“Live in the moment it’s the only reality you have.” In some shape or form this sentence has sat on my shoulder for most of my life, leading me down the road to some incredible life experiences and also some dark and dismal dead ends. Either outcome, life is never boring and when it is I know it is time to dust off this sentence, find out where I have gone astray and get back in the driving seat. There is no point in planning meticulously for what might never happen, or worry about what already has. A wise chap once said to me that today is happening for the first time ever and will never happen again, so enjoy it before it becomes yesterday and you missed your chance.
So what has this got to with rehabilitation, pain, osteopathy or exercise? Strangely enough everything.
‘Perception is the recognition and interpretation of sensory stimuli based chiefly on memory.’ – Stedman’s medical dictionary.
‘Be careful what you wish for as it might just happen.’
We have all been in the situation where we have been invited to a party and we know every minute is going to feel like an hour. The host is going to tell the same stories again and again about his business prowess, his wife is still on the eternal diet and going to make sure we all know it. On go the uncomfortable shoes and the trousers which feel like they have shrunk a little more since the last time they had an airing. The shirt is buttoned up, the noose like tie is fastened around the neck and the uniform for the dismal evening is complete. There is no way this is going to be an enjoyable experience and as predicted it is not.
From Kylie to back pain
Based around our previous experiences our minds are able to effortlessly fill in the gaps. This can be incredibly useful as it saves us consciously considering and planning every action we take. Imagine how exhausting it would be to pre-plan every step we took or every letter we wrote. It also serves us by creating a data base of associations which keep us safe. For instance placing your hand on a hot oven hurts. Note to self – do not to repeat this activity every time you remove the casserole from the cooker.
Where things start to break down is when perception becomes presupposition and outcome is decided in advance. We are no longer living in the moment but instead reliving our past again and again as if it was ground hog day. Last time we went to Mr and Mrs X’s dinner party it was a tedious affaire so it will be again. Kylie could have dusted off the gold hot pants and tap danced across the dinner table but the evening was doomed to mediocrity before it had even begun. What we perceive to be true becomes self fulfilling and interpretation becomes reality. This is possibly not so useful. As this is an osteopathy blog, let’s take the example above and map it over to chronic pain.
Mrs Y has always had a bit of a stiff back, but an ice pack and a few ibuprofen seem to do the trick and life goes on. One morning (April the 5th 2012 at 5.45am on a slightly overcast day to be exact) while bending down to pull on her socks she hears a pop and her back instantly goes into spasm. After seeing countless specialists who diagnose her with a severe slipped disc (horrible word this as it conjures up all sorts of images of discs squirting out all over the place) she is advised to rest up in bed till the pain goes away and to avoid any kind of lower back flexion or risk making the problem yet more severe. As the days turn into weeks Mrs Y slowly starts to move around again, but the back pain never goes away. There are some days that are better than others, but a flare up is always only just round the corner. Every time she puts on her socks her mind goes back to the image of the squirty slippery disc that caused her pain and a voice in the back of her head reminds her “make sure you don’t flex your back”. Just the thought of bending down now causes her back muscles to start to spasm and that familiar feeling of sciatica begins to creep down her leg again. Mrs Y can no longer see her self without pain. The spinning wheel on the Mac computer monitor of life flashes up and the screen becomes frozen as she is tagged with the title of ‘chronic pain sufferer’. Everyday becomes April the 5th 2012.
Pain + past emotion + interpretation = a reinforced cycle of pain
There is no such thing as reality
Two people can sit in the same room and witness exactly the same thing but based on their interpretation have two completely different experiences. Myself and my girlfriend can sit at the same table, enjoy the same meal, but she will see the plate coming out and think what a massive portion that could feed a family of five, while I will think that it looks like a tasty snack that will last me till I get home and can empty the fridge. Chunk that up and you can see how this could relate to body image, relationship dynamic, guilt, fear , etc., and this is one isolated incident. These interpretations takes place with every sentence we hear, every site we see, every interaction we make. Subconsciously our identity, beliefs and values are always at work filtering, perceiving, interpreting and filling in the gaps for us, all without us even being aware. We create our own reality which in turn becomes our slightly distorted version of ‘living in the moment’. No wonder we end up in global wars and conflict.
The space of not knowing
Constantly trying to interpret everything limits our openness to new experiences. If that meal seems small it will be, if you presume that party will be tedious it will drag on and if you are convinced the most tiny amount of spinal flexion will cause hideous back pain and a disc to squirt out onto the wall behind it just might.
Chronic pain lives where there is no feedback. The computer screen has frozen, the barriers are up and nothing is getting through the beliefs and values that have been set up to protect us. We believe what we want to believe and our reality although only an interpretation becomes truth.
If we strip back our beliefs, values and interpretations all we are left with is a place of not knowing, from where we can dip our toe in the water with a childlike curiosity. From this place we can begin to inhabit our bodies and rediscover them. We can take back control for ourselves. It is here that we can be in the moment and react calmly to what is occurring around us, and once again start to learn with an authentic and honest feedback that is not tainted by what we think might happen.
Every day becomes a new day with infinite possibilities.
A quick exercise or “If you can hear your own voice get out of your head” – Matt Hudson
Is this easy? The simple answer is no. Like any habit it takes effort to break. Everyday of our lives we have been building a barricade of beliefs around which are subconscious can thrive, so to find a place of not knowing is a lifetime habit that needs creating. I have personally started taking 30 minutes for myself at the start of the day by getting off the tube 3 stops early and walking to work. At 5.30 in the morning most of London is still sleeping and I get a chance to reconnect, remind myself of everything I have to be thankful for and to set my intention for the day. It is here that I remind myself to enter into the day’s events without preconception, as if today was the very first day and to see where it takes me. Do I always succeed? Most definitely not. Like most good things it requires work and unfortunately there is no quick fix, but it has become my practice and like any practice it does become easier. Since starting it I have undoubtedly opened myself up to new experiences, new learning and the adventures are once again coming thick and fast. When I start falling back into my habitual patterns the thick Newcastle accent of Mr Hudson echoes in my ears, “If you can hear your own voice get out of your head.” In all honesty when he told me this a year ago it was an academic exercise and until recently I did not really embody it and understand it for my self, however sitting with the concept of ‘not knowing’ finally hit home in a Eureka moment just recently and it has been like taking the self limiting breaks off life.
Next time you are about to get changed for that party or you bend down to put on your socks and a little voice inside your head starts telling you what is about to happen, take a big breath in, let it all go, then get out of your head and look forward to the anticipation of not knowing. I guarantee amazing things will start to happen.