Lessons from a Back Injury - My Own Personal Zen Master

About ten years ago, I was injured while serving in the Navy. From that point on I have never ceased to be in very intense pain. This post is not about seeking pity, in fact it's about how after ten years I can talk about how I am grateful for this injury and hopefully how you can learn from it too (without having to be similarly injured).

For the first few years, I tried every possible procedure and treatment one could think of (don't send me any suggestions, I am sure I've tried it) and after a while it was very hard to accept that this would become my  new normal. My back pain had become a part of my identity and I was tired of being the pity case or the person unable to do anything, so I decided to change that.

Nothing I am about to say should be construed as medical advice or "the right way to do it", this is simply my journey and what has worked for me.


Much of what I now know can be summed up in the quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, "Smile, breath deeply, and go slowly." The reason I am writing this to everyone is because I have realized that everyone of us experiences these pains and stressors, I just feel it much more quickly and frequently than you.

Learning to breath was the single most important thing I did. To westerners that sounds silly and I've learned that even many practitioners of Yoga and the like forget to do it and focus on the actions. One could stop everything, simply breathe and be in a perfect place. I am going to suggest that if you are in pain or stressed, it is likely because you are improperly breathing. If you have an injury or condition that is causing your pain, the suffering is made worse by your improper breathing. I catch myself often making shallow breaths, just barely enough to stay alive throughout my day and that is so silly for a resource that is 100% free. Deep mindful breaths are so incredible and yet I am still working to do it all day.

I stopped growing in 8th grade, that leaves my height around 5' 4". When I first received my injury and the military put me on bed rest for 6 months, I gained a lot of weight. This weakened my abdominal muscles and added dead weight to my stomach. This increased my level of pain and I came to find out how important the abs are. If they are weak, it is impossible to support your body which leads to pulling and straining of your upper back and neck. With so many of us struggling with weight and sitting at a desk, this is a very real issue. Someone once told me, if your abs are flabby, your body isn't happy.

Long ago in my search for anything that would help me, I became very interested in nutrition. As background, I LOVE sweets. Cakes, cookies, juice, soda you name it I love it. I read somewhere that if you stop anything for 30 days you can do it for a lifetime. I decided to cut out soda and not only did I lose weight, but I also felt better in general. For those of you interested in following in my footsteps, Dr. Oz has a great a step-by-step plan. Its funny how far we will go to lose weight, we will work out, take  pills, but we won't change our eating habits. I am unable to work out except gentle Pilates and Yoga but changing my eating habits has allowed me to maintain a healthy body weight and tone.

A lesson I have only recently learned is due to my son and my new job. My son and I love to play. Wrestling and having fun takes me back to when I was a kid and it is wonderful that I get to give that to my son. I promised myself if I ever had kids, I would not allow my back to take anything away from their childhood. So even though the pain abounds I happily give my son a piggyback ride or take him to the park. Its from taking these walks that I have learned so much. When I am stuck on a problem or stressed out, nothing helps me more than to take a walk, be mindful, and play.

As a teacher, I never took time to leave my classroom. I would go to the lounge and talk with people but I never walked. Now in my current job, I walk every so often both to stretch but also to think. It is impossible to be creative and mindful for 8 hours in a chair. I don't know how people do it. Perhaps they think it would distract them or ruin their productivity, but I can assure you when I come back from my 10 minute walk I am energized and ready to work at my best.

Taking a walk in today's world may seem like a waste of time or that we have better things to do, but I can assure you it will become the best part of your day. Do it with family or friends as well as by yourself and you will find you can't do without it.

Finally, I should mention that if I didn't have my back injury I would have never met my wife nor all of the amazing people I have met over the last 10 years. Right before I injured my back, I was selected for an officer program in the Navy and I was planning on staying on as a career. Well that is when my other favorite quote became meaningful to me, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him what your plans are for tomorrow." While I am sure the life I would have lived would have been great, I wouldn't trade anything for the love and joy that I feel everyday. The students and people I have worked with to create some incredible things are worth anything I experience in regards to pain.

So there you go. Ten years and I am able to work at a great job, raise a wonderful family, and while the pain is there I have learned to let it be a reminder to be mindful and for that I am grateful to it. I do not offer this as a roadmap or instruction manual but as a call for whatever you are suffering from, don't seek to end it. Learn from it and find peace within it. That may sound very wishy washy to those of you in very painful situations but one day, you will find peace as long as you take care of yourself and are mindful.

If you do leave a comment, thanks but please do not wish me pity (I need none) nor tell me about your amazing friend who saw an infomercial for this inverted chair that can cure me.... as I said I am able to maintain a happy life in spite of the pain and after 10 years of seeking every possible treatment, I have found that there is not a whole lot that can be done externally, I must work to be mindful and I would encourage you to cultivate it as well.

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