Honoring The Original Mindfulness Guru

All we hear about today is mindfulness. And meditation. Breathing, observation, awareness. There is a reason that these concepts are rising to the top of our harried, overworked, physically suffering collective consciousness. It’s because we are out of options. The pills once deemed as the standard of care by hungry pharmaceutical companies looking for an analgesic solution aren’t doing the trick we’ve been promised. Opioid addiction and overdose are threatening to end the species. We are desperate. 

Chronic pain affects more people in the U.S. today than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. It is an epidemic wildly out of control, costing the country upwards of 635 billion dollars a year.  If it’s not the backache which sends you home from work early, it’s that bout of IBS. Maybe the dreaded migraine strikes right at the worst moment. Your neck won’t turn to the left, your hip is screaming, you suffer from Fibromyalgia, your sciatica is shooting into your foot. Who could have predicted this devastation; this earth swallowing horror from which our escape is uncertain?

Dr. John Sarno. 

Dr. Sarno died in June, the day before his 94th birthday, almost 40 years after he had first predicted this catastrophic chronic pain explosion within which we now fester. For over half his life he practiced as an attending physician at the Rusk Center for Rehabilitation at NYU Medical Center, healing patients by helping them to understand that their minds were their most powerful tool in alleviating pain. Now, as we find ourselves at the point of surrender on the chronic pain battlefield, preeminent institutions like the Mayo Clinic’s Pain Rehabilitation Center are singing Dr. Sarno’s tune. Under their “Core Components of Pain Rehabilitation Center Programs,” the first bullet listed is Group Therapy stating that, “Skills such as relaxation, stress management and problem-solving are emphasized.” 

In the article The Secret Life of Pain in the New York Times on August 1st, 2017 David C. Roberts details his pain journey at Mayo as being “…treated as a malfunction in perception, whether or not an ongoing physical cause had been identified. The brain becomes addicted to dramatizing pain, and the more you feed it, the stronger the addiction.” He goes on to explain Mayo’s recommendation. “Don’t dwell on the pain, and don’t try to fix it — no props, no pills. Eventually the mind should let go.”

Here is where we could use the father of chronic pain mindfulness to sort out the details, and save our lives. Perhaps the mind should let go, but the mind doesn’t always listen to the shoulds. There is a specific science behind the reason we suffer and the ways in which to heal, and Dr. Sarno explained them in 1984 when he wrote Mind Over Back Pain, and again in The Mind/Body Prescription in 1999, and again in Healing Back Pain in 2001, and finally one more time in The Divided Mind in 2006. Society wasn’t ready to listen, and the precarious ground on which we stand (well, lay down) is the result. Luckily, it’s not too late.

Dr. Sarno was not saying that the pain is in your head any more than the Mayo Clinic is saying it now. The pain is not in your head, it is real and physical and it hurts like the scorcher it is. We certainly feel pain in our bodies, enough to land us in wheelchairs and hospitals and on disability, and begging for relief of any kind. What Dr. Sarno explained when the uproar over his theories calmed down enough for people to listen was: There is simply more than one way to reach the same conclusion. Although felt as symptoms which appear attached to certain muscle groups or bodily systems, the grips of chronic pain are in the mind, and can only be alleviated using the mechanism with which they are being sustained.

This is not to say that we do not experience pain connected to an immediate or logical injury which requires healing. The dark forest of chronic pain develops when, after a period of time or a completion of therapy indicated to relieve a particular problem, the pain sticks around. Or it moves. Or it worsens. Or perhaps it lessens just to be replaced by another syndrome. The back pain is less but now the headaches, the migraines seem manageable but now the stomach…

Dr. Sarno explained that pain is the result of the brain attempting to protect and divert us from feeling the dark, unpleasant and inconvenient emotions associated with being a human being. Once an area of weakness is uncovered, like an old sports injury or a condition one takes for granted as an achilles heel, the brain seizes on the opportunity to keep us in the physical - a safer spot, it posits, than dealing with the myriad life challenges which we feel are impossible to change or control. It is essentially a survival response, albeit a wildly misguided one. And it is the reason our society suffers with chronic conditions as never before. This makes sense, as our world is more complicated and our problems more overwhelming, and our primitive fight or flight systems are looking for a steam valve. Dealing with chronic pain is just that — as we busy ourselves with doctor’s appointments and second opinions, our systems find their way to a miserable yet stable equilibrium. If we are “handling” something we feel more powerful. 

