A Pain in the Neck

What causes an old memory to return, like Little Bo Peep’s sheep or like a painted horse spinning off a carousel we are surprised to discover is still running?

In the memory that came back yesterday morning, I was standing at the end of a pier in Granisle, British Columbia, where, as a young man, I worked at an open pit copper mine. From that wooden dock on the edge of town, barges crossed Lake Babine, transporting shift busses and ore trucks to and from the mine on the other shore. It was my day off and I was standing there looking out over the water and, as always those days, I was uncomfortably aware of the constricted neck movement from which I had been suffering for weeks. The right side of my neck and shoulder felt like they were frozen in place; and I had grown so accustomed to the pain that I no longer tried to turn my head independently of my torso.

It may have been a factor that at this period of my life I was reading George Gurdjieff and was influenced by his views about consciousness, the self, and our lost sanity. As I stood there, an insight came into my mind: that I really didn’t know how much I was actually injured and how much in the grips of a self-renewing conviction that I was.

Suddenly I was completely present: standing at the edge of the lake, observing the overcast morning and my freedom to chart a new course; and with a confidence that was new to me, I turned my head slowly and decisively to the right. There may have been a few clicks and grindings, but then, for the first time in weeks, I was free of pain and constriction.

When I ask myself why this memory came back at this juncture of time, I think I know why. I’ve been reading two books by Tarthang Tulku: “Caring” (for the past year) and “Joy of Being” for the past month. And a series of online classes I’ve been attending based on “Caring” has been emphasizing that it is important, in caring for ourselves, to learn to notice that there are feelings and sensations present in the body before our dramatic emotional reactions arise.

Becoming aware of my body sensations has been challenging for me. But as a head-centered person living in a head-driven society—it is a wonderful discovery to notice these inner feelings– like an overcast day at the edge of a lake–before the familiar onslaught of emotions and mental associations have taken hold of my mind.

It was in this state of consciousness—of wanting to learn more about my embodiment while still stuck in a life-long conviction that it was beyond my capacity to change anything on such a fundamental level–that “Joy of Being” arrived on my doorstep—to the accompaniment of my dogs going crazy as they watched the UPS man running back to his truck.

I realize that this current feeling of openness could not have happened on its own. I feel grateful for the several streams that are coming together to instill in me the importance of being present to this embodiment, and for the recognition that there is an inner landscape that is not intrinsically hidden from my awareness.

In “Joy of Being” I am discovering a vision of the functioning of my body that includes ways to welcome feelings, sensations and the nourishment they bring into my body centers (gut, heart, throat, and head). Two terms were new to me: vayu (flows of energy, of which the breath is the most fundamental) and nadi (physical systems, such as the neural network, through which energy flows.)

Developing some awareness of how the breath enters my body and brings energy, light and spacious relaxation to all the centers, organs and cells, I remembered something else.

It was about 40 years ago—before I encountered my first book by Rinpoche, “Skillful Means”, and still influenced by George Gurdjieff—that I quit smoking. I did more than quit; I made a personal vow to do so, as much to demonstrate to myself that I was capable of carrying out a challenging action as to take a specific step toward improving my body’s health. Something changed in my breathing after that. Ever since, involuntarily inhalations—as when a sail fills with wind—have spontaneously occurred. These inhalations completely fill the space in my lungs; and then a burst of pleasant energy flows up my spine into my head.

I now have a new way of looking at these fuller breaths: the energy of breath (vayu) is flowing through my neural pathways (nadi), thereby invigorating both body and mind. This vision allows me to welcome each spontaneous opening to breath as a chance to discover what it means to be a human being who is still here, still breathing, with a heart that is still beating.

I am recognizing that every moment offers an opportunity to step forward and welcome whatever is happening. I don’t yet do that very effectively with the most painful memories and with strong emotional reactions, but when I felt sensations in my upper body this morning—the kind that can make me concerned that I am about to faint–I let myself relax and recognize that these sensations are bringing the blessings of healing energy.

How delightful and invigorating when new knowledge awakens us to our past, our embodiment, and to the rich intersection of the time, space and knowledge in which we presently find ourselves.

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