The Simple Path is the Clearest Path
Yesterday, as I was wrapping up my clinic day of 40-odd patients, I asked myself this question: why would someone drive from far away and spend half a day with me at my medical office when they have more fun ways to spend their time and money? The easy answer is that they have eye problems, and I am good at fixing those type of problems, right? But I arrived at another reason that my patients seek help from me: they are suffering some sort of pain. Their “chief complaint,” as we doctors call it, may be an eye problem, but the deeper reason they come in is suffering… be it physical, mental or emotional. And we all want relief from this discomfort. The Buddhist term “Dukkha” refers to this kind of suffering. It may manifest as worry, anxiety, depression, or even physical illness.
My last patient of the day was a tall, quiet, white-haired gentleman who had seen me before for double vision. At this visit, he was happy to report that his vision had returned to normal. In fact, I had told him at his last exam that it most likely would; he was suffering from a small blocked blood vessel in his brain, and I knew from experience that in most cases, the double vision caused by this blockage was short-lived. So we moved on from his immediate problem, and I asked him how he was doing otherwise. Turns out, he had been involved in a car accident some years ago, and had experienced terrible, relentless back and knee pain since then. I flipped open his chart to see that he was on no less than 12 medications for pain and depression. I took a deep breath as I allowed myself to feel what suffering this gentleman had to endure everyday… not so much his physical pain, but the mental and emotional pain of being captive to these medications and the physical ailments that he thought made the drugs vital to his existence. The weight that he carried must be suffocating, I thought to myself.
Something that I had read decades ago came to mind. In a book entitled, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind by Deepak Chopra, the author maintained it was scientific fact that every molecule in our body is replaced at least every 90 days, and most are replaced daily. If that is true, why would a body like the one my patient lived in continue to rebuild itself in a way that reinforced pain and disease? In other words, why don’t the painful, disease-ridden cells just go away and be replaced with normal, healthy cells? The answer came to me in a flash.
The only reason that made sense to me was that my patient had an expectation of staying sick… that he had a “framework” of sorts that told the new molecules passing through his body to rebuild his arthritic knees and collapsed spinal discs in the same way as before. He was holding on to the pain and disease… SPIRITUALLY. Clearly, all the Fentanyl, oxycontin, and Prozac he was on would have no effect on this type of pain. The answer was to change this “spiritual scaffold.”
I resisted the natural tendency of a doctor, which is to ask the patient, “Why are you holding on to this pain?” I realized that it really doesn’t matter why. Eckhart Tolle writes in The Power of Now, “How do you drop the hot coal you are holding in your hand? Just drop it.” It’s really just that simple. When one finds oneself holding a hot coal (like the extreme, debilitating pain my patient was feeling), the “why” of it is really irrelevant. JUST DROP IT. LET IT GO.
What that translates to in terms of action is to bring one’s awareness to the pain and stop resisting it. Unfortunately, we deal with pain in a diametrically opposite way in the West… we cover it up with drugs and distract ourselves from it with food, sex, TV, and whatever else we can find. And that is exactly how people like my patient remain trapped in such painful prisons of suffering for an entire lifetime.
I asked my patient if he would like to learn to meditate with me. He was a bit surprised to hear that from his eye doctor, but he was willing to give it a try, as he was tired of the pain and the doctor’s visits. I went on to tell him that we could start with some simple breath techniques to help him feel less pain and perhaps allow his body to start to heal itself. For the first time in our time together, I saw a glimmer of hopeful energy and relief in his eyes. Shortly thereafter, it was followed with a look of fear. Indeed, it takes a great deal of courage to turn and face something that one has been running from for years. But recognizing that we are holding on to the cause of our suffering at the same time we are running from it can be very liberating.
I was doing what I loved to do two mornings later: I was in the middle of a 6 mile trail run; but this time, I was struggling to continue. A nagging pain had developed in my left knee. Though I had felt this discomfort before, it was particularly intense on this day. My mind starting reeling with all the possibilities… Is it a tendon strain? Could I have finally pushed my aging knees too far? Does this mean I’m going to have to give up the activity I love?
It occurred to me that this was an excellent opportunity to practice what I preach, so I decided to change the course of my thoughts. I put my attention fully into the painful sensations coming from my left knee. I consciously directed feelings of strength and health toward my left knee. I mentally imaged the cells in the inflamed tendon being surrounded with healing energy, and I saw those cells clearing away the damaged tissue and swelling. I then moved that focus to my right foot, which was also hurting with each step. I realized that each precious step I was taking would never be there for me to take again, so I tried to be fully with each step – the sound it made, the splash of sand that struck the back of my leg with each stride, and the mushy wet feeling of my sweaty toes inside my trail shoes. I held this focus for the last few minutes of my run; my attention spread quite naturally and easily to rhythmic chirping of the cicadas, and to the rustling of the wind in the tall oaks I was running underneath. When I finally reached my car, I felt refreshed and calm, though the knee pain was still with me. A few minutes later, I was off to my busy tasks, and the whole blissful episode was long forgotten.
Two mornings later, I awoke at dawn. As is my custom, I stumbled down the stairs in the dark to let our three dogs out. On my way back up the stairs, I had to smile to myself – I noticed that the pain in my knee was totally gone. Not just better, but GONE. I poked and prodded the area in front of my knee to try to stir up some soreness, but to no avail. My body had listened to my intention and just healed itself up. I had consciously changed my spiritual scaffold, and here was some irrefutable evidence that it had worked!
The example above shows how cultivating awareness and presence can bring about healing. In my experience, one of the best ways to create awareness is meditation. We are exploring this powerful method in a class entitled “The Art of Conscious Living” at the Meeman Center for Lifelong Learning. But hurry: there are only two spots left in the class as I write this. The class starts on Tuesday 8/20, from 5:30-7:30, and five sessions are planned. You can learn more at this link: The Art of Conscious Living
I will leave you with one question to ask yourself: What does your spiritual scaffold look like?