The Path Forward is Spiritual: Why the 12 Steps Have the Potential to Heal Chronic Pain & Illness
Updated: May 6
In the years leading up to the chronic pain becoming all-consuming and ultimately finding and learning about the theory of TMS (The Mindbody Syndrome), I would have told you that I was on a spiritual journey. Regardless of where I happened to be on that spiritual journey at the time, it was a major focus as well as concern in my life. What do I mean by spiritual? I'm not talking about holding crystals, burning sage, or eating mushrooms (though I've partaken in my fair share of that wonderful stuff too), but about working on myself and striving to become a better—more peaceful—person by any means necessary. I understand that some folks are rightfully suspicious of the never-ending "self-improvement trip", but I would then have to point out that if I am in pain, sick, depressed, anxious, addicted, and emotionally overloaded, simply accepting where I currently am doesn't seem all that enchanting of an idea, especially if escape is no longer a viable option. I would then add that if I am having a destructive impact on the world around me, and a harmful influence on the people I love—while destroying my own soul in the process—some change in a positive direction might be warranted... Now of course, acceptance and surrender to what is is necessary, but we can surely still "strive for our own liberation with diligence", as Gautama so wisely instructed us to do all those years ago.
I once read in a Buddhist text, "the sage tames the self", and this is just what I intended to do. I was reading the works of the Greats, learning to meditate, taking yoga classes, and engaging in many of the practices I was reading about in the writings of spiritual masters such as Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, Gary Zukav, Byron Katie, Don Miguel Ruiz, various Buddhist teachers, and numerous others. In many regards I had come a long ways from the self-centered, drug-addicted kid I once was; I was seeing the results of my efforts pay off in many areas of my life, but nevertheless, the universe threw me a couple of curve-balls that were beyond my ability to handle skillfully, and before I knew it, the chronic pain came for me like a lion taking down its prey. It refused to relinquish its grasp despite my best efforts to free myself and it wasn't long before it had become my only concern. The spiritual journey—and everything else—was put on hold indefinitely. I felt that as soon as I could find a cure for the pain, only then could I continue on with my life and plans for the future. Little did I know...
I now find it funny, and at times bewildering, that many of the things I was doing before the decent into debilitating levels of chronic pain, are the very things that have subsequently helped me to heal from the pain, and also the very things I continue to do to this day for the advancement of my soul. Prior to finding Dr. Sarno, Steve Ozanich, and the theory of TMS, I would have had no way of knowing that the escalation in physical pain I was experiencing was in no way separate from my life and spiritual journey. At that time, I believed that the answers to physical pain were purely "physical" and therefore sought to relieve the pain in a manner that complimented this belief. If anything all of the doctors, specialists, and surgeons had done had actually relieved the intensity of the pain, I may have never found my way to the Truth. I am grateful for their "lack of success" for this very reason.
God only knows how many times throughout my life I have skipped across the bottom—never quite hitting—only to emerge with the lesson going less than fully learned. Well not this go around, the Reckoning with a capital R had arrived at last. No way in hell I was going to weasel my way out of this one. Do, or die. Over and over again I come to the difficult conclusion that almost nobody will reckon with the hard truths of addiction and the root causes of chronic pain and illness, until they have personally reached the end of the road in these areas. So much so is this the case that I am unsure if it is even possible to come to these conclusions, without personal experience as a guiding light. These truths are so starkly in contrast with the status quo, that even highly intelligent and experienced individuals often fail to grasp the full scope and scale of the implications involved.
Anyone who has suffered with severe pain, or a chronic condition of any kind, understands that the amount of time, energy, and effort involved in finding relief and a cure, is almost inconceivable. There is googling to do, advise to seek out, articles to read, doctors and specialists to call, appointments to make and attend, prescriptions to fill, meds to take, and surgeries to be had. Oh, and don't let me forget about all the shit you need to buy!—amazon giddily awaiting your need with doors open and doorstep service available, 24/7. I'm talking about the cushions, the inserts, the massagers, the tape, the bands, the braces, the stabilizers, and on and on it goes (apparently all the pain that exists in our society is working out quite well for a lucky few...). All this while trying to keep up with all of our other responsibilities that are necessary in keeping the boat afloat. It can break even the strongest and most resilient of people. Anything "extracurricular" we may have been doing prior to the onset of the pain or condition, seems to fall by the wayside...
A prerequisite to following what could be considered a TMS protocol, entails an understanding and acceptance that the way you have been instructed by the medical establishment to go about dealing with your pain, needs to be abandoned completely. If you are not in immediate danger, or facing an imminent threat to your life, it is time that you turn the previously established paradigm on its head and begin tackling the problem of chronic pain and illness from an entirely different angle. We can no longer afford to seek physical answers to problems that are primarily psychological, emotional, and spiritual in nature. The physical effects we experience can be likened to the browning leaves on the furthest reaching branches of a tree; the psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects are the roots. If we truly want to transcend and cure the pain completely, we must turn our attention to these roots.
Due to an unusually late freeze last spring, a friend of mine had had to dig up some tomato plants, that judging by the leaves, had been destroyed. Upon uprooting the plants he recognized that the roots still appeared healthy and decided to replant them in hopes that they would soon recover. This is similar to the person experiencing pain and illness. The leaves that appear to be shriveled, burnt, and browning, represent your ego and the physical body, and though they may not be doing so well, your roots, which are the deeper aspects of your being, your soul or higher Self (whatever you prefer to call it), are still alive and well. The roots of your tree may very well require significant tending to and growth, but they are there nonetheless. Now how do we go about such a task? There are many possible routes one can take and each will be a little different depending on the person.
