the physical activities I love. Although I immediately booked some time and saw a chiropractor, a physio, and a massage therapist, (yes, all three) the comment common to all three was along the lines of “that’s a tough injury to get to. You’ll likely just have to wait it out, and take it easy for three or four weeks”. That was 2 months ago. The injury is better, but I am still in pain most of the day, and unable to throw a roundhouse without awe-inspiring pain.
Let me tell you about the lesson so far.
I recognized on the third day that I was having a pity party for myself, and was experiencing a wide range of negative emotions from anger, to jealousy, to fear. I was limping home after work, only to lie down on my bed, stare at the ceiling, and think about what I would be doing if I wasn’t hurt, as well as asking myself why I didn’t stretch that particular morning of the injury. As if the suffering from the pain wasn’t enough, I was adding a second type: emotional suffering, rooted in the fears of not training for a while, the anger at myself for not taking care of my body better, and the jealousy of my friends who were still able to train. So on my third day of injury, I started thinking about what I could do to take advantage of my time off of training, and how I could use this challenge to benefit me.
Since day three after injuring myself, I have made some more time for some things I don’t always have time for anymore. I have been reading more, almost voraciously. I have had more time to jot ideas down for different blog posts, and random thoughts in general. I have been playing more music, spending more time with my hand drums, berimbau, and learning portuguese capoeira songs. Perhaps most importantly, is that I have been connecting more with close friends and family. I no longer feel rushed when on the phone before training, and make more time for my mom (we talk almost daily… which from what I gather is not all that common!).
This injury, although apparently still relatively minor (going on month 3 however, so I am indeed getting worried), does also remind me of one important thing: the idea of impermanence. That nothing I have in my life – from health, to my cat, to friends and family – will be around forever. I suppose that part of the difficulty of a physical injury is the suffering that arises out of the expectation that a particular state or ability is a permanent one, and that letting go and accepting the change can be difficult. Letting go of my youthful body (let’s face it, mid thirties are starting to show!) and the ability for it to heal itself quickly and with minor effort is challenging, yet necessary.
Actually, that is likely the biggest lesson I recall having learnt before with injuries, and again this time: life should be about balancing the different areas of life, and not putting too many eggs in one basket. In the last year, I have spent less time doing other things I love, and focused a great deal of my time on capoeira. Now, there is nothing innately wrong with this, but what can be difficult is the mental state that arises when something you think is a permanent fixture in your life is taken away. Another example of the impermanence in our lives, and how being attached to a state can lead to suffering.
So what have I learnt in the last two months? Here are the important highlights.
- Take it easy. When injured badly, the best thing to do is to rest and not focus on where you could be if you weren’t. Treat your mind and body to a well deserved break, and do what your doctor recommends: take the pressure off of yourself, and do not hold yourself to the high expectations you have for your healthy self. Now, total bed rest is not what I’m talking about here! It is important to keep moving as best as possible, without aggravating the injury in any way. Rest first, but don’t become a total potato.
- Occupy your time. Don’t leave your mind wandering about how things could be if you weren’t injured. Get some books, watch some documentaries, catch up with old friends and family. Your physiotherapist will recommend some exercises, so do those. As mentioned above, start mobilizing as early as possible. Research has shown that both for muscular and non-muscular injuries, becoming active again helps you heal better and faster.
- Do not create additional suffering. There are two types of suffering: first is the actual pain. The sharp electric shocks running from my lower back to my knee, the hip locked in place and achey, and the stabbing feeling I get every time I transition from standing to sitting to lying down. Second is are the thoughts I create carry with me during me injury. At first, frustration and grumpiness. But more recently, a deep, nagging feeling of depression as the very real possibility of having a chronic, life long injury settles in. With this knowledge, note these 6 things to start your day off right, and then move to point #4.
- Mindfulness is key to recovery. Following Jon Kabat Zinn’s basics in the book “Full Catastrophe Living”, I developed a simple practice allows me to be more mindful of the way I walk, sit, lie down, and how the pain of this injury affects my moment to moment living. Also, it allows me to be cognizant of the thoughts and judgments I impose on myself, and be more patient than if I wasn’t paying attention to my body and mind. A good lead in to a mindfulness meditation is the square breathe meditation.
- Treat the underlying cause. Much like understanding the root of suffering, injuries are good opportunities to examine why they happened. Obviously, my injury wouldn’t just happen for no reason. There has to be an underlying reason: a repetitive motion, or action, or weakness in certain key muscle areas; which caused the acute injury to manifest. I work in an office for half my time, so perhaps years of sitting (apparently, we didn’t always have chairs, comfy beds, or couches, and using them so much is terrible for our bodies. Sitting is terrible for us when our lives are so sedentary) have shaped my muscles and tendons in a certain way. Tonight, I have decided I will sleep on the floor.
I hope that this post helps someone learn something from their injury, and to deal with the pain, both physical and emotional, that can arise when we have to give up the things that are dear to us. My last few months have been difficult, but I always remember that some have it much harder than I, and that this little injury, as overwhelming as it is, is impermanent and just a doorway for a lesson.