In Praise of Chronic Pain: A Stoic Meditation
by Marco Bronx
He was a man of such a kind that when he was struck by any difficulty, he would write in praise of it; if fever was his lot, in praise of fever, if disrepute, in praise of disrepute, if exile, in praise of exile. – Epictetus
When I first read Epictetus’ quote above, I knew I had to revive this stoic exercise for myself. Just 5 years ago I’d been at the point of suicide. And both stoicism and suicide taught me the same lesson: gratitude is the art of living.
The last time I thought of suicide was on November 6th, 2011. It was our 3rd anniversary together with my girlfriend Haley and we celebrated with a dinner at Morton’s Steak House. I didn’t want to think of suicide, but I just couldn’t help myself. The excruciating pain in my neck, shoulders and jaw muscles wouldn’t let me think of anything else. It dominated the past three and a half years and it only seemed to be getting worse.
If you looked at the Facebook photo from that night, you’d see Haley sitting in a chair with a huge smile on her face and I’m standing behind her, my hands on her shoulders with a faint, weak smile trying desperately to hide the torrential feelings of misery overwhelming me inside. Despite that, we still got the obligatory Facebook likes, comments and congrats from friends and family.
What if I have to live like this for the rest of my life? Will I have to suffer every day, ever hour, every minute, every second for the next 40 years??
What if it continues to get worse and I become bedridden? How will I earn a living? How will I make any girl happy? Will I become dependent on Haley or my family?
I’d rather die than having to face a lifetime of endless and maddening chronic pain every moment. To wake up to another day of this kind of intense, relentless pain was terrifying to think about. It was becoming downright debilitating and with it, came a shameful new view of myself.
If that’s all I had to look forward to, then joy for me was an impossibility. For the past four years, all previous attempts to improve my condition had failed, and with it, the last of my remaining hope.
My future was bleak.
So there was Haley, smiling as she always does, radiating joy like the angel she is and proud to be by my side for three years – and completely oblivious to the fact that at that very moment, I was quietly yet soberly considering ending it all. With several undergrad degrees, she wasn’t slow or insensitive. I just refused to be honest with her or myself about the reality – and that reality was knocking louder and louder.
Of course, I loved her and happy to be with her, but how much longer could I keep this going? She was the one bright spot in my life, but if it meant a lifetime of physical pain with no relief in sight, then even love wasn’t enough.
That’s what the photo from 2011 represented to me – the opposite of everything I was before then. I grew up with Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill, Steven Covey, Dale Carnegie and other similar authors as a teenager. I used to walk into random offices and restaurants as a college student in New York and convinced them to sign profit-sharing contracts with me. I also ran several businesses by the time I was 29. I was fearless.
I believed in the magic of thinking big and the power of positive thinking. I was that confident, outgoing, successful entrepreneur you read about in magazines… but suddenly, all that was in a past life.
Now, against my own will, I began to think seriously about how to end it. At first, I tried really hard not to… but after a short time – no matter how hard I tried – all my thoughts turned to black.
When I saw myself in that photo the next day, the stark contrast of it all – the unbearable inauthenticity of the moment – just killed me. It broke my heart.
It was the day I finally died inside.
What brought me to this point?
I’m still not sure, but near as I can figure it started in 2007 when I was working a stressful full-time job as a mortgage broker (yes, THAT 2007), and while managing an already matured real estate business and a start-up. You could say it was like juggling 2-3 full-time jobs. That’s when the pain in my left jaw started and began to get worse as the years dragged on. And after almost four years of this, I wasn’t being very effective in any business venture.
When the brain is overwhelmed with stress, it activates the amygdala and sends the mind and body into fight or flight mode. For survival reasons, our brain has evolved to overwhelmingly respond to pain – real or imagined – versus pleasure. If it senses pain or danger intensely enough and for long enough periods, the brain can get stuck in this stress mode – like a light switch that’s stuck in the “on” position.
