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Pain As My Teacher: (aka "sometimes even chiropractors sing the blues")

Epstein QuoteThey say when the student is ready the teacher will appear. With that said, they don’t always say who the teacher or “guru” will be. A few weeks ago I was ready for a very powerful teacher to show up in my life—pain.

As a chiropractor in Columbus, I recognize that taking care of my body also supports my mind, my attitude, and my energy levels, so I train regularly. Towards the end of a workout my lower back did something unusual and grabbed my attention. Muscle spasms and low back pain built until every movement I made was sharply painful, yet tension also built up and “yelled” if I didn’t move for more than 30 seconds! I couldn’t even lift my knees to change my clothes without sharp stabs of low back pain and muscles “giving out”. There was no covering up that I was in intense pain and could not go about life like I had before.

After the workout, I tried to keep on going and get some tasks done, but it was not happening. I couldn’t even think straight. I realized that I was not going to get any work done that day and just went home. Once there, I watched myself go through the first two steps in the Twelve Stages of Healing:

Stage 1, or “Suffering”, where I was so caught up in the pain that I couldn’t see anywhere beyond this moment; and
Stage 2, or “Polarity”, where I knew this was the fault of my trainer, my chiropractor, my wife, myself – basically, everyone in my life – and I just needed someone to fix me and make this low back pain go away.
You know, that exact same place most people are in when they first show up in my office: “Just fix me, doc! It’s just this one place, right here. My body isn’t asking me or telling me anything. Just please fix it and make it stop!”

The low back pain kept intensifying, and over a few hours all I could do was writhe from one painful position to another, make sound from the pain in my body, and use basic Somatic Respiratory Integration (SRI) exercises until I finally surrendered to the feeling of helplessness. There was literally nothing else I could do but feel what I was feeling RIGHT NOW. Dropping into this surrender, the first layer of tension dropped away. By accepting where I was and making space for the reality of what was happening, I began the journey into freedom.

Over the next few days of enforced rest and getting my spine checked by another Network chiropractor, layers of physical and emotional tension—anxiety, depression, anger, shame, the works—related to this rose up and moved through. As this was happening I discovered things about myself. For example, by not being able to use my low back, I discovered how much strength my legs have. By not being able to move quickly like I normally do, I learned to move slowly and appreciate the moment. I also discovered the difference between fully feeling what’s happening—”I’m in pain, it’s impacting my body and my thoughts, it’s communicating with me”—and my previously unconscious habit of creating melodrama—”I’m a victim. It’s all ___’s fault. The world is ending, make it stop!”.

Ultimately I discovered how understanding something and trying to change something is very, very different than actually being with it… which is what allows healing and transformation.

As the layers of low back pain, tension, and emotional charge revealed their wisdom and moved on, I discovered an old friend underneath it all: outdated expectations. “Expectations” are what happen when our mind creates certain criteria that must be met in order to feel a certain way. They’re stories that, when they don’t match reality, contribute to pain and anxiety. I discovered how many expectations I had about certain things in life that were grossly outdated, and I had been comparing reality to my expectations, instead of reality-checking my expectations and responding to what was real in the present moment.

Basically, my body had finally said, “Enough of believing this BS. Wake up and see things as they are!”

Trying to make reality fit into your plans brings pain, and not just psychologically. On a neurospinal level, your brain cannot tell the difference between expectations (stories or mental constructs) and reality. If reality doesn’t match your expectations, there’s neurological friction between your hardwired map of reality (aka “It should be this way, that’s how it is”) and your experience of reality (aka “what’s actually happening”). Your neurospinal system—your brain, spinal cord, and spinal structures—goes into an “alert” or fight or flight response to this. It tries to protect you from ANY challenge using “defense physiology”—your posture changes, your spinal cord contracts up to 2″, immune and digestive organ function decreases, muscle tension and emotional-motor gain (aka reactivity) increases, and higher brain function (wisdom, discernment, impulse control, compassion) decreases.

In that moment of neurospinal defense, we all instinctively need to prove that we’re right, that the other person or event is wrong, or that we are still in control, so that we feel safe enough to survive. It sounds totally insane, yet that’s how we all work! Consider what it’s like talking about politics and religion on Facebook—totally irrational—that’s the level of the nervous system system at play.

For me, it had seemed like it was a totally physical event, yet over a few days I discovered how this neurospinal patterning set the stage for my body to figuratively “snap”. Living according to this outdated neurospinal wiring—these hardwired expectations—weakened my ability to be present with life AS IT IS on a physical level, so ultimately my body couldn’t adapt to a new movement with a tiny little weight. It was the metaphorical straw that broke the chiropractor’s back!

With this discovery, there was a rush of energy, my body liberated the majority of the pain, and I taught what felt like our best workshop on the stages of the healing process related to Transformation—all about recognizing how our body is conditioned by expectations and breaking through the physical anchors to these limiting beliefs. Through my experience, the pain had become my guru, my teacher. It revealed a rich depth of lessons and it prepared me to learn them – not just intellectual learning, but deep emotional and physical learning.

I am grateful for that back pain because it taught me things I need to take my life, my practice, and my relationship to the next level. If it had just gone away and I could have gone about my life the way I had planned that day, what would I have learned? Nothing! I’d be the same stuck schmuck! The way I see things, if I’m going to be screwed over by a symptom—like low back pain, neck pain, headaches, insomnia, or anxiety—I want to get something from it as it leaves. Otherwise it was just a waste of time and energy.

Now, I’m not suggesting that pain is fun and games. No, I prefer having other teachers. Thanks to pain bringing me on the journey of discovery, however, I now truly know that no matter how things “should be”, they are exactly as they are RIGHT NOW, and can only be addressed as they are RIGHT NOW. Especially when they don’t fit our plans. This is what allows for progress. Thanks to this low back pain, I now know that not just as a nice thought in my head—I get it through and through.

A stuck or dysfunctional neurospinal system keeps us locked in a physical reaction, perspective or expectation of reality that can be far from what’s appropriate RIGHT NOW, and that hurts in both the short and long term. When that teacher arrives, your job is to discover something new—that’s the purpose of pain. My job is to make sure that your neurospinal system can make the necessary corrections for you to discover what your body needs and to apply the wisdom you discover from the experience.

Learn the lesson completely, and you don’t need the teacher to hang around!

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