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Working With Pain

A couple of weeks ago I read some advice to artists suggesting that they should identify and write about what attracted them to the subject/object of their work. It advised that in the process they would come to understand what they are trying to communicate through their work. The following day a friend, herself and artist, writer and educator, was looking over my “painting a day” collection and recommended that I write about this process - how working within constraints both self imposed and externally imposed had resulted in this practice, and what this practice was teaching me. I had received the same message two days in a row from different sources, and concluded I better pay attention.

Since then I’ve been pondering what to write and how to approach the subject. Part of the reason this has taken so long to write is because this is such a large topic. I have therefore decided to write a series of blogs. First some history ​ This blog will explain what instigated my current “painting a day” series. In mid June I had an accident, I fell on my recently installed, new hip and fractured my pelvis in two places. This resulted in extreme pain, and required a healing process which consisted of lying around on ice packs waiting for my body to heal itself. There was no temptation to do anything but lie around, as I could not walk or stand, the pain was so great. Intellectually I knew that this pain would not last indefinitely. My expectation was that, if I stayed prone, my marvelous body would knit itself back together and in a matter of weeks. The pain would naturally reduce as I healed. I did not know how many weeks, but I was not hopeless. I knew this full well - I would not die of this pain.

I also knew that there was no choice but to wait out the weeks for my body to heal away the pain that was pushing everything else out of my mind. I had no choice, but to accept. Physical pain brings you immediately into the present moment - your attention is completely on the here and now.

This accident debilitated me energetically as well as physically. I could not push myself to move beyond the pain. None of us wants pain. We naturally shun and resist pain. Ironically, resisting pain increases suffering. I realized that I had to hold both the willingness to heal and the acceptance of the debilitation. In doing so I opened a path to the body-soul connection. I surrendered to the fact that pain would be front and center in my life for this time period. Working into the pain, I found freedom in not trying to make the pain go away, and in so doing the energy that otherwise would go into repression was made available to me.

I am not saying I did not try to alleviate the pain. I did try that. Prescribed drugs and relaxation only partially and temporarily alleviated the pain.

I befriended the long slow work of recovery, allowing it to unfold. I was confronted with my total vulnerability, and humility. I held out hope for the recovered state while also fully experiencing the life I was graced with at the moment.

“Pain links us to other people” ​ May Sarton

Pain and injury and illness ask us to consider that our lives are worthy without justification. Through the pain I became much more grounded in my humanness and connected to others who also suffered some breakdown in their ability to live and move through everyday activities. I found that in accepting my pain, I became more aware of the pain of others. I realized in an intimate manner, that people living in pain are not simply empty shells, but full human beings. If you read my blog, you know I have an active meditation practice. Naturally, this practice became an integral part of my response to my circumstances. In general I was not trying to reduce the pain through meditation. This pain would not go away, it lasted. I used the meditation to focus my attention, to accept, to welcome this uninvited guest with some kindness, and to see what I could learn from it. When the pain was severe, I would do what is called Tonglen, I would breathe in the pain and connecting with others who are also experiencing pain, I would exhale comfort, love and compassion to them. This meditation did ease my pain, and more importantly, it reminded me that I was not alone in my experience of pain. This prevented me from becoming self-centered and viewing my pain as suffering, and then clinging to that suffering as if it was my identity.

Then I recognized something else. Beyond the pain was the enforced solitude. We all experience solitude, sometimes as being alone and sometimes as loneliness.

For many years now I have spent much of my time alone. For me, spending some time alone every day is essential. I need it for contemplation. I need it for painting. I need it for the discoveries that are impaired by noisiness and external busyness.

This was different. This was enforced solitude. Enforced solitude contains loneliness. It is aloneness without a choice. Further, once limited to one room of my house and while I could not get up and go, my world became very limited. When I accepted, even welcomed, this condition I discovered that there were benefits here as well as hardship. For one, I was prohibited from pursuing certain goals. This removed the compulsion to compare my accomplishments to others’ accomplishments. The temptation to succumb to envy was eliminated. As I mentioned, I could not help but feel vulnerable. I could not stand, I could not walk. This vulnerability also made me aware of grace. I was graced with support in a myriad of forms; people bringing me meals, coming by for a visit, walking my dog, lending me walkers and other equipment that allowed me to move off the couch. I focused my attention on that support and realized I had much to be grateful for. Becoming grateful lifted me out of my misery and mental turmoil.

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” Carl Jung

I decided to listen to the various wisdom traditions that teach you to accept whatever befalls you, to consciously examine the circumstance in a non-judgemental way, and seek where a gift can be found. To do this, I allowed the full range of emotions; including the “negative” emotions of sadness, frustration and loneliness to flow through me, without putting up resistance. I became aware of the transience of the emotions. As I allowed the emotions to visit and leave, I recognized more energy and prevented myself from spiraling into emotional suffering. So here I was, responding to my injury with all the tools in my spiritual journeyer’s bag of tricks, but I was also an artist who was unable to climb the stairs to her studio, nor stand to paint the 48” square canvas already in progress. What to do? I remembered my artist - friend Sybil Archibald’s daily practice of art. Sybil has health issues, which can become quite severe at times. Despite these issues, she creates a mono print every day and posts to Instagram with some description about her inspiration. I decided that if she can work through pain and illness, well, so can I!

As an artist, I have often set constraints to challenge myself and prevent myself from slipping into repeating comfortable patterns. This however was different, I had no say in the physical limitations. My only decisions were how to work within the constraints. I decided to limit myself to 12 x 18“ sheets of Arches Oil paper and the oils I had in my “traveling studio bag”. The couch and the coffee table in front of the couch became the command center. The pain and suffering were transformed into a catalyst for creativity. Doing the artwork gave me a focus apart from the pain and physical limitations. The pain did not cease while I worked, but it was no longer my central focus. The energy that accompanied the work provided a kind of focus that gave me a sense of control. Here I am, utterly vulnerable, unable to stand or walk and now I had some control.

The blogs that follow will talk about the work done, under constraints not set by my intellect as a challenge, but by my circumstances.

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