Dealing with chronic physical pain is like performing a high-wire act. Your muscles are wound tight and so is your mind…it requires all of your focus and concentration to stay calm and balanced and if you slip slightly left or the right, you fall…but there’s no safety net. And in this case, falling means a cycle of severe pain and a long recovery period that can last days.
So to say chronic pain often brings anxiety is to put it mildly. Try watching TV while walking on a tightrope, or try socializing with friends while performing this balancing act, or working on your computer or enjoying a Mendelssohn ballet. It’s near impossible to focus on anything else at times and it’s exhausting.
Even when you get better at it, the tension of the rope changes day by day, sometimes moment to moment and you’ll fall off no matter how hard you try. But try you must. And even though the fear of falling fades a little – just like the fear of falling – it’s an instinctual reaction. Chronic pain sends danger signals to your brain and you can learn to dampen the signal but the physical pain is still there, constant and very real.
Chronic pain sends danger signals to your brain and you can learn to dampen the signal but the physical pain is still there, constant and very real.
After that night in 2011, a part of me died, but another part of me woke the hell up. It was the will to live. A deep, primal anger that I’d found myself in such a stupid, terrible situation that could end my life. If I somehow got myself into this I thought, then I can dig my dumb ass out… it was the belief that deep down, I was still better than this.
Thus began my journey to recovery. So I put everything else in my life on hold and single-mindedly focused on getting better. I told myself to just give it one more day. And then the next day, I told myself to give it one year and see what happens. Surely if I put my everything into getting better for the next 12 months, I’ll gain some improvement right?
I resolved to be more honest with myself and Haley about my struggle. That’s when I researched more seriously and within a couple weeks, found what I thought was a real diagnosis. That my pain was really TMJ pain. Soon after that, a dentist confirmed it. I also suspected I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And wouldn’t you know it – I found a psychologist to confirm that diagnosis too!
Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder(TMJD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and, I strongly suspect, Cervical Dystonia (although I can’t confirm this diagnosis due to insurance reasons). TMJ symptoms are often overlapping Cervical Dystonia symptoms that bring tight, painful muscles in the jaw, neck, shoulders and back. And they both bring about a fair amount of anxiety, social anxiety, and mental stress.
But after several doctors and tests, I stopped looking for another diagnosis and focused only on what I could control physically and mentally. On the physical side, this lead me to a physiatrist that used dry needle trigger point therapy, where he used a syringe to repeatedly stab trigger muscles into submission. I thanked him and paid him hundreds of dollars each time. The interesting thing was, as I finally experienced some physical relief, lots of my severe GAD symptoms and social anxiety began to clear up along with it!
On the mental side, I took a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Training (MBSR) course. I learned that focusing on the breath to clear the mind also brings with it a certain freedom and control over negative, ruminating thoughts… and learning to clear some of that inner dialogue brought about some mental relaxation…. and experiencing mental relaxation brought with it some physical relaxation. So I continued my mental training with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and found it was inspired and based on Stoic Philosophy, which I studied in earnest.
Over the next two years, I continued my recovery with a lot of body work and learned the Alexander Technique as well as Feldenkrais. Doing this helped me train my body to release muscular tension and I became aware of my bad habits.
Awareness of my body grew to a deeper level than I ever thought possible and I’ve distilled these lessons to a 20-minute body and mind meditation ritual that I perform every morning, twice a day. Sometimes it’s like a miracle I pull off, reconditioning and reorienting my muscles in a way that eases the overly tensed muscles for most of the day. It doesn’t always work, but it’s helped give me some control – and my life – back.
It doesn’t always work, but it’s helped give me some control – and my life – back.
Whenever you lose something external, what are you acquiring in exchange for it? And if it should be more valuable, never say, “I’ve lost out.” – Epictetus
Today, while I still live with chronic pain, I can never say I’ve lost out because I learned so much in the process. If it’s true I’ve had more physical fortune in the past, then today I have more mental fortune.
And the most important thing I’ve learned from this is that if there’s anything you want to change in your life, change your relationship with it. In fact, this is the only way to change anything. No, I can’t get rid of all my bad habits, thoughts, emotions or physical pain, but I can – and did – change my relationship with them all.
