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Pain Meets Compassionate Inquiry

It's been one of the most emotionally intense years of my life. Training in Compassionate Inquiry (and engaging in self-inquiry, which is part of the process) has brought me closer to the truth. That's its purpose - to show us the truth of who we are, what has shaped us, why we do what we do and feel how we feel. Not through the lens of pathology (as in "I'm depressed," or "I'm anxious" or "I have chronic pain") but with the compassionate curiosity, loving understanding, and unconditional acceptance that we'd offer a child in pain. When we can see the truth of our own experience with that level of clarity and kindness, we can break free from the unconscious forces that have driven our lives. We can choose to respond rather than react to life's inevitable challenges. We can heal.

I've been on a healing path of one kind or another since my 20s when I first developed chronic pain. For most of the past 30+ years I've pursued a physiological explanation and treatment for the pain. I exhausted every conventional and "alternative" medical tool out there. I had four back surgeries, including a spinal fusion. I've done PT, massage, chiropractic, acupuncture. I tried every form of movement - aquatherapy and swimming, yoga, pilates, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, expressive dance, strength training, walking, biking. I tried NOT moving even to the point of bed-rest. I have closets full of heating pads, cold packs, back pillows, neck pillows, body pillows, yoga balls, foam rollers, massage balls, resistance bands, weights, and ergonomic everythings. I've tried myriad food elimination and super-food diets (to the point of orthrorexia). I've had tests of my adrenals, microbiome, nutrient deficiencies, toxins, viruses and bacteria, candida, leaky gut and I'm sure I am forgetting some. And who knows how many thousands of dollars I've spent on supplements.

It's not just that none of those led to a resolution of the pain. They probably made it worse. How, you ask?

They all reinforced the belief that the pain was caused by something I was "doing" and that it could be fixed by "doing" something else. That there was a cause and therefore a fix. And that I had to find it. And that I had to fix it. To figure it out. That it was my fault that I wasn't healed.

I can't tell you how many times I heard or read some testimonial from some healer about how the XYZ approach or treatment "healed them." And now they sharing it with the world because they "figured it out." I didn't find these inspiring. I found them painful. They reinforced the shame. Why haven't I healed?

Then there's the well-meaning people who ask "have you tried...?" "My great aunt Sally had chronic pain and she went on the keto diet with apple cider vinegar cleanses and she's totally healed," they'd tell me. Or "did you hear about that woman who had pain like yours and she healed herself with an infrared sauna?" (yes, I spent $1500 one of those).

I'd get a pit in my stomach hearing these stories. My mind would again launch into its narrative of blame and shame. It said, "you're just not trying hard enough." Or worse, "part of you doesn't want to heal. Subconsciously you must be hanging on to this pain."

Searching for a "cause" or a "fix" is the world's biggest set up for people with chronic symptoms. It is impossible. Given the complexity of the human body, it's physical, mental and emotional environment, and all the factors that influence it, it's folly to believe we can find a magic bullet for complex, multisystemic, and medically elusive conditions. Sure, there are treatments that provide symptom relief for some people, some of the time. But they don't answer the bigger question of "what's wrong."

I spent decades with the question "why" and never got an answer. I got a lot of stress and frustration, hope and disappointment, rage. And shame. So much shame.

I've seen this over and over again with others with chronic pain and other syndromes (like ME/CFS, IBS, chronic Lyme, Long-COVID, POTS, migraine, vertigo). Toxic shame on top of the already tortuous experience of living with illness, pain, and disability.

Toxic shame. Mine did not begin with the chronic pain - it's origins go back to early childhood. That's a story for a different time. But it is also a very common theme, not only for people with chronic health challenges. Toxic shame is debilitating, corrosive. It disguises itself as other things (perfectionism, achievement, people-pleasing, guilt, anxiety, depression). And -- when it mixes with undiagnosable pain or illness, it throws us into a unique version of hell.

Shame has to be addressed if we hope to heal.

Shame thrives in isolation and misunderstanding. It begins to whither and die when we connect with others, share our stories, see our experiences mirrored by others, and learn to reconnect compassionately with ourselves.

Healing begins with the questions "what has happened to me" and "what do I need." What is this discomfort trying to tell me? What is out of balance? How have I been injured? What am I believing about myself that isn't true? How have I turned on myself with criticism and judgment? What is the origin of those beliefs and judgments? How can I take compassionate care of myself? What does that even look like?

We don't need to DO more. We don't need more discipline to stick with some program. We need to take care. To let go. To relax. To learn to live kindly with ourselves.

I keep having to learn this lesson - over and over and over again. I may keep forgetting it and relearning it forever. The allure of the "fix" is so great, so strong. There are so many siren songs out there calling to us, promising relief if we just try again.

It really helps me to support other people on this healing path. Understanding and compassion for others comes so much more easily than compassion for myself. I imagine that's true for you, too. It's sad, the double standards we hold. How we blame and criticize ourselves for things we would never blame someone else for. This is learned behavior, training, conditioning. It developed to protect us when we were very little. It can be understood, and once it is understood, it can change.

That's why I know that compassion heals. It may be the only thing that heals. For me, healing without it proved impossible. As I cultivate compassion, I feel a kind of hope that has eluded me for three decades. Not the hope that comes from a bright light in the distance, flashing with the promise of a cure. But from inside. From coming back to my own wholeness and felt-sense of truth. "Back to" because I was born with it - born knowing what I needed, trusting that. Born believing I was entitled to unconditional care. That nothing needed to be earned or proven. That there was nothing to be ashamed of.

Pain (emotional pain or physical pain) is not a problem we need to solve. It is a message we need to heed. Listen closely, compassionately and without judgment and you will be amazed by what you hear.



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Apr 06, 2023

A wise, compassionate article from a wise compassionate woman. Thank you for sharing this.


Mar 27, 2023

Very Well explained and Insightful!


Mar 26, 2023

Well spoken and so true, but self compassion is eluding for me. It comes and goes as it sees fit! A reminder for me to be with "what is" and "ride the wave", which isn't easy. Putting out the "welcome mat" for my emotional and physical pain is necessary to examine it. Who wants to do that?? However, it is necessary to grow. Reminding myself that my emotions, and my pain are trying to tell me something is helpful. Reading your blog is affirming and insightful and I look forward to reading it, Dana!


Beautiful, and beautifully said. I keep having stress symptoms, and this really helped me remember the basics. It’s not a migraine, heartburn, fibromyalgia that’s the problem—it’s having compassion for myself. Thank you!

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