I’ve been back to meditation and yoga since shortly after my cancer experience in 2015. I got back to meditation first, and when I’d healed from my surgery, I returned to yoga. I’ve had generally good progress in feeling well and strong. I teach yoga now, and each time I teach, I leave feeling invigorated and satisfied.
So when my back started hurting a few weeks ago, at a time of increased stress, I wasn’t too worried. It felt like muscle tension in response to stress. (John Sarno’s Divided Mind and Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No have been wonderfully helpful in my understanding of psychosomatic influences on the body, and I highly recommend both books). I practiced mindfulness in response to the discomfort and tried to understand the nature of the tension, how I was “holding” the situation in my body, and tried to give my body what it required. It led to a deep exploration of body dialoguing, “contracts” and familial ties, and ultimately led to a shamanic journey. I still have some back pain, and yes, I’m going to the acupuncturist later this week. As a cancer survivor, I am always aware that aches and pains, fatigue and the like could be a cancer recurrence, and I want to attend to both the metaphysical and the biological needs of my being. In the meantime, this is what I can do. I think the cancers and other illnesses with psychosomatic origins come in layers of energy and behavior and environmental stressors. I’m picking away at the layers I can influence directly myself. I share here the story of this part of the healing journey. May it assist you with yours, particularly if the path is not straight, obvious or short!
I sit in therapy with my therapist, Jasmin.* I describe the sensation in my shoulder and my pelvis.
“It sounds like you’re being pulled in two different directions,” she said.
Her comment felt right. My pelvis seemed to be settling down. I want to sink into my own gravity. I thought. As I heal from complex childhood trauma and the retraumatizing nature of medical interventions, I sink deeper into my own body and inner truth. I used to be able to deny my feelings or perceptions, tamping them down with excess food or shopping or “zoning out.” The deeper my practices get, the less ability I have to separate myself from my truth. For that, I’m grateful and feel more deeply myself with each passing day. It’s a homecoming, and it’s generally joyful. But right now there’s an opposing energy.
It’s in my left shoulder. While my pelvis says, Let’s sink in deeper, my shoulder says, Oh no, oh no, oh no!
“Let’s go there,” Jasmin prompts.
I close my eyes, and I connect with the voice and the energy that are pulling me in the opposite direction. I feel very young, an infant or toddler. My eyes are closed. I can feel my mother’s presence. I can hear her saying, “I hate you. I wish you would die.” And in response, I made a vow, I’ll die for you, Mother.
I start to cry at the memory. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, if the memory is a literal, one-time event. The energy of it smacks of truth. The evidence of my life is quite clear: not only did I strive throughout my life to try not to make my weight felt by anyone, not to lean too heavily, even on those who offered, but I also subtly and not so subtly engaged in self-negating behaviors. In answer to the on-going mystery of why I would undermine myself, self-sabotage my successes, lay a vow.
The wave of grief and awareness that came with that realization grows, crests. Finally it passes.
I sit in silence, observing inward sensation and awareness. This is not the end. This is the beginning of a shift. What antidote do I need? What antidote do I possess?
Through the years I have been a parent (almost 11 as I write this), I have learned how to be a good parent. If my own son ever felt such a deep grief, I would wrap him in my arms and hold him close. I would affirm his drive to live, his right to exist. I would defend him against anyone who threatened him. The Good Mother in me is available for this part of the journey. I share this information with Jasmin.
I let the reality sink in. I am here for myself in a way my mother never could be, and I am here for myself in a way I could never before be. The pain diminishes, though it does not go away entirely. For the moment, this is complete.
Later, I think about that vow. Am I truly released? Or is a vow I made binding? It has surely felt binding.
Two lines of answer come from this inquiry.
First, I am aware that vows are binding in some way. Who will free me from this vow? Whose power do I call upon? I think about my early religious experience. Do I need a God who will step in and free me? Then something in me rebels. Vows made by infants are not legally binding; while that vow may have colored my existence for years of operating out of a childlike space, the Mother in me stands fiercely in my defense now. She advocates for me now and declares me free.
Next, I am aware of the ways in which I have, sneakily, not quite fulfilled my vow. I remember all the times I let my mother know how I suffered, whether from depression or an eating disorder or financial distress, letting her know that I was suffering, I was dying, I was playing small. See, Mom, I’m still loyal to you and not leaving you behind, my words and actions seemed to say.
But I was, actually, trying at every turn to find a way out, trying to find a loophole. How can I be fully myself, hear my calling, step fully into the Light and out of the shadows of this curse? I wondered.
