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Golden Moment

Crisp air, sunshine, green grass, vegemite and apple sandwich on fresh white bread, freshly squeezed orange juice, … and my mother. I was the youngest, smallest, sickliest, runt of five children in a family in chaos and this was precious time alone with my mother with mental illness, who I had mostly experienced as not present. And the reason for this precious time was yet another bout of bronchitis.

I was a young child but this was already a recurring illness that had begun at the age of two with pneumonia. I cherished this space from the outside world, which already seemed scary, and this feeling of being nurtured and loved. Until recently there have been very few moments in my life to rival this exquisite golden moment of love.

What followed was a pattern; an internal battle between wanting to be strong to keep up with my siblings, to ’show them’, and being sick. Bronchitis became asthma, a near-fatal tick poisoning at 11, back pain, depression and anxiety, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, dangerous births and finally Multiple Sclerosis. I developed an identity as a ‘sick person’, that was my place in the order of life.

All this illness was woven with rowing, sailing, tennis, dancing, walking, natural birth, and, and, and … to prove I wasn’t the runt of the litter, any litter not just my family. I felt defiant independence that waxed with a crippling emotional dependence. A desperate need to be different and an equally desperate need to be loved. It was a rollercoaster, perhaps a physical expression of my mother’s bipolar disorder.

And underneath this physical battle lurked the increasing feeling of madness. A guilty secret that I couldn’t tell anyone, not even myself. My cover was arrogant calm, a demeanour that kept people at a distance, and the personal identity of a sick person who was doing her best. This madness manifested with my family, when I was premenstrual, post-natal anxiety that lasted long after the birth of my children and finally, clinical depression.

Yes, I had MS, yes, I was in a wheelchair, yes, my marriage was dissolving and I was facing an uncertain future but really, I had just run out of cover. I had exhausted my energy to not be mad, and I was in the open and exposed. This is where healing began.

As I reflect on my life, I can see the reality in the story. My illnesses were all diagnosed in the evidence-based medical world; I have brain scans, blood tests, ultrasounds, surgeries, hospital records and reports, there have been real traumas. Yet I can also see the story, in reality, they are inextricably entwined.

The story gave me an identity when I felt lost but it also interfered with my healing. I didn’t know how to be well. It also caused me inexplicable guilt; that I may have caused my illness or that it really may not have been real, that I have caused my own suffering and the suffering of my children.

The reality has caused me pain, disability and disadvantage, And as I have travelled my healing journey, I have swung between addressing the reality of physical illness and addressing the story of my mental and emotional identity.

I am now understanding that the key to my own healing, and possibly healing more generally, is to embrace the wholeness of my experience of life, in the cultural context I have grown. It is not reality or story, physical or mental, physical or emotional, physical or spiritual, it is ‘and’ – reality and story, physical and mental and emotional and spiritual healing.

I am learning the importance of progressing my whole self and embracing the technologies, both ancient and modern, that are available in modern western culture. We are embodied, social beings who experience life emotionally and mentally. We have histories that bring us both suffering and joy and impact on our relationship with ourselves and the world around us.

Disruption to any aspect of our whole results in disruption to the whole hence healing requires a holistic approach. Healing the whole is what I bring to my students and clients. I have learned that the reality and the story are not independent, and there is no ‘wrong’ in this interlinking, it just is.

If we can remove fear and guilt from reality and story, we can allow both to be seen in their totality, with kindness and compassion.  The issues that are exposed by this gentle awareness can then be addressed, limiting wrongness and guilt, and ultimately reducing suffering.

For example, a client who has been suffering a chronic condition for three years will have grown an identity around being chronically ill. Without awareness, this identity may interfere with healing and create confusion and further suffering. With gentle, non-judgmental awareness she can notice the expression of this identity and manage her choices accordingly. Consequently, her whole being moves along the healing journey, with congruence across all layers of experience.

My golden moment of feeling nurtured in the context of suffering was formative. For a long time, I thought the lesson was to seek to be nurtured through suffering but now I understand the lesson is to look for joy and peace in the context of suffering. This is what I share with my students and clients.

My journey has taught me to understand the importance of care in the world of healing. The intersection of reality and story and the need to yoke all the layers of our experience into one intertwined peace – yoga.

Lynnette Dickinson is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, and teaches yoga, relaxation and meditation in Canberra and via Skype or phone. Classes, personalised programs and yoga therapy. Visit Listen to Lynnette telling her story click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2, and be inspired.

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Pain - Drugs are not the only way

Public health policy desperately needs to re-frame its recommendations regarding the management of chronic pain or we will drown under escalating healthcare costs and effects of the increased consumption of prescription pain pharmaceuticals.

Add to this the treatment of associated depression and anxiety with antidepressants/anti-anxiety medications and people with chronic pain end up taking a cocktail of very powerful psychoactive chemicals, all funded by our public and private health system.