I also created a better relationship with my body, my work and with Haley, who became my wife last year – and yes, she’s still the same radiant angel of joy as ever. Together we moved from New York to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and enjoy a healthy balance of work, friends and hobbies.
I learned how to cope with stress better and achieved a minimum satisfactory level of functionality. I decided to focus only on the real estate business and simplified it dramatically – it still grew almost two times over the past five years (or maybe because of it…?).
Finally, I learned the stoic lessons that have given so much to me. And like Epictetus spoke about above, I wanted to follow an ancient stoic tradition and write in praise of chronic pain. I still struggle with pain every single day, I still have very bad days and I’m still human, with many failings, weaknesses, and faults.
But this is a stoic meditation, an exercise to help me continue changing my relationship with chronic pain and to give proper recognition to its rewards.
If you find any of it helpful or inspiring, then I encourage you to go read up on them right away.
Freedom is not attained through the satisfaction of desires, but through the suppression of desires. . . now as you have toiled for those other things, stay up at night so as to acquire a judgement that will set you free. – Epictetus
Because of chronic pain, I’ve learned the importance of restraint in my actions, my beliefs, and my thoughts. Restraint of the mind brings not only freedom from desires, but freedom from despair. And freedom from despair brings a space for peace in my life. How many more opportunities has my condition given me to toil in the name of freedom?
FM Alexander called restraint in the body inhibition, and because of chronic pain, I’ve worked tirelessly to learn this skill. Physical inhibition has given me the power to melt down many of my muscular tensions through the power of thought, desire, and awareness directly and indirectly.
These experiences taught me the value of both mental and physical vigilance. Likewise, no great virtue is ever attained without a constant vigilance. Therefore, be wary of the easy path. As Sri Ramakrishna said, “do not seek illumination unless you seek it as a person whose hair is on fire seeks a pond.”
Because of my journey with chronic pain, I’ve had an endless source of spiritual fire to find my inner well of peace and tranquility not just in my body but in my mind.
This journey has humbled me and taught me the dangers of self-importance. Excessive pride should be avoided. As William Irvine correctly observes, misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune. I’m not immune to bad luck.
Good fortune brought me face to face with how my sense of self-importance leads to anger. Illness makes us irritable and prone to anger. Acting on anger always leads to sorrow or regret. I’m grateful to Seneca for teaching me that every weakling is naturally prone to complaint and therefore to take each moment as an opportunity to practice patience to build my inner strength and character.
It is easier to banish dangerous passions before they begin than to rule them afterwards. Just as in the body, the same is true in the mind.
What I’ve lost in physical capacity and comfort, I’ve gained something back in mental ability and courage. This path has taught me that the most difficult decision I’ll ever have to make in life is to accept it. By welcoming my illness, I’ve learned to simplify every area of my life internally and externally. Simplifying my inner life has taught me not to desire more than is necessary and to avoid the excesses of fame, fortune, and vanity.
Desires always lead to more desire, so I will never be satisfied until I’m courageous enough to accept this moment, as it is. And if I can’t accept this moment as it is right now, I can never have peace. Never trade your inner peace for something you have no control of.
Because of my condition, I’ve chosen as my friends only good-natured, patient friends that are less likely to be angry or to provoke my anger. This has lead me to my wife Haley, where there is no better example of good nature, patience, and peacefulness. In turn, my wife Haley has lead us to live where there is warmer weather and sun. The moderate climate helps support my good spirits, even when things are not going my way.
Seneca wisely observed, “it is useful for a man to understand his disease, and to break its strength before it becomes developed.” While I’ve done this unknowingly in my life, this new understanding has validated the importance of self-compassion… to forgive what I have no control over and to support and comfort my weaknesses, rather than punish them.
The path of chronic pain has also taught me the importance of continually testing my limits, beliefs and assumptions. Just as self-compassion requires self-forgiveness, compassion also requires the continual exercise of mind and body. Strengths and weaknesses change day by day, moment by moment – and without the exercise of mind and body – both can become weaker and more susceptible to my condition.
