My Journey with Back Pain

Back pain. It’s a friend who’s accompanied me through most of my life, beginning in my early teens and really intensifying during graduate school when I had an “emergency surgery” after losing muscular control of my right foot. In 2006, when I had this surgery, I experienced intense pain: burning sensations that radiated from my low back down my right leg and into the toes that I couldn’t lift. It was a scary experience.

The last decade has taken me on an unexpected journey though understanding, managing, and healing chronic pain. Early on, I tried allopathic medicine: from pharmaceuticals that left me nauseous to injections that increased my stress and, therefore, my pain. I consulted specialists, worked closely with physical therapists and counselors, and even attended “back school” through a local pain clinic. And after a LOT of trial-and-error and a LOT of searching, I found my way to more integrative, holistic, spiritual means of healing.

This journey underlies why I so deeply value embodied knowledge and believe that our bodies have much to teach us. It’s also why I see a commitment to justice aligning with a commitment to healing—healing that involves not only the physical body but also internalized inferiority and superiority, dehumanization, and systemic oppression.

This journey has also been shaped by my embodied positioning within the United States, where economic privilege allows me access to holistic therapies that draw from many lineages and knowledge systems. My embodied positioning has meant, too, some really awful interactions with physicians (especially white men), which linked physical pain with emotional trauma and disempowerment. Instead of unpacking embodiment—the focus of many blog posts (and many more stories to tell)—I want to think now about managing moments of acute or especially intense pain.

Every few months, a friend asks for recommendations for pain management. I share my experiences not as a healthcare provider (I’m not!) but as someone who’s negotiated pain that has truly laid me low.

Here’s what I’ve turned to time and time again, doing many of these at once, depending on the degree and type of pain:

  • Sleeping with a pillow between or under my knees.
  • Sitting on an exercise ball or with cushions, a lumbar roll, and heating pad. Also, standing, lying down, moving throughout the day, and limiting time sitting.
  • Soaking in warm Epsom salt baths and gently floating/swimming in pools.
  • Applying essential oils and balms to the primary site of pain and wherever nerve pain is radiating.
  • Applying castor oil and a heating pad over the site of pain.
  • Using a TENS unit, which took me several years to learn about, but has become a real lifesaver whenever sitting for several hours (e.g., when traveling by car or airplane).
  • Receiving acupuncture and cupping, and consulting my acupuncturist about which herbs may help. I tend to take just a low dose of turmeric, as my stomach is sensitive, but my acupuncturist always has suggestions.
  • Taking homeopathic tabs and/or applying homeopathic rubs, such as Rhus tox and arnica. I particularly like Community Pharmacy’s homeopathic blend “Injury,” and they ship across the United States. Community Pharmacy also has knowledgeable staff who can make recommendations for other integrative therapies, and they make customized flower essence blends, which can be combined with homeopathy.
  • Becoming way more mindful about my eating, and sticking with an anti-inflammatory diet. It’s taken me YEARS of working closely with a naturopath to learn which foods increase my inflammation, so I recognize this is a long-term investment.
  • Increasing my intake of potassium and magnesium through bananas, avocados, and coconut water toward calming muscles and my nervous system.
  • Minimizing activities that create flare-ups: for me, these include driving and attending meetings.
  • Increasing activities that support the body: examples include slow walking and gentle yoga (the sort where I’m lying on the floor for asana practice).
  • Adding essential oils for relaxation to my pillow and dehumidifier at bedtime.
  • Meditating, especially with Deb Shapiro’s “talking with your body,” body scans, and chakra meditations, which I now couple with self-Reiki.
  • Repeating mantras suggested through Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body A-Z app. Some regular ones include: “I love and approve of myself. I trust the process of life. I flow freely with life.”
  • Reviewing and integrating into my daily routines the movements suggested in Pete Egoscue’s Pain Free—building strength slowly and only after the most acute pain passes.
  • Working out sensitive and sore spots with a foam roller—essentially, giving myself a massage.
  • Noticing which of these therapies feels right at a given moment, and remaining open to other therapies, as there’s always more to try and learn. At times, massage or craniosacral therapy has felt right; at other times, I’m talked about stressors with friends or returned to physical therapy. It feels important to remain open to what healing is needed and how healing evolves over time.
  • And if the pain is really bad, then taking ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or other pain relievers.

