Kind promise: I will open to each moment.

PaintingOne night last week I had trouble sleeping. My left leg kept clenching painfully. After a spasm, I would slow my breathing and point myself toward sleep. I would just be drifting off when my muscles would jerk me awake with another contraction.

I listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Meditations for Pain Relief. In his gentle New York accent, he reminded me to “turn toward” the sensations in my leg. He helped me become aware of the part of me that was not in pain – my witnessing mind. He reminded me that, while pain may be unavoidable, suffering is optional. I didn’t go to sleep, but I kept calm vigil into morning.

This morning, my personal care assistant had a migraine. She didn’t tell me until we were part way into the day. I could see her pain in her eyes and her face. I asked her to take it gently and let me know if she needed to go home. I remember those days. (Thank goodness, I seem to have left migraines behind when I stopped menstruating.) The pain wrapped around me. Every movement was a push against the thick liquid of pain.

How can we open to such moments?

Return to the breath.
Where there is life, there is breath.

Become aware of your breath.
Notice air moving past your nostrils as you inhale.
At the top of the inhale, your body shifts into exhale without your conscious effort. As smoothly as a champion swimmer doing a flip turn, your body starts to exhale.
Notice air moving past your nostrils as you exhale.
At the bottom of the exhale, a microsecond pause and another flip turn.
Again you are inhaling.

When pain interrupts your awareness, gently return your attention to your breath. The interruption doesn’t mean anything is wrong. Returning your attention to the breath is the practice.

When the moment hurts, you can open to it by noticing and following your breath. Pain isn’t failure, it’s a place to practice. David Hilfiker reminds us, “There’s nothing to do; only live with who you are and what you’ve been given.”