The rising sun brightened up the terminal as I strolled slowly through LaGuardia airport this morning. As I caught a glimpse of a fellow traveler who looked, well, like a New Yorker might at 6am in an airport, tears suddenly began to roll down my face.
Before the events of the past week, I might have been like that grumpy New Yorker, rushing around the airport, trying to get somewhere fast. Instead, there I was, walking like a turtle, unbothered by the pain my body was feeling and smiling like it was my first time ever in an airport. The beauty in that moment brought me to tears.
See, earlier this week, I had re-injured my lower back. The original injury was from maybe six years ago, and I had re-injured it a few times since then but not in the past three years. It was serious, or “advanced”, as the physiotherapist I saw a few days ago commented. My body is currently shaped like the leaning tower of Pisa. It is slanted but changes direction throughout the day, the way a sunflower chases the sun. The muscles around my spine are compensating for weakness and unconsciously searching for any relief. The week was the most physically challenging my body has faced in years. Walking was painful. Standing straight was not an option. And forget about even trying to tie my shoes.
Once my body had been horizontal for a few hours or the night, trying to get out of bed was the riskiest part of each day. Probably riskier than starting a business, eating street food in Asia or taking the subway late at night. It would take a few attempts and I might as well have been jumping out of a plane. The feeling was the same. I had no idea what was about to happen and if I would be able to stand after. Even writing this message to you, while sitting on the plane, I find myself constantly shifting every few minutes in my seat, as no one position feels quite right.
Yes, a lower back injury can be intense.
Back to this morning. As I watched the sun begin to illuminate the airport terminal, it also began to shine a light on my experience this week. I had the experience of severe physical pain without any accompanying mental pain. What a foreign feeling.
I have not experienced a single ounce of mental agitation, stress, anxiety, tension, anger, frustration or worry. As I reflect on this experience, this is what has surprised me the most. My body was in severe pain and my lifestyle was flipped upside down, yet my mind stayed at peace and now feels even more calm. I accepted my new reality in a heartbeat. I guess I had no choice but to accept it. How was this possible? I’ve definitely experienced mental agitation from previous lower back injuries that were far less painful than this one. I can only assume that my mindfulness practice is at work. It must have helped create the conditions for my mind to be at ease despite my body’s pain.
To be clear, acceptance did not mean apathy. Quite the opposite. I chose to work from home, reschedule a number of meetings, go for daily acupuncture or physiotherapist visits, purchased heat pads, took pain killers, changed my diet to further reduce any inflammatory foods and napped often on the hard floor. All of this action arose from a sense of responsibility for my body, not from a place of fear for my body.
Last night, while speaking with my mom on the phone, she asked me how I felt. I shared with her that the way I feel about my back injury is how I might choose to feel about the weather. “Oh look, it’s raining outside”. Aware yet detached.
The practice really starts with learning to see reality as it is. Once I can see reality, I can accept it. Once I can accept it, I can take action. I also understand that everything changes, and the pain I notice in my body will also change. And it has. My body feels much better now.
What brought me to tears this morning was a deep feeling of gratitude that I could actually walk. Simple movement brought me so much joy, after I had experienced just a few days of lack of movement. The tears shined a light on a few of the simple fortunes in my life that I take for granted.
A teacher once shared that “in life, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.'' The experience in the past week has helped me understand what it means to observe pain yet not suffer.
What’s fascinating now is that I’ve actually fallen in love with the pain. It has taught me so much.
I feel grounded in the awareness of the fragility of my body. I feel grateful to be able to walk, something I take for granted. I feel more present in each moment, as when my mind wanders while moving, I put my body at greater risk of injury during this sensitive time. I feel empathy towards those who cannot move their bodies as freely. I feel compassion towards others who may be suffering from pain. I feel more connected with reality. I feel clear. I feel at peace. And finally, I feel thankful for this injury, it’s the best thing that happened all week.