I have shingles. For those of you who don’t know, shingles is a result of the same virus that causes chicken pox. The virus remains dormant and sometimes resurfaces later in life. It goes after nerve endings. In addition to a rash, it causes weird stinging, itching, burning, and aching sensations across one side of the body. It lasts 3-5 weeks. No one wants shingles.
Full confession – I could have avoided this. After my treatment for leukemia, my doctor prescribed an anti-viral so that I could be protected against getting shingles. I chose not to take it because “I’m not going to get shingles.” The doctor was kind and firm – “If you have seen as many people as I have suffer through this, you would take the anti-viral.” My doctor is a good guy who has been incredibly wise throughout my treatment – why would I not follow his instructions? Because I am human. This makes me capable of rationalizing anything – even when I have no evidence to support my decision.
So here I am with shingles. Today I asked my pharmacist, “Is there anything to do other than weather the discomfort?” His reply? “Not really.” My reply? “Poop.”
The good news? I have been practicing and teaching mindfulness for many years. This gives me a way to work with chronic discomfort other than just resenting it. Don’t get me wrong, I do not like the experience of itching, burning, and aching skin across half my body. Occasionally, I find myself holding my breath in resistance to the sensations. And, when I do become aware of this, I can shift and accept the discomfort as part of my experience right now.
No matter what, it takes a certain amount of energy to work with chronic discomfort. To engage in resisting, resenting, complaining, and blaming takes even more energy. I can’t make the discomfort go away, but I can choose how I work with it.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing awareness to the direct experience of the moment with as much acceptance as possible. This practice does not transform the sensations into something pleasant, but it does help reduce the struggle that I am capable of adding to the situation.
Sometimes I even get a small glimpse of gratitude for my shingles. After all, the practice of acceptance is more challenging, and generally more fruitful, in the presence of a worthy adversary. I believe that I will ultimately be better off for having had the experience. Because more discomfort is bound to show up in my life – it is a normal part of the human condition. I may as well use this experience to gain skill for working with whatever may be around the corner. And having said all of that, I have to imagine that I will feel a sense of relief when this discomfort passes.
In addition to working with physical pain, mindfulness has helped me work more skillfully with uncomfortable emotions. I am less reactive, less resistant, and more willing to let go of what I cannot control than I used to be. Challenging emotions flow more gracefully through me as I put less and less energy into suppressing them. I can now see the difference between expressing an emotion as an opportunity to connect with others and expressing emotions as an attempt to escape discomfort.
Mindfulness practice may not be for everyone. However, I can say that it has made an enormous difference in my relationship to life. It is not always easy being human – there are plenty of challenges in this complicated adventure. And…being human is always a miracle. Mindfulness helps me show up for the miracle more of the time.