Myth is a topic that arose in my inquiry. I thought of the classic Trickster. I was the kid who, when cornered by bullies, burst into genuine tears of fear and seeming submission. But as soon as the bullies abandoned their tormenting of me, and I’d gotten a block away, I turned and stuck out my tongue and cursed them, then took off running. Ha! Got away, and I got the last word in, I thought. I was submissive on the outside and scheming on the inside.
My evangelical roots would have called that deception and maybe even sin. I don’t call it that anymore. I find it to be one of the energies of life that makes me laugh now and ties me to life in a way that all my submission did not. I am alive today partly because I embody The Trickster. I am grateful for that force of life in me that strove for more, that was creative.
The earnest nature of my childish vow making – a vow which gave me a strategy for survival but which ceased to be workable beyond my childhood environment – touches my heart, and also falls into perspective now.
My back pain remains, dull now. Not too troubling, but an annoyance. I really hope it’s not cancer, I think, and wish I didn’t even have the thoughts.
I’m doing a mindfulness program (www.palousemindfulness.com) these days. In the middle of this back pain incident, I am practicing serious mindfulness, trying to stay present to what I feel and not check out.
In week three, I am doing “mindful yoga” as part of that program. In the middle of the first mindful yoga session, I am alone in my home office, doing yoga, feeling my still dully aching shoulder, and I want it to go away. I want to be done with this pain, done with the psychological, spiritual archeological dig that is my life. I want to move on, get busier with work, make more money, be hardier. Suddenly in my practice, I know what this feels like.
It’s like when I was a single mother to baby Isaac. A few weeks into parenting, it hit me: this whole “parenting thing” wasn’t going away any time soon. Sleepless nights and long days of full responsibility for another human being weren’t going to end soon. The full weight of my new role hit me. I am not going anywhere for a long time, I thought.
I lay on my yoga mat and felt the pain in my body, which got worse as I practiced, my chafing against my limitations and struggles and wept. I can’t abandon the baby, I thought. I am the baby. I am the child who wakes me in the middle of the night and who needs my kind attention by day, and I don’t get to leave her. I may want to “check out,” but there is nowhere else to go.
I feel a small sense of relief as I surrender to this reality. The resistance to reality adds to the suffering that only increases the pain.
The next day, I sit in meditation again. My pain has actually gotten worse. I have intense muscle spasm. I try to simply observe my discomfort, but it seems to require more of me. I expand my awareness and call on my “Team,” my spiritual guides, ancestors and teachers. I climb a tree in my mind’s eye. I sit on a branch and wait.
A large female gorilla comes to me. She sits and takes me in her arms. I see the type of gorilla I have seen in movies, but now I feel her energy in a very personal way. She is the type of mother I didn’t have and frankly am not: she is content. She chews on a leaf, eyes soft. She is heavily, bodily present; she doesn’t strive to be anywhere else, and she is not the least bit burdened by my presence. She holds me like a tiny monkey in her arms. She tells me with silent words that she will hold me; she does not mind. She is quite happy to be where she is.
I let that sink in.
Later, as my husband hugs me and gently strokes my tender back muscles, I let him. And let him. Tears well up. I let them flow, and I sink into his arms. The gorilla Mama comes to mind. She invites me to let the nurturing in. It’s not a burden to those who love me.
My back still hurts. I am not done. One reason I need to publish this piece is to help other trauma survivors know that it’s okay for there to be layers and iterations. If and when we begin to look at the psychological and spiritual influences on our body’s symptoms, it’s easy to feel some level of self-blame for our pain and suffering. I share this story because it has taken decades of therapy and my own professional studies and reading to learn the tools I employ, and even that doesn’t “fix” everything all the time. Sometimes, things resolve very quickly. Sometimes, like now, they do not.
Some of our answers come from within; some come from other people and other people’s gifts; some come from spiritual guides. And we don’t get a guarantee that “healing” will mean we have no pain. My suffering has diminished. I feel so much more able to be with myself, as I am, and with my life. Between these meditations, prayers, therapy sessions, and yoga practice times is life. I cook meals, eat with my family, go to work (or find a sub because I can’t teach right now). Life goes on, but I’m not making my pain worse by my resistance to it. I am not entirely well, but I feel so much more healed than when I began to deal with this a couple weeks ago.
Wishing you peace on your own healing journey, whether it is simple and clear or something else today.
*Jasmin Cori is a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado with a deep understanding of trauma. She has written multiple books, including, The Emotionally Absent Mother and Healing from Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide. Her contact information and books may be found at www.jasmincori.com.