07/11/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2012

Navigating by Heart: Loving the Pain

It was my first hospitalization, only eight months ago, and it was a doozy. I'd broken my back on a Caribbean island, been air-ambulanced to the U.S., and had two very invasive and intense surgeries to stabilize my spine and repair some of the nerve damage. My body chemistry wasn't dealing well with the intrusions and disruptions, and I was beginning a second day of intravenous potassium, something most recipients describe as terrifically painful. By comparison to the extraordinary pain that many people live with every day, this was nothing. But in that moment, for me, it was a very big deal. More importantly, my pain became a very big teacher.

There was nothing and no one to blame for it. It wasn't anyone's fault, and there was no better alternative. It was just what was. So I lay immobilized in my bed with the needle inserted into my vein, taped firmly to my already black-and-blue forearm. I looked at the bag hanging above my left shoulder. It was full and dripping very, very slowly. I knew that this drip was going to last a good half day -- if they only gave me one bag. Most likely, they'd do two, and I'd be in for a good eight hours of it -- piercing, grabbing, searing pain. I sensed it as a large black bird sitting on my arm, with fiery claws digging into my flesh, flames shooting out in every direction as the burning red pain moved into and through my vein, radiating throughout my arm.

I was already maxed out on pain medication, so there would be no relief coming from that quarter. I tried distracting myself with my imagination, with music, with meditation, with my breathing. I cried; I tossed and turned. I clinched and released my fist. Nothing worked. Finally, I realized that no matter how hard I resisted or how much I tried to distract myself, I couldn't make the pain go away. That drip was going to be there, probably for eight hours, whether I liked it or not, wanted it or not.

I wondered: How can I get through this, how can I endure this? I thought: Maybe I can love it. "Love it all" -- that's advice I've heard over and over. Oh, but this pain is so hard to love! But I've got to love it to make it go away. So I tried really, really hard to love it. I tried to love it more. Love it until it goes away.

But it didn't work.

Then slowly, somehow, I began to get it: It isn't "loving it" if it's simply an exercise to try to make it go away. It isn't "loving it" if my goal is to change it. Loving, real loving, is without attachment, without control, without outcome. Loving has no separation, no it vs. me. Loving is not resisting the pain, it's being one with the pain. "Loving it" is simply loving because loving is what there is to do, what there is to be.

OK, fine. But how do I love it?

I remembered the Meditation of Objectivity, wherein my friend and teacher John-Roger says, "If your nose itches, just let it itch. Observe the itch." I remembered my first yoga teacher, as we were lying in savasana pose, and a nearby train started blowing its whistle. She said, "Become one with the sound that distracts you. Go into it. Become it. See yourself, hear yourself, feel yourself as that sound, not separate from the sound."

So I began with observation. I began allowing the pain, observing the pain. I saw it in vivid color. I began to notice the pulsating rhythm of the drip. I noticed that the heat and the clutch ebbed and flowed in that rhythm. I imagined a zzzshoooommmm sound with each pulse, and gradually the sound changed to a whiiiiissssshhh, and then a soft, airy hummm. I did not TRY to change the sound; it simply changed as I observed. The colors got softer, and I let the colors expand throughout my arm, then my body. I started feeling my energy move with the pulse, not against it. No longer was I bracing for each pulse, no longer was the pulse something foreign, something happening to me. It was my pulse. It was not me vs. it, not even me and it; it was me/it all together. I became soothed, mesmerized, quiet. I relaxed into the rhythm, and the rhythm became my rhythm. I began to sense myself ensconced in a deep golden bubble of light. I fell asleep.

Nurses and aides and technicians came in and out of my room repeatedly, waking me up each time to test, poke and prod me. With each wake up, I once again began to feel the pain of the drip. But each time, I was able to move back into observation, and through observation, into surrender and oneness. Each time was faster than the time before. When they came into replace the empty bag and start me on the next four hours, I had a momentary "oh no" reaction, but I quickly moved back into acceptance. I told myself that I was about to have more opportunity to practice surrender, oneness and loving. And practice I did. Soon I was bathed in that golden bubble of light, and I rested in gratitude and love.

Now eight months later, my physical pain is very different -- milder and more sporadic. My damaged nerves are slowly regenerating, and they wake up with pokes, stabs, pinches, burns, stings and twitches. The sensations are short-lived but sometimes intense -- and they repeat several times in any given location before those particular nerves seem to settle down. I'm often heard to yelp when it happens, but usually I can switch quickly from resistance to gratitude that the nerves are in fact coming back to life. I can breathe into the locus and let myself see, feel and hear the sensation until it releases. I say "welcome home" to the nerves and relax into their process. I remind myself to love the pain just as it is.

There are other forms of pain -- less-physical forms of pain -- that I find far more challenging. When I'm in emotional pain, I'm a much slower learner. I want to fight the pain, banish its cause, punish its stimulus. Sometimes I remember that the key to loving it is to accept the pain, to surrender to it, become one with it. But sometimes I'm fooling myself, because my real desire is to control the pain and accept it so it won't hurt. And of course, that doesn't work any better with emotional pain than it does with physical pain. I need to keep reminding myself that the burn of the potassium drip released only when I let go of resistance, let go of control, let go of outcome, and gave it my full unconditioned awareness and acceptance. Only when I became okay with its enduring nature did it release. Only when I observed it and embraced it as part of me it did I experience peace. Only then did loving it bring me love.

Of course, sometimes there IS an outer situation that needs to be addressed, outer remedial action that needs to be taken. But outer adjustments address only outer circumstances; they do not address the inner process of pain. And in that regard, I'm slowly learning that it doesn't matter why I hurt, that there's no story that softens it, no position of right or wrong that makes it go away. There simply is the fact that I'm hurting in the moment, and that I have the choice to resist the pain or embrace it. Just as with the drip, I can begin my return to peace and loving by simply observing what's going on. Notice the sound and colors, the rhythm and flow of sensations. Let that dance become my dance. Breathe it in and breathe it out. If I start to judge or defend or resist, embrace that too as part of the dance. Deepen my connection. Receive, embrace, and become one with it. That's what loving it is. That is loving because loving is what there is to do, what there is to be.

For more by Martha Boston, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.