The mindfulness mantra when it comes to chronic pain is missing a piece, and Dr. Sarno’s theories are holding it if we are finally ready to take a look. If we are simply willing to systematically take a look at our most difficult feelings, those of anger, rage, fear, terror, shame, despair, and regret among others, we can release our brain’s reflexive function of protecting us with physical pain. The work is simple, but it’s not easy. It takes an open mind, dedication, and bravery. This is no pill, or even a surgery where you can give away your power and wake up 5 hours later on the perceived road to transformation. This is a process which is as hard as it is rewarding. The results are the definition of the modern miracle.

Yes to mindfulness. Yes to breath work. Yes to yoga and meditation and affirmations and group therapy.  Yes, a thousand times yes. But without the integral piece of learning the language of communication between mind and body, all of these lovely modalities will have limited efficacy. Sarno’s theories and those which have been built upon them serve as a vehicle to relief. If we are to slay the Goliath of drug dependance and the panic of pain, this is the very David we need.

It is widely held that Dr. Sarno died never knowing the power of his legacy. The same is said of Hamilton. And Van Gogh, and Bach, and Thoreau. Time will tell. History will write the story of a society saved by the uncommon wisdom of a soft spoken man who once taught us how to properly feel.

~~~

Nicole J. Sachs, LCSW is a speaker, writer and psychotherapist who has dedicated her work and her practice to the treatment of chronic pain and conditions. She is the author of The Meaning of Truth, and the online course: FREEDOM FROM CHRONIC PAIN. Through her personal journey, as well working with hundreds of clients, she's shaped and evolved theories which serve to teach those suffering how to heal themselves, completely, with no medication or surgery. She lives and works in coastal Delaware with her wife and their five beautiful children.

An Open Letter to Lady Gaga: Let me help you.

Dear Lady Gaga,

You are hurting, and I can help you.

Your first reaction may be to dismiss this out of hand. But I know I can help you, and knowing something is a powerful thing. It changes lives and it inspires humanity. You know a lot about knowing who you are, and what you believe. I am like you, and I know that I can help you leave your chronic pain behind. Please let me.

I have been following your chronic pain journey on social media, and sending you love and light every day. Today I decided that love and light weren’t enough. If I am to practice that which I preach, I must speak out and give the universe a chance to deliver this message to you. 

Your pain is real. Your agony is real. It is physical, and it is excruciating. I know this to be true, personally. But if you are hurting enough to surrender for a moment and try anything, perhaps I can crack the shell of your mind to let in this pinprick of light: 

Although physical pain is felt in our bodies, there is more than one way to reach the same conclusion. 

I practice from a mind/body perspective, and my clients get well. Not better, well. And if you take the hand I am reaching in your direction, I will prove this to you.

I have a client who was hospitalized for over a year, nationally and internationally, with pain so severe she was suicidal. She is now pain free and just graduated from veterinary school. She will talk to you. I have a client who went to her son’s wedding in a wheelchair last year. Today she swims and plays 18 holes of golf on any given day. She will tell you her story. I, myself, was wracked with pain so severe and a diagnosis so grave, that I was told I would never have biological children. They are now 15, 13 and 9. 

I know you have fabulous doctors and people who love and support you. I know you have the best that medicine has to offer, and I would never deign to suggest that I know more than anyone who is assisting in your care. I just know different. I know something that saved my own life when nothing else could, and led me to devote the rest of it to guiding others on the healing journey that has transformed people from all walks of life. 

I send this into the universe with an open hand, and an open heart. I send it to you, and I hope that our paths are meant to cross. You are far too beautiful a force to be stuck in this confusion. Let me help you to make things clear. You don’t have to believe me yet, you just need to say yes. Everything good begins with a yes.

With love,

Nicole Sachs, LCSW

thecureforchronicpain@gmail.com

The MindScience of JournalSpeak

I wrote this the other day in order to get my thoughts in one place about the scientific slant on a very confusing phenomenon of the human body. I have done this work alongside people from all walks of life for many years, and in every person, every time... this is the way it works. Take a moment to reflect on your own life as you read this. It could be the moment you make a decision to do the work, and change your life. 

~~~

If the purpose of pain is to deter me from thinking my unthinkable things, then simply allowing myself to think of the unthinkable things disables this natural protective mechanism. In the process however, something happens which is very natural. I begin to think that thinking these things will hurt me "worse." It is part of the science. The brain wants me to stop thinking about them in order shield me from their deathly qualities, in its estimation. The problem is that if I stop there and cease to think about the things, then my brain’s last vestige of this protective mechanism wins, and the feelings are repressed once again. Then pain and more pain.

