Pain as a Practice
Thoughts on pain, grief, and renewal
There is a little piano against one wall of this house I live in. I play it from time to time. When I first began, I noticed all the melodies I played were sad. I knew I had some sadness in me. Actually, I knew I had a lot. But, I didn’t really know what to do with it. So I played the piano most days, but the songs were always pretty sad.
For one reason or another, I have been carrying some sadness based on grief for a few years. It has been hard but not without its lessons. I think that sadness can teach us about what others feel. So I’ve learned that. But there is a point when the lesson has been learned, yet the sadness still hangs around.
And then about a week ago I was looking at the field below the house where I live. In the sky a few hawks circled. A group of renegade chickens, who escaped months ago from a coop and went wild, took notice of the hawks and fled under the porch—their shelter.
And just before that, I had stood up from the table. But this was different than the hundreds of times I had stood up from a table recently, because for years I have been dealing with knee pain—but at this moment, there was none. Yet, I noticed my muscles tighten, as if trying to protect myself from pain that was no longer there.
I stood watching the chickens cower, and thinking about pain. About how mental pain becomes physical, and physical pain becomes mental—about how pain works its way into us, and hangs around.
It’s not that I haven’t done my best to grieve, or get rid of pain. I have really tried. But I failed. Yet in this moment, noticing the lack of pain, I felt the way my body still held itself tense around pain that wasn’t there. I thought about the chickens hiding from the death of the hawks. I thought about what it is to protect oneself. And I thought about vulnerability, and how opening is needed to allow healing. I knew all this, and have practiced it too. Yet somehow in feeling my body respond automatically to pain that was no longer there, I saw a different way forward.
Later that week, I listened to Wilson Wewa, a Northern Pauite elder, tell the story of the grieving woman and the sage grouse.
Long ago, before there were people, there was a woman. She was crying, crying, crying endlessly because her husband had died. She was utterly and completely overwhelmed with grief. Her people did not understand her grief, and they did not know what to do. So she grieved alone. She was carrying so much pain. And so she went out into the desert all by herself.
While she was out there alone, she heard a noise. She walked to the top of a rise and looked down. There, down below her in the sage was a group of sage hens. And they were dancing. They were in a big circle, and they were having a good time. And at the end of their song, they would open up their wings and let out a big joyful whoop.
One of the sage hens noticed the woman crying. So she came up to her. And she said to the woman that she should not grieve uncontrollably. And the sage hen said that our grief is not good for us when it makes us sick. The sage hens then taught her a song that she sang. And she found comfort in the song.
When she came back to her village, she brought the song and the dance, and she taught the people.
I listened to this story, turned it over and over in my mind. And the words came to mind: Pain is a Practice.
It is a practice because it’s something that we have, whether we want it or not. A practice is something you have to work on. So the practice of pain is a choice. Though this practice is not a comfortable one.
As I wrote the poem Pain as a Practice, something left me. And something came in, too. But I don’t know if this pain I carried for a long time is gone forever, in my knee, or in my mind.
But, I do know one thing: the grief has passed. It has stopped making me sick. And I hope that going forward, I can play other songs on the piano, and write other words than the ones that are sad.
Pain as a Practice
When I stand up from the table, I shift slightly
to allow my weight to land on my right leg
instead of the left.
Twisting under weight
seems to bother the left knee.
When I write I try to make the words
come out in long sentences and paragraphs, again.
But I cannot.
Pain has modified my ability to write stories.
Each sentence written has to hold what it needs—
like me, in each moment.
I can’t always tell
what is good for me.
So I use pain as a practice—
because it shows what hurts.
It’s important to keep up the practice, of pain
to not let it slip away
Because, I’ve learned, the pain will still be there.
I am getting in good shape this spring
because I am planning to walk five hundred miles, or more
stringing together a rough route on CalTopo
on Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, and Blackfeet land.
And so, just recently,
I noticed my left instep is weaker than my right
which causes my knee to sway slightly inward.
My suspicion is that this most subtle instability
is behind a nebulous knee pain I’ve had for years.
And so I practice: little exercises
to strengthen my foot
and suddenly, the pain is gone!
my body remembers.
It has been sensitive to that pain for years.
Yet now that it’s gone
it still won’t let it go.
The pain might come back at any time, my body thinks, and I
think, because I am also my body— I think, without thinking:
I must stay safe from pain.
Yet, this protective notion protects the trauma, not me.
This is not the painful practice that will be a freedom from pain.
This practice of protecting the pain
might create an imbalance that brings it back again.
And so I have to let it go.
I heard a Pauite elder say
that endless grief can make us sick
and even hurt those who love us.
We have to learn to be human beings again, he said.
“We are small. And we don’t know everything.
Nature can teach us things.”
Caught in my mind,
I forget I have a body
that can work out the inside problems by itself.
By a simple moving through the world.
What it takes, is this subtle noticing
a mind of care, for my own wants and needs.
A hand to the wind—
A vision through the drainage
of down trees, and bogs
to get to that far ridge
where the walk doesn’t end, but, begins
at next days first light.
and again, and again, and again….