Taking some quiet time during the holidays has left me with a renewed sense of excitement for the coming year. My mind and body are alight with enthusiasm and energy for new projects, new experiences, new creative endeavors. And in the spirit of new...
I'm doing something that I've never quite done before -- I'm featuring a guest post from a yogi that I greatly admire -- Kelly McGonigal. Kelly McGonigal is yoga teacher and health psychologist at Stanford University and the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Her topic is one that I feel a deep affinity for -- looking inside ourselves for guidance. The practice she offers in this post is a wonderful one that belongs in your daily/weekly/monthly schedule. I can't think of a better way to start the new year by looking inside of ourselves and tapping into the wisdom of our body. So, without further ado, I offer you an adaptation and excerpt from Kelly McGonigal’s new book, Yoga for Pain Relief.
Most of us are used to looking outside of ourselves for guidance. We turn to experts, authorities, doctors, and, yes, even writers of books that promise you pain relief. This is fine when you need to gather specialized information or opinions. But the yoga tradition also holds that there is an inner guide that transcends the collective wisdom of experts. This inner wisdom can tell you more about what is true for you, and how you can experience peace of mind, than any outside authority could ever know. This perspective is often missing from the medical profession, and many people with pain or illness have been taught to discount their intuition about the causes of their symptoms or what would be healing.
In the yogic model of body, mind, and spirit, wisdom is more about intuition and mindfulness than about knowledge or intellect. It is the ability to see what is true in this moment and what is needed in this moment. It is also the ability to see through the habits of the mind—including stress, disappointment, self-criticism, and worry—that create suffering. Yoga teaches that every person has this ability and it is an important part of who you are.
You can develop this ability by paying attention to the inner guidance of your breath, body, thoughts, and emotions. Yoga, and meditation in particular, will teach you how to distinguish between guidance from inner wisdom and unhelpful habits of the mind. Yoga also develops your self-care instinct, helping you understand what your body needs to be healthy and free of pain. When you reconnect to this guidance, you will have a deep source of strength and insight for coping with life’s challenges.
Another yogic approach to wisdom is to consider the possibility that pain and illness can itself be a source of wisdom. Difficult life circumstances often inspire self-reflection. In yoga, this idea is captured in the Sanskrit verse guru devo maheshvara, which can be translated as “illnesses, accidents, traumas, and losses have the power to bring us from darkness to light.”
The idea that pain can be a guru—bringing you from darkness to light—is simply a reminder that everything you experience can make you wiser and stronger. Pain has a way of cutting through bullshit. It can show you very quickly what matters most in your life, and it can force you to take stock of how you have set up your life. Pain can reveal how strong you are. It can shine a flashlight on your fears and your hopes. Pain can teach you patience and courage. It can teach you how to take care of yourself. It can awaken your compassion for yourself and for others.
You can view your past or present pain as a teacher even if you would abandon the teacher in a second (and who wouldn’t?). Viewing your pain as a teacher is not a commitment to staying in pain. It is simply a commitment to using everything in your experience—even your pain—to learn how to end unnecessary suffering.
To view the darkness of your pain as a possible source of insight and light, consider these questions:
1. How has your perspective on life been influenced by your experience of chronic pain?
2. What feels more or less important now than it did before you were experiencing pain?
3. What have you learned about yourself while trying to live with and treat the pain?
4. What helps you get through a particularly intense pain episode? What have you learned about supporting your own health and well-being?
5. How do your thoughts about your pain contribute to or reduce your suffering? Are there ways of thinking about your pain that make your suffering worse? Are there ways of thinking about your pain that help you find some meaning in the experience?
6. Is there something that you have learned from your experience of chronic pain that you no longer need pain to remind you of?
After completing this reflection, acknowledge that whatever lessons you have learned from your pain, you are ready to be free of unnecessary pain and suffering. Wish for yourself, “May I be free of this pain” and “May I be free of this suffering.”