But, if I show up every day, like a warrior, and think of them again, and write of them again, and sit with them again, I am training this primitive brain. I am evolving right there in my own time and space. I am showing it, intrepidly, over and over again, that I don't need this pain in order to protect me from my feelings. I can sit with my emotions, and I am brave, and I can feel what I need to feel as many times as I need to feel it for my brain to be convinced that I need no more protection against it.

The thoughts that lead me away from my JournalSpeak can feel so logical. The brain is cunning and powerful. It uses my voice. These are “my” thoughts. They say, You should be embarrassed you’re still thinking these things. They say, You will launch yourself right into negativity and symptoms if you think this way. These messages sound right to me, because my brain loves me and values my survival, and is nurturing me into a “safe” space, which is the space of obsessing about my symptoms, and my failure at getting rid of them, and perhaps another doctor visit to make sure I'm okay. My brain loves me, and is doing it’s very first important job the best way it knows how: It is keeping me alive. Or so it thinks.

My brain needs a renovation. It is operating with primitive tools. It doesn't realize that I can feel these things 100 times, and I am strong, and I can do it. It is my responsibility to teach it this, because my brain is in control of my body and the way it feels. If you cut off my head, I will feel nothing even if there is a bulging disk in my back. My brain is completely and utterly the ruler of my feelings and sensations. 

Yet, I have control of something much more compelling. I have control of my mind. My mind is infinite and as powerful as anything in the universe. And my mind says that my brain loves me, but it needs training and if I value feeling good and at peace, it is my job to retrain my brain to react properly to the proper stimuli.

For example, if there is a predator chasing me, then my brain is right on. The stimuli of being chased and having my life in literal danger is the correct one for my brain to respond to. Go brain! Nice work. Thank you for making me run a little faster, and think a little quicker, and respond with acute accuracy. Thank you because now I am alive, and perhaps without your quick thinking I would be dead.

There are places, however, where you need a little updating. I don't need you to react in that fight or flight fashion because of my feelings. You don't need to protect me because I am scared about my decisions being judged by others, or my personal relationships not being what I’d hoped for, or my children’s uncertain happiness, or the way my parents treated me as a child and the patterns I’ve developed as a result. It is my job to show you the difference. The way I can do that is by telling you, over and over, what I really feel. Then, little by little, you will realize that you need not run with agility away from these thoughts, or freeze in the high grass so they might not notice me, or fight with the power of 100 men. My JournalSpeak is the vehicle which will carry me to true safety.

You, my dear brain, will realize by and by, that I am thinking these thoughts and having these feelings yet I am not in danger. They are just thoughts and feelings. I am still here. Nothing has swallowed me whole because I regret my decisions, or I haven't spoken up for myself, or I lied about something, or I’ve gotten myself in over my head. It might not feel good, but it’s not going to injure me, so you can stop protecting me by giving me something “real” to focus on. 

You know what, big guy? I’m ok. Yet, I know just telling you that isn't enough. I need to tell you every day, again and again, by sharing with you my dirty, ugly, unpleasant, shameful, embarrassing, terrifying, enraging thoughts. And thereby proving to you by feeling them and knowing them, that I won’t die. You will learn eventually, and stop sending signals to my body that I need pain to distract me.

I need to keep telling you, with faith that everything which I say will eventually lose its charge. By speaking my truth over and over enough, it will not hold the power it once held. I must have faith in this, but I must have equal acceptance that when one thing loses it’s charge, another seemingly new one will take its place with a similar charge. And then I will think, speak and write about that one. I need only communicate to myself, but I must communicate. I cannot stand quietly by, because if I do, my primitive brain will take the baton and protect me however it sees fit. And that is no longer acceptable to me. I choose to feel, rather than to live in pain. As I take on this way of life, things will cease to frighten me, because I’ll know that life is just like that. Every day there may be something unpleasant I must think and feel, but it will not kill me.

My life will be my own. My pain will flow through me as it must, but it will not own me. I will live a life of truth and choice. I will evolve to the greatest version of myself, and I will be free.

The Night Of is more than just good TV, It could change your life.

I’m telling you that an emotional exercise can cure a physical symptom.  I’m telling you that a pain or affliction which has owned you for years can be completely resolved by following a simple program of self-discovery. I’m suggesting a profound shift in the way you think about your physical pain and symptoms… or am I?