19 Nov Be Good To Yourself
“Be good to yourself”. That’s what Dr. Arlene Feinblatt said to me when I was stuck on my office floor, unable to even turn over. Five days earlier, as I tried to type a frustrating email, my leg seized up with incredible force, throwing me to the floor screaming in agony. It had cramped up worse than I had ever experienced and the pain was unrelenting. In a panic, I told my wife to call one of Dr. Sarno’s therapists, as I knew I had to do something drastic and I had to do it immediately.
I had always avoided therapy because I’m hard-headed and want to figure out everything for myself. She got an appointment for me, but when it came time to go, I was still unable to turn over, let alone get up from the spot that I had fallen five days earlier. It was that bad. Dr. Feinblatt doesn’t do phone consultations because her practice has a lot to do with being present with the individual she’s working with, so I asked her if there was anything she could tell me anything that I could do. Her cryptic response was, “All I can tell you is be good to yourself”. It’s taken 3 years, but I’m slowly beginning to understand what she meant.
My family has a long history with what Dr. Sarno, and his diagnosis of TMS or Tension Myositis Syndrome. That’s a fancy way of saying tight muscles, but what it really refers to is the interaction between the unconscious and the autonomic nervous system that causes pain and other distress in the nerves and muscles of the body. Dr. Sarno postulates that the pain is a distraction generated by the unconscious mind in order to make sure that one’s attention is diverted away from painful thoughts or feelings that might arise. The unconscious is trying to protect the ego from having to deal with these painful feelings. Since this is the case, the best medicine is knowledge and awareness. If we think emotionally rather than physically, we can signal to the unconscious that we are ok with unthinkable thoughts escaping into our awareness, thereby negating the need for the distraction.
I think he’s absolutely right. However, this doesn’t mean that I had a miraculous and instantaneous cure, and back in 2004 when I first went to see Dr. Sarno I began a slow slog towards recovery from my own crippling back pain. It took a few years, but I was eventually back to 90% of my strength. Shhh, don’t tell Dr. Sarno, but after a few years of stalled progress, I went to a Chinese acupuncturist and after 3 miraculous sessions, I was walking normally for the first time in years. Not long after, my old habits of working way beyond my capacity took over once again. The acupuncture had clearly helped in the moment, but using one of Dr. Sarno’s favorite phrases, it had not gotten to the heart of the matter.
As I lay there in agony in 2011, I was determined to dig deep this time and learn more about myself; things like figuring out why I felt compelled to run myself into the ground. The good news was that the pain was so present and reactive that it was easy to learn from it. My sister was helping me a great deal, helping to talk me through some of the low points. One day when I woke up, I felt compelled to text her to tell her that I was doing ok. I was worried that she would be worried about me. I found my hands shaking and my arms cramping up as I tried to type. So I put down the phone and I thought about what was going on. I quickly realized that my intention had everything to do with the problem. I was reaching out to her with a sense of responsibility for her feelings. As soon as I became aware of that, I was able to type her a note. Once I was doing it because I wanted to, and not because I unconsciously had slipped back into my role of trying to take care of her, I was ok. This was one of the first clues that helped me get to the heart of what Dr. Feinblatt was talking about. It’s taken a few hundred more to begin to make sense of it.
It would be awesome if knowledge were a simple pill that we could all take, freeing us from our unconscious cages. Unfortunately – even if it did exist in this way – it wouldn’t work the same for all people, just as no treatment method works the same for all people. Some doctors and patients take issue with Dr. Sarno’s book “Healing Back Pain” because it doesn’t have enough science to back it up, or because it doesn’t give clear enough instructions. This is kind of like saying “As I Lay Dying” isn’t a good book because there’s not enough exposition, or that “On The Road” is terrible because it’s full of run-on sentences. I think the biggest problem is that we have separated the Arts from the Sciences, thereby creating an imbalance of understanding. Thankfully, the art of science is making a comeback, and there are all kinds of data coming out that support the ideas behind the essential truth of what Dr. Sarno and Dr. Feinblatt are talking about.
For a while, we were calling our film “The Story of Pain” because the idea of “story” seemed a central element to everyone’s pain. First, there is the story the person tells of how they threw out their back, or elbow, or knee. This story solidifies the pain’s root in the physical because “it happened when I bent over to pick up a suitcase.” The other part of the story, which too often goes unexamined, is the story of what was going on in the person’s life when it happened. This “back story” often gives us clues that point to emotional causal factors. As Dr. David Clarke relates on film, if he could just figure out what a person’s back story is, he can help them get past their pain. Here’s a clip of him telling one such story.
The deeper we get into this idea, the more clear it becomes. Our personal stories are made of of thousands, or millions, or even billions, of unconscious assumptions about the world and ourselves. This mental short hand allows us to move through the world without getting lost in every detail. However, it also cuts us off from being aware of things that we need to be aware of. Last year, after 10 years of digging for complex truths about myself, I happened upon the book “Mindfulness”. I have tried to meditate in the past without success. True to my character, I never finished the whole book, but I did begin meditating on a daily basis. As a practice, this has helped me heal and grow more than anything else I’ve tried. As was mentioned above, the autonomic nervous system is central to the discussion of pain syndromes. It is also the link between our conscious mind and our unconscious mind. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines the autonomic nervous system as the control system (largely below the level of consciousness) over the function of internal organs. We know from our own experience of breathing that we have more control over these automatic functions than we might assume. Focus on the breath is central to all meditation practice and the breath is central to the regulation of our autonomic nervous system.
While the main character of the film is Dr. Sarno, my own journey to overcome pain issues also forms a thread of the narrative. This summer, I reached out to Dr. Gabor Mate and he recommended that I read Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth. I had once tried to read The Power of Now, but had trouble taking it seriously. It felt too New-Agey to get past my cynicism. However, because it came from Dr. Mate, I went to the library and picked it up. I happened also to grab “Polishing the Mirror” by Ram Dass and Rameshwar Dass. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. These two books had a profound effect on my understanding of the mind body connection, and my understanding of myself. I reached out to Ram Dass about being in the movie. His assistant Rameshwar (co-author of the book) got right back to me saying that Ram Dass was happy to talk with me. He added that he, too, was a patient of Dr. Sarno’s.
We had a great discussion via skype that we both recorded for the film. Today we want to post a mediation that Ram Dass did for us, and hope that it helps you to be “good to yourself”.