Managing back pain has meant befriending pain. Instead of cursing it, I’ve learned to get curious and ask, “Pain, what do you have to tell me?” Often enough, pain acts as a messenger, asking me to notice what I’ve been avoiding/hiding or to make changes that involve confronting fear, anger, and other emotions. Truly, in Deb Shapiro’s words: “Your Body Speaks Your Mind.”

I’ve only come to this place of befriending pain after embarking in 2011 on a process of self- and spiritual-discovery with Reiki. With the willingness to undo years of trauma to my body—from the surgery, taking medications to numb/dull the pain, and storing emotions as physical tension and rigidity—I’ve learned that pain is part of the heart-head-hands connection. As a friend, pain has ushered in daily yoga practice, a commitment to live a more contemplative and justice-oriented life, and the realization that I really love being in (feeling, experiencing, and moving) my body. From a place of gratitude, I can now say—12 years after back surgery—that I’m deeply grateful for the pain and its reminders to show up as I am: messy, human, and truly me.

From this place of gratitude, I hope that sharing what’s worked for me—how I respond to acute pain and what I’m learning through my healing journey—offers some insights or ideas for others facing pain. With love, may you/I/we heal ourselves and our world.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Attending to Anger,” “Gentle Yoga for Healing,” or “Playing Through the Pain.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

A Few of My Favorite Things

December. It’s a hard time for folks walking on wires to please others. It’s a hard time for folks finishing semesters when running on fumes. It’s a hard time for folks grieving family hurts or losses. It’s a hard time for processing what comes up in contemplative moments and social interactions alike.

This December is especially hard because it punctuates a year of great injustice, dehumanization, and the increasing visibility of wrongdoings. Now, as so many of us personally and collectively are doing (and being asked to do) “shadow work,” there’s a heightened need for self-care/self-work that embraces both/and.

How do we both honor the ways we’re falling apart and go about surviving? How do we both recognize the possibility of human extinction and invest in living more authentically, courageously, and lovingly? How do we both unlearn oppression (including internalized inferiority and superiority) and build new, more equitable relations? How do we both stay centered in gratitude and committed to justice? How do we experience both the depth of grief and the height of joy? How do we get by in the midst of inherent contradiction, paradox, incongruity, and change?

One answer (for me, this December) is that I’m getting by with a few of my favorite things. Specifically, I’m making “play dates” to hike with friends, to eat nourishing foods, and to read books and blogs that fill me up like adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy and Chani Nicholas’s weekly horoscopes. (I even happily found this recorded conversation between adrienne maree brown and Chani Nicholas!)

My most frequent, almost-daily “play date” has involved listening to a new podcast while sipping peppermint cocoa and soaking in an Epsom salt bath. Here’s what this looks like:

1. How to Survive the End of the World Podcast

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been falling in love with the podcast How to Survive the End of the World from the Brown sisters: Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown. And I mean falling in love as in feeling my stomach sink when I’ve listened to all the episodes and getting super excited when a new episode is released.

These recordings are directly about living within both/and, as episodes focus on “learning from the apocalypse with grace, rigor and curiosity.” Truly, episodes give deep insights, rich storytelling, and committed calls to action—modeling ways forward and asking how we show up for ourselves and others to be in “right relationship.” If you’re not already listening, check out the trailer here:

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It’s not by chance that this podcast is offered by two women of color at a time when the hashtags #TrustBlackWomen and #FollowBlackWomen are trending on social media. May listening to feminists and womanists of color do more to counter epistemic injustice and to honor the lived stories, experiences, and knowledges that need to be trusted and followed.