One great example of such a path is Alcoholics Anonymous (or any other twelve-step group), a spiritual program that offers guidelines for personal growth that are broad enough to include basically anyone. Although the majority of AA meetings I have attended were the ones that I was forced to go to during my stint in outpatient rehab in my high school years, I am confident in the applicability and validity of what is contained therein. Truth be told, I did recently attend a meeting just to dip my toes in the healing waters, and see if possibly my resistance had lessened at all, it had, but only slightly. I found it redundant and also perplexing the way attendants were seemingly required to identify themselves over and over again as alcoholics. I understand the acceptance and humility piece, but at some point can't the label be let go of? I have been addicted to many substances and behaviors over the years—alcohol being only one of which—and would find it both limiting and frustrating to have to identify with all of these for the rest of my life. During the meeting I found myself wondering how others might react if rather than the standard greeting, I came in hot with, "hi, I'm Tyson and I am an infinite being...", a statement that I feel is more true... But to be fair, this was likely just an resistance-driven ego flair-up on my part. I am sure that a longtime twelve-step practitioner would explain to me that they do not find identifying themselves as an alcoholic limiting, it is likely nothing more than a reminder of where they have come from, as well as an act of courage, willingness, and surrender. This is also only a tiny aspect of the tradition, the main qualities I found exhibited in the room were palpable states of acceptance, honesty, and unconditional love.
On this particular day, I did choose to fit in and identified myself as an alcoholic—roughly two years sober—prior to sharing a recent experience I had had with the seventh and eighth steps (and was not met with the standing ovation I so clearly deserved...), I then made a couple friends after the meeting and headed on my way—not entirely sure when, or if, I would be back. I departed from that meeting as determined as ever to continue on forging my own path, one that has been colored with blood, sweat, and tears. I, much like my late spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who often laughingly referred to himself as a "HinJewBu", have not had the luxury of being snobbish with which traditions I will entertain, I will take my teachings where I can get them.
Within the last year or so I also read The Big Book (which as it turns out, is rather small) out of curiosity and found that it contained many meaningful and valid insights. As I have gotten older I have come to see how relevant, as well as necessary, the twelve steps are to personal and spiritual growth. I have often noticed that I am unwittingly engaging in one step or another—such as believing in a power greater than myself, taking a detailed and unrelenting personal inventory, or making amends to someone I have wronged in the past—simply because it feels like what I need to do. The twelve steps boiled down to their essence proceed as follows:
These steps are not only about helping a person to get sober, but about restoring a person to wholeness—a process that will positively affect every area of a person's life, including their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Further confirming as well as illustrating my point, I found the following passage within the pages of The Big Book.
Now about health: A body badly burned by alcohol does not often recover overnight nor do twisted thinking and depression vanish in a twinkling. We are convinced that a spiritual mode of living is a most powerful health restorative. We, who have recovered from serious drinking, are miracles of mental health. But we have seen remarkable transformations in our bodies. Hardly one of our crowd now shows any mark of dissipation. -Bill W.
Any genuine spiritual tradition or program—if intently followed—can lead you out of chronic pain, mental illness, and addiction. It doesn't even need to be termed "spiritual" if you are uncomfortable with that, as long as it contains some vital guidelines and principles. Some things to look for in a genuine tradition or program include: lack of a manipulative, egomaniac leader; zero belief that this particular program or tradition is superior to any other; makes the individual responsible for themselves and accountable for their own life and experience; allows for questioning and inquiry to be made freely by those within; encourages learning and self-discovery, and serves the betterment of the individual, the "other", the world, and its' environment. Love, forgiveness, and surrender will often serve as key tenants in any tradition that is worth its salt. We live in a wonderful time where we have unprecedented access to countless traditions and teachings; new age, contemporary, and ancient. I enjoy taking full advantage of them all. It is incumbent upon us as individuals to have integrity when determining if a given teaching is truthful.
This being said, it is important to understand that as long as you cling to any belief whatsoever—either consciously or unconsciously—that what you are dealing with is primarily a physical problem, any unfinished business within you will retain the potential to manifest as a physical symptom. For this reason, an understanding and acceptance of the work of Steve Ozanich, Dr. Sarno and other professionals in the field of mindbody healing (Dr. Gabor Mate, Dr. David Hawkins, & Dr. Joe Dispenza to name a few), in collaboration with your path of choice, is crucial. I have seen that there are times when a very evolved person continues to experience things like back pain, simply because our culture has prevented them from obtaining proper awareness of the true nature of its cause.
If no one has yet explicitly informed you, I will do so now: the healing of physical pain and illness actually has very little to do with the physical, material body itself. What is actually required for true healing to occur is an awakening, a complete paradigm shift; psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Though this may seem like radically big news, I trust that you have already been "hot on the trail", otherwise it is unlikely that you would have found your way to this particular blog...
If you are relatively new to this insight and are anything like I was in those earlier days, you have likely already tried just about everything else imaginable (perfect, less doubt to work through later on) and you don't know what the hell else to "do". I would guess that you are sick of doctors, sick of hospitals and waiting rooms with walls covered in fear-inducing posters, sick of entering new catchphrases into google, sick of racking up medical bills and having absolutely nothing to show for it, sick of shelling out hard-earned money to various specialists only to arrive back at square one, and just plain sick of fear, despair, and hopelessness. Well, I can assure you that you have officially reached the conclusion of that particular journey, and are about to embark on a far deeper and more expansive one. I have been there and am here to tell you that there is indeed hope. Here is the good news! You have arrived at that place you've been heading towards and have finally found that precious answer you have been seeking. And this one doesn't cost a dime. No, it wont be easy, and there isn't a quick fix, but the path forward is spiritual.
Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul. -Walt Whitman
grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
Love your struggle & remain free!