Silvia wrote me to say, “Being inside my body is so difficult.” She wondered if Focusing might help. Yes. Focusing can help a lot—by shifting the inner relationship between our ill body and our inner parts that (understandably) hate feeling sickness or pain. 

Thanks to all of you who responded to my recent article, “I can only relax when I’m alone”. Many of you related to the challenge of staying in your body when other people are around. But Silvia explained that she has the opposite problem:

I tried to settle inside my body and inhabit it. A big issue for me is that the biggest demand for me is coming FROM my body. I live with chronic disease and it is my body which is screaming care demands at me constantly and I get overwhelmed by those most of the time. It feels as if there is no place I can settle and rest. It often feels way safer to leave the body and really caretake someone else, who is less demanding and insatiable.

My heart goes out to Silvia and anyone who, as she poignantly put it, “has no place they can settle or rest.” While I haven’t faced the challenge of chronic illness, I’ve watched my mother cope with chronic pain and the accompanying overwhelm and exhaustion in the years since she sustained serious injury in a cycling accident. And I’ve admired her courage. She has stubbornly gone about the business of living, rather than merely surviving.

Silvia asked whether Focusing might help her deal with her chronic illness. Focusing is a skill that takes practice. But it can definitely help. In dealing with physical issues, including a painful surgery, I’ve found Focusing to be an indispensable skill to manage my response to pain.

Focusing and mindfulness research

We don’t have a lot of research yet about Focusing and pain. It’s true that Focusing is a way of being mindful in the body, and there is a significant body of research showing the modest but significant effectiveness of mindfulness for pain management. My mother, who is herself a psychologist, attended Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and found the techniques helped her with her pain and with getting to sleep at night. MBSR helped her clients as well.

However, in her master’s thesis research, marriage and family therapist Jenny McGrath observed a notable level of effectiveness for some chronic pain sufferers who engaged in the Focusing technique of “clearing a space”, using art therapy techniques. The study was too small to be conclusive. McGrath had only eight participants. But here’s what struck me: although like MBSR the average benefits were modest, some of McGrath’s participants experienced a 50% reduction of pain after a session. This level of reduction, well beyond “modest”, correlates with my personal experience and anecdotal knowledge of the effect of focusing on pain management.

Going beyond mindfulness

Mindfulness brings us into awareness of the body, where we observe—ideally, with compassion—our feelings, thoughts, and sensations. This witnessing in itself can bring some relief from pain, as we cease to fight against reality. But Focusing can take you a step further. Beyond merely observing the pain, Focusing helps you come into a relationship with it.  Now you can listen to any messages your body has for you. And you can access your intuitive knowing of the “right next step” in your self-care.

Silvia told me, “I tried Somatic Experiencing for a little time, but I left, because being inside my body is so difficult.”  What can you do in Silvia’s situation, where a body-based practice is the likeliest route to relief, but being in the body hurts too much to bear? In his poem, The Guest House, the great Sufi poet Rumi speaks directly to Silvia’s aversion to being in her body, with its overwhelming demands (thanks to Anne Weiser Cornell and Lucinda Hayden for introducing me to this poem…and to Pat Omidian and Nina Joy Lawrence for their brilliant expansion of the guest house concept as a way of teaching Focusing):

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

Stepping in to the role of host

Rumi invites us to treat anything that comes in our bodies as a guest. Imagine this now. You are in a house. You are the host. And your feelings, memories, physical sensations, body, and mind— including pain and illness— are your guests.

The symptoms of chronic illness must feel like a veritable crowd of guests. Some are predictable. Others show up at any hour of day or night. Some arrive in pairs: a headache accompanied by nausea. Or nerve pain with weakness in your left leg.

And here’s the hardest part: you also end up hosting a group of guests who hate and fear the “pain guests”. Whenever a “pain guest” rings the doorbell, these pain-hating guests rush to block the pain from entering. Each of us has our ways of protecting from the pain. Silvia’s preferred strategy is to leave her body “house” and offer her hosting services to others.

Leaving your body and focusing on the needs of others is a socially functional strategy, especially for women. We get points for good behavior in our society when we think of others first. But when you leave your body to attend to other people, the relief you get from the inner demands of your ill “guests” is temporary at best. The more you leave your “pain guests” “home alone”, the more “demanding and insatiable” they become, to use Silvia’s words. Your aversion to feeling your body increases, and you “leave home” even more often. You find yourself in a vicious cycle.

Being with the “not wanting”

At no time would I ever recommend forcing yourself be in your body, well or ill. But you can take steps towards a new relationship with your pain-hating guests and with the pain underneath. Here is a sequence of steps you can try:

1—Notice yourself wanting to “leave home”. If Silvia, for example, can catch her impulse to attend to other people, she can pause there and describe how that feels in her body. She can enter into an inner relationship with this pain-hating guest—with the one that sees her body as “an insatiable monster baby”. Her pain-hating guests will likely have a lot to say, about all the ways her body has limited her, exhausted her, and cost her:

“I’m turning towards something in me that sees my body as an insatiable baby monster, and hates all those demands…”

2— Turn towards the place in you that is hurting (thanks to my dear friend and Focusing partner Katherine Kehoe, who taught me this step along with Step 3 below.) Once your “pain-hating” guest feels heard in Step 1, it will let you turn with compassion to the part of your body hurts or feels sick and begin to describe it:

“I’m turning to my stomach letting it know I know it is feeling really queasy…I’m sensing how to describe it …it’s like a churning, sick, tight knot there…”

3—Turn towards something sending the pain. This distinction between the body part that hurts and something sending pain to that part sounds subtle. But it can bring surprising relief:

“I’m inviting something in me that is sending a churning, sick, tight-knotted feeling to my stomach…I’m acknowledging it there…”

A word of caution: as you listen to the body and to something sending the pain, be sure to stay aware of the “pain-hating” guest as well. It needs to know you will allow it to “leave the house” if it gets overwhelmed. If you respect its limits and back off when it needs a break, it will allow you to come back later and repeat this inner relationship process. Over time, this pain-hating guest will trust you more and step back.

Ending the war inside

I had many internal Focusing conversations of this kind with my body several years ago, during the extremely painful recovery period following a surgical procedure. Each time the pain came, I’d acknowledge to the hurting place that I knew it was in pain. Then I’d turn my awareness to something in me that was terrified of the pain. It wanted to be “anywhere but here.” Each time, I’d watch my distress decrease as the terrified part felt me there with it. I found I experienced the pain more as a sensation and less as a torment.

The pain of chronic illness may not go away. And only you can decide the best way to handle the pain and illness you face. But as you learn to relate to your inner guests in the way I’ve described, you will add to your options the choice of staying “at home” in your body. And it is in the body that you can feel joy as well as pain.

Even better, when you come back into your body, you open the door to your spiritual intuition. This inner knowing will guide you in every way. You can consult moment-by-moment: “Should I nap now? Or should I try to get some more work done?” And you can turn to it for major decisions: “Should I try this experimental treatment?” On all levels, your spiritual intuition can guide you to give yourself the best possible care.

Image©2019 Kaitlyn Wyenberg: thank you Kaitlyn!

—Do you need support developing an inner relationship to deal with chronic pain or illness? I work with a limited number of clients weekly. To learn more about 1:1 sessions , click here. For intensive long-term support, read more about the six-month Inner Listening Intensive program.