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Finding a Joyful life in the Heart of Pain: A meditative Approach to Living with Physical, Emotional or Spiritual Suffering
By Darlene Cohen
Shambhala Publications, Boston 2000
In Finding a Joyful Life in the Heart of Pain, Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest and meditation teacher, who has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for twenty-three years shows us how to deal with chronic pain. Her main recommendations are to “acknowledge pain and its burden and enrich one’s life exponentially.” She feels that when one is in chronic pain instead of fleeing the pain one needs to know it deeply and acknowledge the suffering it is causing one and at the same time balance this by developing one’s potential for happiness and discovery, “making it so rich that no pain can commandeer it”.
When in chronic pain she points out that we can have a tendency to grasp at the past that was not painful and thus negatively grasp at the present which is painful, not dealing with the pain effectively and actually reinforcing it. When she finally accepted fully her rheumatoid arthritis and “the body she had to live the rest of her life with,” she felt a release and more peace.
When Darlene Cohen started to explore the totality of her experience instead of reducing herself to her pain, she discovered a whole world of sensations changing and fluctuating, of inner and outer contact with herself and her environment. She felt enriched by that experience and discovered that “everything was fresh and fascinating.”
After a while Darlene Cohen realized that it was in her “self-interest to notice what circumstances increased or decreased her pain and then to alter her pain level by manipulating those circumstances. Changing her posture was a dramatic event in her life. She needed to heed every little sensation in her legs and feet in order to go from sitting to standing.” So she started to consciously “concentrate on breaking down these aggregates of ideas into discrete units of smaller experience that she could master.” Then she trained to become a movement therapist. She learnt that “movement is what muscles like to do.” Now she teaches her patient to move so that “their movements increase their well-being rather than strain, constrict and exhaust their bodies” and that “over the long run the most effective exercises they will do are the ordinary movements they perform in their everyday life.”
In her book she tells the astounding story (for someone with rheumatoid arthritis) of spending a summer cleaning guest cabins three hours daily at a Zen resort. Her young co-workers complained of backaches when she found the routine physically refreshing. The difference with her co-workers was that she used that three-hour period as a way to exercise consciously and meditatively the various parts of her body. She saw it as an” exercise session, interweaving her movements and the contact she had with inanimate objects.”
Another solace she recommends is to share one’s suffering with someone who supports one unconditionally. She tells the moving story of her husband and son joining in her moaning on difficult mornings. She would groan and moan quite loudly and each time one of them would answer with their own “whimpers, groans and cries.” She says that by the time she reached the bathroom “her heart was full.”
Being a Zen practitioner Darlene Cohen brings her experience of meditation and her Zen training to everything she tells us about dealing with pain, its causes and also its conditions.