I found myself at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford for an MRI brain scan. Most people hate lying down in the tight-fitting, coffin-shaped thing that slowly glides into the scanner, but I love it. This is my happy place. Even the ear shattering honking noises don’t bother me; anything is an improvement on my mother’s shouting when I was in the womb. I bathed in the peace as my brain was photographed, slice by slice. They were looking for the areas which activate with pain. They put some gel on my leg (a liquid form of chili pepper) and told me to grade the pain from one to ten, ten being unbearable. At first, I felt nothing, smirking to myself how butch I was. The smirk was wiped off my face when a minute later, I was at ten. I kept schtum because for some insane reason I didn’t want them to think I was a loser which is insane. There I was sweating, biting my lip and pretending I was perfectly fine. I’d be an excellent role model in Guantanamo Bay. You can’t hide your feelings when your brain’s being filmed because everyone can see your pain. Finally, I admitted I was about to faint so they removed the gel. They then had me imagine the pain to see if just thinking about it activated the same area. I’ll find out the results in two weeks, fingers crossed they don’t make me do it again.
We then talked about the phenomenon of pain. The neurologist told me that it’s not the actual wound that hurts, it’s how the brain perceives it. She also told me that emotional and physical pain are found in the same brain region as each other. You can turn up and down the sensation of both depending on your beliefs. In general, they found that religious people feel less pain than the faithless. This is the only time I have ever wished that I believed in Jesus.
Later in the day, I met with Vidyamaia Bursh who created a mindfulness technique for pain called Breathworks. At sixteen she cracked her spine and had to have her discs welded together. Then at twenty-three she had a car accident and was bedridden for the next thirty years, paralyzed from the waist down which ended in a total breakdown. One night the pain was so excruciating, she decided to kill herself in the morning. Then she had an epiphany and realised that she didn’t have to make it to the morning, she just had to deal with the pain for this moment, and then the next moment, and so on.
She came to see me in a wheelchair, still paralysed but now living in the moment, and says she focuses on the electrical shooting pain in her legs, so severe that her toes cramp. She said when she used to feel the agony, she’d try to suppress the feeling, holding her breath which made her mind and body rigid. Now, she’s learnt that if she breathes into the exact location and submits to the pain, she feels her body ‘soften’ and is able to live with it. It was astounding, there she was paralyzed from waist down but her eyes shone and her face glowed. Pain is pain but suffering is optional and she’s the living proof.
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