Well-Being//

What I Learned From Meditating With Pain

Or, how some mindfulness turned a painful experience into something beautiful.

I recently had shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. The surgery is seriously painful and involves weeks of rocking the must-have fashion accessory of an arm and shoulder immobilizer followed by months of rehab. While there’s a certain appeal to sitting at home for weeks binge watching Netflix and eating powerful painkillers like they were skittles, I can report it gets really old. I needed to get out of the damn apartment- to get some fresh air, a change of scenery and interaction with people. There was just one problem: being out on the street was rage inducing.

For the first six weeks after this kind of surgery it’s possible to undo the fix if you get jostled hard enough or fall down, along with pain from movement that ranges from annoying to nausea inducing. I live in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, so my sidewalk consists of tourists with heads down on phones to document their trip on social media, people on bikes on sidewalks, skateboarders bombing hills, shoppers comparing vintage store hauls- you get the picture. My anger was so intense I found myself reluctant to go out – rage walking around the neighborhood was more unpleasant than being cooped up.

Though I had initial reluctance, years of practicing mindfulness has taught me that strong emotion can be an invitation to practice. Many times the strong emotion is telling us something is important. So I spent some time examining and unpacking what was going on. What I found out was pretty wild. When I felt the anger coming on, I stopped for a second and checked out what was going on in my body and thoughts. I noticed I was generating fantasies in my head about getting hurt – that the person walking backwards would walk into me, the kid on the skateboard would knock me over, the car wouldn’t stop for the stop sign and so on.

The kicker is that none of this actually was happening. I was creating an augmented reality in my head and that was making me furious. The real reality was that almost all people noticed me in a huge arm immobilizer and took appropriate care. For those who didn’t I could nudge them out of the way with my other arm or if get away from them if need be. No doubt there was still some real risk, but the anger was completely out of line with the actual situation.

Overlaying present time experience with augmented reality is a common thing for us humans. We can have imaginary arguments that we win or we get our way – we convince that person with different political sees the folly of their beliefs, where the person who cuts us off in traffic gets what’s coming to them in the form of a fireball rollover (or at least a ticket… ) This is our mind using it’s creativity and imagination to help manage our aversion to whatever reality has dished up for us. This can feel pretty good. Conveniently, in my augmented reality, I’m always right, strong and smart and the person I’m pissed off at is wrong. The downside of overlaying augmented reality is that we suffer because our stories frequently diverge from reality and we’re caught up in our fantasies, frequently isolated and afraid.

When I slowed things down and got curious about the mental talk, body sensation and internal images around going outside, I found that before the augmented reality anger there was fear and aversion about being vulnerable. I’m OK with anger in a way I am not with vulnerability. Digging into vulnerability make me realize in a way I had never felt before how women walking alone at night, disabled people on transit, gay couples holding hands, black people around cops or trans people just being in the world can feel – a vulnerability just for being out in public. This deep empathy felt like thunder, opening a degree of understanding about other people that had not been anywhere as deep previously. Though it came with some guilt and sadness about not operating without this deep level of empathy for a long time, on the whole it was deeply empowering in both cultivating an ability to not create my own augmented reality anger machine, but also in the sense of connection and solidarity with people with different backgrounds and experience. This is a combination that equips you to meet life’s difficulties with strength, grace, connection and compassion.

Plus, I was able to get out of the apartment.

Bill is the Superintendent of Well-Being at Google. His team’s mission is to help Googlers live and work in sustainable ways that allow them to be their most effective and happy selves, as individuals and as an organization. And ultimately create a better world.

Before embarking on a career in the intersection of individual and organizational well-being, Bill was responsible for worldwide production engineering as the Senior Manager of the web search infrastructure and logging teams and then as the Site Reliability Engineering lead for Gmail, Chrome and Google Apps.

Outside of work, Bill is vice-chair of Veteran’s PATH, a nonprofit teaching mindfulness to veterans, an advisor to several for-profit and non-profit organizations and a dharma teacher in training with Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. 

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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