The essence of curing chronic pain is connecting to your own body’s capacity to heal. When you are trapped by any circumstance, especially chronic pain, first your anxiety escalates and then you become angry. Your body is full of stress chemicals and you’ll experience many physical symptoms. Once or twice a year we hold a retreat for people that have been suffering from chronic mental or physical pain.The intention of the workshop is for you to experience a weekend of sharing enjoyable experiences in a structured safe environment and relax. Relaxing is challenging in the context of suffering.
The faculty includes my wife, Babs Yohai, who is a professional tap dancer and movement artist, and my daughter Jasmine Yohai, who is an expressive arts therapist. The weekend begins Friday evening and ends Sunday at noon. We spend Sunday afternoon relaxing by the lake with many of the participants. The core concepts of the workshop are:
- Awareness – It is important to understand the nature of chronic pain and your relationship to it.
- Hope – We enjoy sharing many success stories – and some will be returning.
- Forgiveness – Processing anger is the tipping point of becoming pain free.
- Play – Relaxation and play are the essence of what Babs and Jaz bring to the weekend.
Jaz has an unusual background in that she graduated as a dance major, has a Masters in psychology, spent extra time learning expressive arts therapy and is currently working for a non-profit organization in Oakland, CA housing homeless people. She is relaxed, although she’ll tell you that she often doesn’t feel as relaxed as she appears. She exudes concern and compassion and loves to be of service in whatever capacity she can. Her role is putting us through different shared exercises that are calming, and she is excellent.
When I first asked Babs to be a part of the workshop in 2013, I was becoming aware of the power of play in addressing the power of pain. Chronic pain is a result of memorized neurological circuits in your brain. The more you try to fight and fix them, the stronger they will become because you’re paying too much neurological attention to them. One approach is to create alternative circuits by stimulating new connections in your brain – neuroplasticity. Learn another language Another is to shift back on to your play circuits, which is a more rapid and powerful strategy. Although, that may seem like a forgotten word to you after so much suffering, it is one of the basic foundations of the development of human consciousness. Play exists deeply in all of us even if we can’t consciously connect to it.
In addition to tap dance, Babs is accomplished in Tango, Salsa and Balinese mask dancing. She has a lot of depth in rhythm and movement. I asked her to be one of the faculty, as these types of practices can quickly reconnect and create new neurological circuits. She was apprehensive about her role but agreed to give it a try.
I wasn’t asking her to teach us to dance. I was interested in re-connecting the mind with the body through music and movement. She began with a simple song combined with stepping and clapping. Then she introduced The Cup Song. She and Jaz led us in learning a new language of rhythm, causing a shift from pain to play circuits. We began to relax and laugh.
The Cup Song
A shift in pain
My original concept of the workshop was that I had five days to give an intensive course in teaching the DOC concepts, and then people would learn to implement them at home more quickly than when learning in the office setting. What happened was completely unexpected in that many people experienced a shift their mood and the pain would drop – sometimes dramatically during the workshop. I think it happened for a couple of reasons.
First, it is common, almost the rule, that people in pain become socially isolated, which is a terrible way to live. In fact, research shows that the pain of social rejection shares similar brain circuits to that of physical pain. One of my goals was to create a structured environment where the participants could be with others in a safe place and share enjoyable experiences. What I eventually realized was that my main function was to create and maintain the structure, and that people heal each other. By connecting to others, you are able to find your way back to you.
Secondly, “neurons that fire together, wire together” is a common phrase among neuroscientists. Anger, anxiety and pain circuits are tightly intertwined, and stress usually fires up the pain circuits. Shifting to the play area of the brain unlinks them and pain drops.
Third, anxiety is an indicator of elevated levels of adrenaline, cortisol and histamines. You are on high alert and one of the results is that these hormones increase the speed of nerve conduction and you’ll feel more pain. The weekend gives you a chance to feel again what it is like when your system is full of chemicals that are elevated when you are at play.
The workshop is now three instead of five days and we were surprised to see that it was equally as effective. It feels like the participants are more focused and dive in quickly. Much of the work is done in small groups of four or five.
It was at Omega that we learned about the deadly effects of people discussing their pain with their family, friends and colleagues. One basic ground rule is to never discuss your pain or medical care with anyone or complain. Your brain will develop wherever you place its attention. Research even shows that belonging to a pain support group or keeping a pain diary is counter-productive. You might as well place your hand right into a large hornet’s nest. You are reinforcing the pain circuits, not moving away from them. I didn’t realize how much time people in pain spent discussing it or endlessly searching for a solution. It is completely understandable.
Although, many mindfulness-based pain programs have impressive results, it is unusual to experience such a shift within a couple of days. What has happened is that the group has tasted freedom from pain. They now have the knowledge and tools to get back to that spot. With practice, a high percent of participants can break free of chronic pain and re-create their life.
The Cup Song or the gym?
Here is an email from one of the participants who has made steady progress over the year after Omega. He had been experiencing quite severe back and leg pain for about five years:
Ah, the victim role, that is me seemingly all the time. All of David Burn’s (author of “Feeling Good”) cognitive distortions are helpful to recognize in myself, but victimhood is the reminder most useful for me. I fall into it so easily!
I had a bad evening with the lower back several days ago. Instead of my usual hour+ strengthening and stretching routine, I practiced The Cup Song for 45 minutes, and most of the tension in my back went away. I’m starting to synch the lyrics with the percussion! I’ll need to go back to Omega for The Natural Singer In You to work on my tone and pitch!
At no point during my career would I have ever anticipated play being a major healing modality.