2. Peppermint Cocoa

Chocolate, I’ve found, makes falling in love even sweeter. Because I’ve also got a complicated relationship with sugar, I mix raw cacao and stevia so that I can enjoy chocolate daily, especially when luxuriating in a warm bath with my favorite podcast. Here’s the recipe for this month’s peppermint hot cocoa.

Combine and stir the following ingredients:

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 3. Epsom Salt Baths

Truth be told, I’ve always enjoyed baths, but I didn’t give myself permission to take them daily until struggling for several years with chronic back pain. It’s amazing how often pain has been a motivator for doing what I desire, what gives me pleasure and joy. Now, whenever my body or soul hurts, as they do when facing systemic racism and other institutional violence, I immerse myself in salty water. This is a privilege I am grateful for everyday.

I add several cups of Epsom salt to a warm bath, and soak while listening to awesome podcasts and enjoying hot cocoa. The combination, I’ve found, grounds me, while also lifting my spirit.

When we talk about building resilience, I wonder if we should talk more about Epsom salt and warm water for grounding and clearing energies. As a white woman, when I think about building fortitude to counter white fragility, I definitely think about Epsom salt baths for crying, releasing, recommitting, and re-emerging ready to work again.

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Together, (1) the How to Survive the End of the World podcast, (2) peppermint cocoa, and (3) Epsom salt baths are a few of my favorite things. As favorites, they help with refueling and with readying for ongoing resistance.

I talked recently with my six-year-old nephew about his “favorites,” and I realized that I don’t often have this conversation with adults. How often do we, as adults, name our favorites? How often do we take time in the day to enjoy something simply because it’s a favorite? Recognizing and honoring favorites feels important for navigating the both/and of life, especially at this time and especially in December.

May these or other favorites bolster you in personal and collective shadow work. May these or other favorites help with surviving when falling apart. May these or other favorites help with feeling what’s hard and also with feeling what’s incredibly beautiful, amazing, and possible too.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Sieving Life: Keeping What Nourishes and Releasing the Rest” orBreaking Commitments and Recommitting through Mindful Reflection.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Breaking Commitments and Recommitting through Mindful Reflection

A little more than a year ago, I wrote the following statement to describe this blog project:

“Embodied knowledge matters. So do commitments. And especially acting on commitments as part of everyday life, BIG and small. This blog shares ongoing efforts of feeling, thinking, and doing for justice. Posts include reflections, recipes, research, and resources: all seek to make sense of what it means to live a life for justice.”

This language signals that, at best, I’m attempting to live for justice and to share these attempts. What this means is that the everyday-ness of lived experience goes hand-in-hand with seeking or striving for justice. Striving means that I experience moments of getting closer to living in alignment with a more just, truer, and committed life. And I also experience moments when I’m far, far away and out of alignment with this goal. My hope is that I learn from my own incongruity and that the moments of alignment grow more regular. This learning—along with attempting, seeking, and striving—builds resilience for “the long haul” toward justice.

Such a hope leads me to reflect on the moments when I fall short of my commitments. Recently, I broke a commitment to a co-author and close friend, and I contributed to a larger pattern of co-authors falling away from important projects, a pattern that calls up pain. And I’ve been reminded again that pain can be an important teacher.

As a white woman (a white, cis-gender, able-bodied, U.S.-born, upper/middle-class, raised-Christian woman), I’ve inherited internalized inferiority and superiority aligned with the narrative of being a “good person”—a narrative that I’m always needing to unravel and unlearn. The more I let go of the need to be a “good person,” the more I can be just a person—a whole, human, and messy person. And as a person (not a super-human and not a dehumanized being), I can see and confront the harm that I do.

Breaking my co-authoring commitment did harm in my friendship, and it did harm by contributing to a pattern of broken commitments around justice-oriented research. It also did harm because of the material consequences for my co-author, who’s already experiencing precarity, overwork, and a particularly stressful semester.

As is so typically the case, my body told me that something was wrong. From tight chest and stomach ache to what felt like the inability to breathe, I could feel my heart hurting.

Grateful for embodied knowledge, I turned to contemplative practices that help with sifting through the harm and figuring out how to know and align with my commitments more often, more of the time. These practices have included gentle movement, yoga nidra, and sitting meditation. They’ve also involved the RAIN meditation that I’ve learned for working with difficulties.