But there is another way…

Two weeks ago, on the slopes of Naeba Snow Resort in Yuzawa, Japan, I began developing a migraine. It was not a normal headache, with pain in the temples and ache across the forehead but a change in the pressure of my skull, altered balance and vision, sensitivity sound and light, breath becoming laboured and the deep ache that begins at the base of my skull.

At the time, I was on a ski lift, on the way to the top of an intermediate ski slope and there was only one way down from there, or at least one preferred way of going down. So, I began to consciously relax my body and breath, taking my awareness inside my body. Meditation was the Ace up my sleeve.

I found the muscles that were holding tension and released the tension with my out-breath. instantly felt my mind become more spacious and the migraine begin to soften, as I focussed my attention on the back of my skull.

Now the more difficult stage of skiing down the slope.

Skiing is still relatively new to me, not yet in automatic body memory. I only learnt to ski two years ago, as a 49-year-old person with MS, so every run still contains a certain amount of wonder and trepidation. The normal unknowns of skiing combined with the extra ingredient of not knowing if any of my limbs or faculties would spontaneously fail.

So, standing at the top of the slope, I once again slowed my breath and awakened all my senses. I centred, pointed my skis down the slope and skied. I stopped thinking about getting to the bottom and simply focussed on the present moment, this turn and the next.

When I got to the bottom I felt elated. Not only the best skiing I had done up to that point but for the whole run I hadn’t been aware of the burgeoning disturbance in my Central Nervous System (CNS).

I retired to the nearest café and within half an hour my symptoms slowly returned. I decided to withdraw into meditation for the afternoon to see if I could kick this migraine while my daughter and partner returned to the slopes.

Adjusting my posture again, my breath slowed as I relaxed through my body and withdrew my focus from the outside world. I brought my attention to my brain and consciously created space with my inhalation and softened my attention with my exhalation. Then went inside the pain, focussing on dissolving the inflammation with my breath.

This is how the next hour and a half passed – sitting in a busy café in stillness, dissolving the pain and inflammation in my head with my breath. People came and went, I was aware of their conversation but my choice was to focus my attention inward. One of the terms we use to describe the state of meditation is relaxed alertness and this perfectly describes my mind state during this hour and a half.

By the time my daughter and partner returned my symptoms had diminished considerably. I felt relaxed and at peace. I was still very conscious of keeping myself centred with my breath and my posture but contrary to the predictable path of a migraine, my symptoms further reduced through the evening. I woke the next morning with a crystal clear central nervous system. 

During the whole afternoon and evening, I had taken two paracetamol tablets. I took them after the worst symptoms had passed, more as a prophylactic against further symptoms occurring while I was walking around in the snow trying to find food.

Chronic pain conditions, including migraine, are costing our health systems millions of dollars a year – increasing prescription of powerful pharmaceuticals, lost productivity, increased mental health issues related to the experience of pain and the side-effects of pain medication.

Prescription pain medications are becoming an increasing cause of addiction and death across the US and Australia as doctors use stronger drugs and off-label prescriptions in a desperate attempt to manage escalating rates of chronic pain in our communities. Added to this is the increased risk of liver and gastrointestinal damage, cognitive damage and autoimmune conditions.

Patients want a life without pain and doctors want to provide a solution but as my story demonstrates, drugs are not the only solution.

I have arthritis, three prolapsed discs in my spine and Multiple Sclerosis and I occasionally take a couple of paracetamol when the pain is at its worse and I know I will need to function in the world – three health conditions involving chronic pain and a net cost to the public health system of…well…zero. And my practice not only helps my pain management but also manages my mental health, which directly benefits my family, further reducing cost to the communoty.

Mine is not an isolated story. My clients also report that the meditation and relaxation I teach is a much better pain management tool than conventional pharmaceuticals alone. Some clients combine meditation with pharmaceuticals, often reducing their dependence on pain meds and some have been able to stop their prescription medications altogether, keeping them around just in case.

Added to this anecdotal evidence is an increasing body of independent evidence from respected academic institutions to support an integrated medical approach to chronic pain management. Therapeutic Yoga, meditation, relaxation, tai chi, hypnotherapy, massage and acupuncture have all been shown to have an equal or better impact on patients’ experience of pain as pharmaceuticals.

Pain clinics are emerging in capital cities, offering a range of treatments for pain management (including mindfulness, massage and hypnotherapy) but too often these clinics are private and expensive, out of the reach of the average person. When the services are available through public health, they are usually funded for short courses which simply doesn’t support individuals developing a sustainable personal practice.

Imagine a trip to your local GP for pain and you leave with a prescription for mild pain meds and a referral to multidisciplinary clinic, offering meditation, relaxation, gentle yoga, tai chi, hypnotherapy, therapeutic massage and acupuncture. Everything designed to support the development of your own long term pain management practice.

This approach would not only help to manage your pain but would also support your whole wellbeing, mentally and physically. My story shows this is can be a reality if we personally and publicly take the leap.

Lynnette Dickinson is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, and teaches yoga, relaxation and meditation in Canberra and via Skype or phone. Classes, personalised programs and yoga therapy. Visit Listen to Lynnette telling her story click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2, and be inspired.


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