I conducted a full concert last Friday for a live broadcast, Musical Menagerie, the first full program I’ve conducted since I was in Tulsa in October (I’m shaking my head as I write this. I mean, under pre-Covid circumstances I would have had 50 concerts in the last 11 months, not 6. I digress). It was amazingly awesome to work, and to be playing such a huge role – I conducted, hosted, played the harpsichord during the performance and helped to script and produce too, offstage. If you want to see the fruits of my labor, check out this link to the Minnesota Orchestra website; you’ll need to create a sign-in but it’s totally free!
It was also the first time in a while in which I was waving my arms around for hours a day, and running around the stage and hall in 5-inch heels during the broadcast (I know they’re not the most comfortable thing, but I love my heels and I love being tall!). Conducting is actually quite a physical pursuit, and I’ve been really mindful of keeping my arms and shoulders in good shape with weight lifting and functional workouts. No workout quite duplicates an active conducting week, however, and now, a few days post-concert, I find myself with unusually achy shoulders, upper back and neck.
At its core, pain is helpful – it informs us that something is awry, and that we need to do something differently. Our survival as a species is predicated on our pain response. But pain, in any form and to any degree, is uncomfortable, and it’s a very human reaction to attempt to alleviate discomfort as fast as possible; I’m certainly reaching for my ibuprofen. I think most of us have experience periods of physical pain that are resolved over time. It’s unpleasant, but we can prevail knowing that there is most likely an endpoint.
What’s more challenging is chronic pain. Many of us live with that as well. Roughly defined as any ongoing pain that lasts over 6 months, it’s most often the result of injury or illness. Inflammation or nerve damage/dysfunction is the most often diagnosed cause, but the science of pain is complicated. Generally, we think of it in terms of being controlled but never fully cured; pain management as opposed to pain elimination.
Chronic pain is all about the management of expectation and the tolerance for discomfort. In my case, an early-teen surfing incident (I grew up in Hawaii) cause acute nerve compression and minor nerve damage (it was an L4-L5 issue). It hurt like hell for a few months, and then gently faded to a general ache. I assumed it would fade further, but it didn’t. For decades I’ve carried with me the chronic ache in my lower back and right leg.
It generally doesn’t dramatically affect what I do; I’m certainly more careful about the area in my lower back and keep the muscles around it strong. I do have days when it feels worse, and I’ve learned to be flexible in my approach to my body when it’s not at optimal function. It’s always there, and it’s most probably never going to go away, so I’ve learned to tolerate it.
Easier said than done. As I said, toleration of discomfort is not our natural human tendency. We would rather run away from it, wish it weren’t so, make it go away. And when none of those things happen, we feel a level of desperation, of being caught in a sensation not of our choosing, an unpleasant feeling. I know all about that.
What helped me early on, and still does now, is mindfulness, and a conscious focus on not the actual feeling of pain but the feelings around the pain. Pain is a physical sensation that can precipitate an emotional reaction. The trick is being able to separate sensation from reaction.
Here’s an exercise that has helped me from day one. Identify the source of pain, and go to it. Your back, your wrist, your hip. Examine the sensation of the pain; is it stabbing? throbbing? burning? dull? sharp? What color does it evoke? When you close your eyes, do you see it taking any sort of shape or form in your mind’s eye? I often think of it as looking at a sculpture in the middle of a room, walking around it, taking it in at all angles, finding all of the details of it.
Then: what does the sensation make you feel? anxious? angry? What feeling does the color, or the shape, evoke in you? disgust? confusion? What are you emotions around this sculpture in the middle of a room?
Of course, to be able to examine both the pain and your response to it, you need to remove yourself from both. And it’s in that removal from the source of discomfort, of being able to face it for what it is that takes away its power. My own pain is blue and squeezing; it makes me feel sullen, slow, resentful. And in facing it and naming it, the pain just becomes something that is simply a part of my experience of the world and of myself, something that is known, not mysterious and frightening. And that makes it tolerable.
As with most things in the world that frighten me, when I face it and walk towards it, its power diminishes, and mine grows.
For those of you with chronic pain, I’d love to hear about your own experiences and coping mechanisms – it’s always useful to add ideas and approaches to our arsenals – share your thoughts!