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Photo credit to Matthew Grapengieser (creative commons licensing).

As I’ve explained previously, RAIN involves four steps:

R—recognizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, conditions, etc.
A—allowing the states of being, no matter how bad, embarrassing, or privileged.
I—investigating deeply to gain new or additional understanding.
N—non-judging or non-identifying to avoid attachment with the experience, emotion, and even understandings (toward embracing impermanence).

Here’s what RAIN has looked like for me, as I’ve been exploring my broken commitment:

Recognize that I’ve broken the commitment; that I’ve done harm to my friend, and because I love my friend, to myself as well; and that this harm is painful. Recognition feels important for taking responsibility and also for naming the complex dynamics within the larger situation. It feels important for seeing the links between this particular broken commitment and larger, systemic injustice.

Accept the pain. Like joy, pain is part of life—not something to push down or pretend isn’t there, but to see, experience, and get curious about. I keep asking: “Pain, what do you have to teach me? How can I learn from you about making commitments I can truly keep?”

Investigate the fuller situation. The more I get curious (instead of shutting out the pain), the more I can see how I’ve been operating in contradiction. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to follow my “strong YES,” and on the other hand, I’ve been wanting to please others. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to redirect my energies (away from this particular project and direction in my life), and on the other hand, I’ve been wanting to keep what’s familiar and comfortable about this established direction.

Though I’m aware that I get into trouble when not listening for/to my “strong YES,” I didn’t act on my intuition at the time of committing to the project, and that’s likely when incongruity entered the scene. What I see now is that instead of investing in meaningful relations with other people (including with my co-author and friend), I’ve actually been creating trouble for others by not honoring myself and my “strong YES.” Do I really want to undermine myself and my relations in this way? What will I need to change in order to trust, act from, and speak aloud my “strong YES”?

Not identify with judgments about being a person who keeps or doesn’t keep commitments, who does good or harm in the world, or who is static in ways that limit the complexity of full personhood. Not identifying means that I try to see this moment as though I’m floating above it at a distance. It won’t look or feel like this in the future, though it’s part of the many experiences that I’ll carry forward and hopefully continue to learn from. It’s now part of my history, but it also doesn’t singly or solely define me.

The RAIN process has been helpful in looking at my actions, in staying close to tough emotions, and to investing at this moment of pain. It’s often the moments when we’re noticing gaps between our everyday actions and our goals that real growth takes place. It’s also moments like these when there’s a lot of potential for developing resilience and long-term, staying power.

So, in the midst of processing a broken commitment, I’m re-committing to everyday attempts and the ongoing process of striving to live a life for justice. I’m sure to mess up and cause harm in the process, but may the moments of alignment become more and more. May I better align my actions with my beliefs. May I know and follow my commitments and my “strong YES.” May I stand TALL and true (truer and truer) for justice.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Holding Space and Being Present: Two Resolutions Following the Las Vegas Shooting” and “Listening for/to the ‘Strong YES.’” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Gentle Yoga for Releasing Burdens

I’ve recently noticed how much tension I’m holding in my neck and shoulders. It feels as though I’ve been burdening myself with the weight of the world and carrying this extra weight in/on my body. The burden shows up in rounded shoulders—the physical manifestation of shrinking—rather than standing TALL with upright posture so that I can courageously be seen and take up space.

To change this pattern, I’ve been using this simple and slow yoga video:

I appreciate this simple practice because it somehow magically releases the tension and reminds me of the value of releasing, not carrying, burdens. Of allowing instead of trying to control. Of flowing with the rhythms of life. Of remaining open, aware, and still flexible.

I feel grateful that my body speaks my mind and that I can learn from my body’s intuitive cues (in this case, stiff neck and tight shoulders). It’s not by chance that hunching over gadgets (phones and computers) causes neck and shoulder tension, yet it’s not just the hunching that my body is asking me to address.

