A Room with a View: Connecting Mind-Body-Spirit through pain

Following from Ruth Herd’s post last week about her PhD experience, I share some insights about physical pain. When I got home to Canada last year, one of the primary complaints I had about the PhD experience was how diminished I felt in relation to my body and spirit when it was all over. I may have said on occasion, “I’m not just a brain!” This weekend, I experienced an emotional meltdown that in hindsight, was another instance of my spiritual consciousness waking up from a deep slumber. Many, many, many wise people have been here before me. I don’t think anyone’s journey through pain is glamourous, so here’s my messy, tragic tale.

In my meltdown, I learned that what I fear the most always feels as bad as I think it will. I anticipated the catastrophe because I have experienced it in different versions of having to face my Self. However, I am forever baffled that I never learn that I can’t actually avoid the pain. It always comes eventually, yet I insist on gripping so tight to an illusion of safety and security for as long as possible, for no other reason than that pain hurts. The tragedy for all pain-denialists is the conditioned response in this important moment of spiritual and emotional development – to choose not to hurt, even if it’s not long-lasting or best for us in the end.

The inevitable happened. I fell. HARD.

I also always forget that when you get to the bottom of that fall, relief emerges from the realisation that you are as deep down as you can go, and you no longer have to prevent it from happening! It’s done! The labour that resistance requires is almost as taxing as the fall itself, so “letting go” is not about staying afloat (wishful thinking) but abolishing all delusions of control and allowing the fall to happen so that at least you can come back up. If you don’t let go, and acknowledge the pain, you can’t commit to really healing.

In the depths of the dark, I experienced a shift in my internal dialogue after three weeks of “enduring” the unreasonable torture of back pain, and continuing to work and travel. My mind of course wanted only to deal with my sore back. I am naturally an optimist and my comfort zone looked like forced optimism, but really, it was mind trickery and distraction. This is hard dialogue to kick when the lines between being passionate about what you do, and being a workaholic are indistinguishable:

“It will get better”

“It could be worse”

“After this ­­­­meeting/event/deadline, I’ll have a good sleep and be back on my feet!”

Nonetheless, after three weeks of pain medication and eventual forced bedrest, an intuitive certainty grew that I needed to go up a level – I would have to take the stairs that I seldom climb, and shine a light into the dark recesses of my consciousness where mind, body and spirit co-exist. In this instance, Spirit elbowed optimism aside and the truth came to light, I hurt. That was all it took to open the floodgates of emotion. I cried, and cried, and cried.

My ego made a valiant effort to find validation in there too through moments of feeling sorry for myself, asking “why me?” But that is of course the fickleness of ego asking the wrong question ­– that’s like asking why am I feeling my own life? Uhhhh…because it’s my life…and I am in it. DUH. You’re the main event Dr Kelly. The simplicity of “I hurt” was transformative to bypass ego and a powerful statement to re-align mind, body and spirit to see how my inaction and ignorance to the source of pain was also negligence. The fall was epic but the honest dialogue that followed was, and is just as important. This opening brought into focus an obvious truth that I’m in pain, and I’ve been in pain for a long time. These are some of the questions and lessons I’m learning:

EMOTIONAL
What is the emotional pain that I have endured, but not dealt with? What is the emotional pain that is mine? What is the emotional pain that I carry that belongs to others? What lessons do I take from moments of crisis that prepare me for long-term resilience? How can I fully process pain and trauma to release and move it outside of my body?
Lesson: Just because I’m emotionally resilient in crisis does not mean I’ve dealt with the residual effects of pain and trauma.

PHYSICAL

  1. I cannot bear more weight than my own body due to compression of the disc in my back. Even a heavy jacket is too much.
    Lesson: I MUST only deal with essential needs and issues. I MUST accept anything that lightens the load.
  2. I cannot move quickly.
    Lesson: SLOW DOWN. Part of slowing down is accepting that healing happens in the space between: Between people, meetings, to-do lists, thoughts, coming, going, doing and productivity. “Stop the glorification of busy!” As long as my energy is diverted elsewhere, it’s not focused inward and one way or another, I would have ended up facing my pain to heal. I just chose to take the long way around. You cannot hope to heal if you do not create the space to do so.

SPIRITUAL
A friend offered some insights about understanding chakras, and locating where energy has stagnated and become blocked in our bodies. For me, this is in the root chakra and sacral chakra, although of course they are interconnected with all chakras as an energetic ecosystem that sustains our vital life forces.

What-Is-Chakra-1

Increasing my knowledge about spiritual energy has illuminated where there is alignment between:

emotionally painful events (that I have experienced, or supported loved ones to cope with) + energy blockages + lower back pain (and I’m sure, other potential pain manifestations)

If I look at the order of progression, following the signals in my pain experience: Mind (ignored it), spirit (knew), and finally body (always knows).

Lesson: I am inclined to elevate the wisdom of spirit and body and demote my mind for a while to make space for learning the creative and loving practice of balancing and opening these energy centres.

It’s been a trying lesson to take my health and wealth seriously. Now I know where to find the stairs, that I need to have the courage to climb them, to bring my flash light, and instead of subduing pain, bring it to light and see that instead of a fear-filled darkness, what’s up there, is a room with a view.

Dr Dara Kelly

Dara is from the Leq’á:mel First Nation and carries Sts'iales, Tahltan and Métis genealogy. She is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Business at the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University. She was a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Peter B Gustavson School of Business and has a Doctorate of Philosophy in Commerce from The University of Auckland Business School (UABS). Dara’s doctoral research explores Coast Salish gathering economy of affection in BC, Canada. Her research focuses on Coast Salish Indigenous philosophy of economy, freedom, unfreedom, wealth and reciprocity. Dara is also an alumnus of the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts at UBC where she completed her BA and is a researcher with the Mira Szászy Research Centre for Māori and Pacific Economic Development at the UABS.

4 comments

  1. I love this article. My sister Camille told me about it and I’ll be sharing it with other family. There is only good to be gained from listening to our bodies and the wisdom they hold. Thanks so much for sharing this story.

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  2. Kia ora Dara, thank you for sharing this well structured and thought out piece. Your first point about feeling diminished physically and spiritually is tough. Even though I don’t know if it’s possible to produce flourishing in the PhD process even if one is able to find better balance and take care physically, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. But the idea of all the pain you have experienced is really upsetting, in fact terrifying. Do get well quickly and thanks again for exposing this reality.

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