Q: I am 52 years old and have severe arthritis in my hips and knees that causes me great pain. I do various exercises and take medication and herbs to treat it. Sometimes they help, but often they don’t do anything. I am left with feelings of defeat, fear, and anger. I even get angry at God for doing this to me. I know that is not the right attitude, but I don’t know how else to feel. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Arthritic pain can be intolerable and difficult to treat. I am glad you are doing various treatments. It’s natural to become upset when we hurt and seem to suffer without explanation. Illnesses are a natural part of the human condition at this time. We expect our bodies to function perfectly for a long time. They may have this potential, but most of us are afflicted with some physical ailment. It’s helpful to allow ourselves to feel our reactions fully—anger, hurt, confusion, resentment, and fear. Additionally, researchers are now discovering an ancient truth—that when we stop resisting the pain and simply allow ourselves to feel it, whenever possible, it actually changes into other sensations and even relaxes. As the mind stops judging, resisting, analyzing, and hating the pain (something we have done most of our lives), it opens up to other ways of being with the body. If we can simply allow the pain and feel into it a bit, we see and experience it very differently. We feel its intensity, pulsing, heat, tightness, without the mind categorizing it and making it bad or good.
There is a lot of personal growth and maturity that people experience through limitation and illness. Firstly, it teaches us to not take for granted the health we do have. Thus, we become more grateful. Second, slowly we learn to endure pain with a little more ease and grace. This teaches us acceptance and humility. Lastly, through our own suffering we learn to identify with others who are hurting in their own ways. Thus, our understanding and compassion deepen.
Q: I recently read an article you had written on the benefits of meditation. But I can hardly concentrate for more than a minute. My mind is so busy with thoughts. Is there a way to help the mind calm down so it’s not so difficult and I’ll be motivated to sit everyday?
A: Yes, there are specific methods that can assist concentration and proper practice of meditation. As you know, meditation has many uses: stress reduction, relaxation, easing pain, reducing illness such as heart disease, and dealing with emotional challenges such as anxiety and depression, to name just a few.
The key to concentration is breath. When you first sit down take five to ten very deep breaths: inhaling, holding, and exhaling very slowly. This will immediately relax the body and start calming the mind. Keep your eyes closed and your body upright, but relaxed. Then begin attending to the movement of your breath in and out of your nostrils and body. It’s natural for the mind to wander; when you notice it doing so, gently come back to noticing the breath. This is a simple and powerful technique. You can do it at home or in a waiting room of an office. You may want to silently repeat a word, such as peace or calm or joy each time you breath in and breath out. This will give you an additional focus and a quality your mind can meditate on. At the beginning you can also have meditative music in the background. With regular practice, you won’t need it. You will enjoy the deep silence within and around you.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393. www.wholenesstherapy.com