Rather, my body is signaling the need to address my intake of news, my response to emails, my emotional engagement in communication, and my response-abilities to myself and others. The more I can let go of false ideas that I can control or correct situations, the more I can release this tension. And the more I release this tension, the more I am poised to truly respond, as I can flexibly turn from side-to-side, from issue-to-issue.

So, I’ll keep playing this gentle yoga video with appreciation for my body directing me to s-l-o-w self-care yet again. And I’ll work on releasing what’s not mine so that I’m flexibly attending to what is.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Attending to Anger” or “Gentle Yoga Practice for Healing.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Playing Through the Pain

I’ve written recently about violence in our everyday lives, in our shared social world. For many of us, this violence is internal and personal as well. Even though I aspire to self-love and self-care, I fall back into patterns of negative self-talk and “playing through the pain.” I continue to push myself even when I recognize the desire to slow down. I do violence to myself even when I set the intention of being gentler, kinder, and more forgiving. With this recognition, I’m setting an intention to re-purpose play in my life—to redefine what it means to “play through the pain.”

I set this intention during a guided healing session last week, in which I embraced the affirmation: I flow freely with life.

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This affirmation invokes a sense of playfulness, lightness, wonder, awe, and joy. Still, I walked out of that healing session and set to work, not to play.

Within a day or two, my back started speaking up, getting louder in its complaints. I continued over-working and over-stretching. My back responded with more pain, enough to limit mobility and enough that I had to STOP and LISTEN.

I have a history of back pain (degenerative disc disease), which has motivated me to learn and practice yoga, Reiki, and other healing modalities. This history has taught me how to manage acute pain. Care includes specialized pillows and heating pads, homeopathy and balms, and gentle movements like rolling on the floor and floating in the pool.

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To care for my pain, I took to the swimming pool—a place where I also have a history, but a history with good memories. I think of warm summer days, fieldtrips with friends, and the summer camp I longed for year-round in childhood. I remember unexpected triathlon training during graduate school that allowed me to find strength as a lap swimmer. I love swimming not only for this history, but also for the fun of movement. I repeat mantras and think through complicated questions as I propel myself forward. I kick and flail and float and surely look silly. I allow my body to make big movements and to take up space. And after this play, I soak in the hot tub, taking time to relax. Truly, I enjoy myself.

Despite my love for swimming, I don’t often do it. I complain about the time involved. I complain about putting on goggles, washing off chlorine, and drying out swimsuits. I get hung up on the details. I don’t prioritize play.

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As I found myself in the pool this week, paying attention to sensations in my back, hips, and legs, I kept repeating: “I flow freely with life. I flow freely with life. I flow freely with life.”

I felt myself floating. Flying. Flowing. And I laughed when I could see that acute pain had gotten me to the exact place where I’ve known play, where I experience play, and where I prioritize play.

Apparently, I had chosen to “play hard”—to wait for pain to motivate action—instead of “playing easy” and choosing joy. It took a serious problem to get me into the pool. What if I actually allowed myself to act on affirmations and intentions even when they conflict with productivity or ideas of what I “should” do? What if I resolved not to “play through the pain,” but to PLAY throughout, alongside, and for the pain?

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Along with violence, there’s so much pain in our shared social world—so much pain in witnessing, internalizing, and participating in injustice. Thinking about swimming, I’m struck by how racism marks this activity and how layers of privilege (race, class, ability, size, sexuality, age) show up here, as in other places.

Like my back pain, this pain has much to teach, including the importance of play. I am reminded that commitments to justice must be JOYFUL—full of potential, vision, and hope. I am reminded, too, that embracing play in a time of pain (a different version of “playing through the pain”) builds stamina, momentum, and even resilience. Lightness, wonder, and awe are qualities that support the seriousness of attempting to live for justice.

Going forward, I embrace PLAY. Not to ignore pain, but to recognize and heal it. To heal myself so that I can show up more fully, more vulnerable, and more true.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Attending to Anger” or “Potato & Kale Casserole (vegan + gluten-free): Finding Comfort in the Growth Zone.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!