Just as a mother willingly bears the severe pain of childbirth for the greater purpose of bringing new life into this world, may I too find greater purpose in my daily struggle to bear willingly what’s naturally mine.
Consider those who’ve accepted the loss of their freedom when they know they’ve committed a crime and consider, like so many others before you, how many times you’ve failed to resist the harsh judgement of others, to resist speaking badly about friends or family, or act selfishly or hurtfully to those who did you no wrong. And yet, I walk free.
If I’m truthful to myself and my greater nature, I can certainly decide that I’ve committed moral crimes that deserve a harder measure than they’ve received. Many crimes escaped punishment simply because I wasn’t discovered or because the person I’ve hurt was more merciful than me, better in character or more forgiving.
Therefore, whenever I feel unfairly punished, let me contemplate on the wrongs I’ve never admitted to or never apologized for but that I know exists deep down. Let me apologize for all of that, and for all the wrongs I’ve yet to commit. If I still can’t remember my own misdeeds, may I remember when others have done me wrong and I failed to forgive them and let my apology stand in its place.
May these apologies prevent me from repeating my mistakes and purify my thoughts, for the purpose is great.
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others – Cicero
Finally, my good fortune has lead me to earnestly search for wiser teachers, which I found in the ancient stoics. From them I’ve discovered the art and science of living with gratitude.
To find happiness by embracing a small measure of sorrow and to keep it always close to my heart. Just as cold water causes the body to heat up, heavy weights cause muscles to grow and losing something brings an increased appreciation. Nature seeks to adapt contradictorily.
When I get up in the morning, I wonder what would it be like if I didn’t have more than this hour left to live? How much would be left undone for myself and others? Or what if this were my last day with Haley and after tomorrow she was no longer in my life? How much joy would I never experience because my beloved wife was missing in it? How great would my emptiness be even years later?
Throughout the day, there are countless miracles I get to appreciate. What would it be like if I didn’t have running water? How many other millions right now have to walk great distances for clean, drinkable water and don’t have the luxury to let it flow so freely and thoughtlessly?
What would it be like if I had no arms, or no legs or no eyes or ears? Who would I have to rely on to help me leave the bed or leave my apartment, drive to places or feed me food? Could I endure such dependency for the rest of my life or the financial burdens it required? Could I learn to accept living without hearing the aching beauty of a Chopin nocturne or hear my wife’s voice and laughter? How long would it take me to safely move even small distances without sight or to do so without overwhelming fear? What could possibly replace the joy in my life of seeing the brilliant fire colors of the sky during a sunset from our balcony or driving along the I95?
In this way, everything I interact with throughout the day is a chance to practice gratitude. When I speak, I’m grateful I still have a voice to connect with anyone I desire. When I write, I’m grateful I have the time and opportunity to create something that may last. When I search the internet, I’m amazed the whole of human knowledge is so quickly accessible to me where others are grateful to have even a single book. And when I say goodbye to a friend, I’m grateful to have another memory together, even if it’s destined to be our last – or more especially, because of it.
May each daily experience bring such thoughts, until every moment becomes a moment of gratitude and inner prayer. For it is in my power of choice to think such thoughts and there’s much to be celebrated. And if there’s any advantage to be drawn from illness, it’s this: that it calls you to dig deeper into your soul and to find a spiritual satisfaction where the physical is lacking.
And if there’s any advantage to be drawn from death, it’s that it calls you to live a good life. Because a good life equals a good death, no matter how long or how short. And so when death overtakes me, may I be writing such thoughts, reading such thoughts and thinking such thoughts.
Marco Bronx grew up in the Bronx and has been an entrepreneur since he was seventeen. MarcoBronx.com is a place where he writes what seems “worthy”. He sometimes writes personal development advice, meditations or thought experiments just to play Satan’s advocate and challenge your beliefs. What’s the truth? You decide.