The Mind–How Powerful Are We Really? Or, Can Intimacy Be Understood?


There are these small unexplained events.  Driving with my friend Pete in New York’s Upper West Side, looking for a parking space, about to give up, suddenly turning to him and saying, “I think if I make a left, then a right, then another right, someone will be pulling out.”  He told me I was crazy, then I did what I said, and voila!  Someone pulled out of a parking space.

I’m not a person who likes to talk about precognition or psychic phenomena.  I mean, it’s a f-ing parking space.  But still, it makes me wonder about what we might be able to do.  If we plugged into our minds.  If we used them better.

And here I am, still writing about rage every day, still re-reading as Sarno’s Mindbody Prescription says to do, because much as I joke and complain about having a German mother, I am disciplined.  I can decide to do things and get myself to do them, most of the time.  And his hypothesis is that the unconscious mind does this mild oxygen deprivation to certain muscles, nerves, and/or tendons, and that is the cause of almost all back pain.  Self-protective in nature, this unconscious process focuses on keeping emotions like rage, pain, grief, shame (but mostly rage) from surfacing consciously.  He believes we can tell our unconscious minds to stop it, so that oxygen deprivation will cease, and so will the pain.

In other words, we can use our conscious minds to interrupt unconscious and self-protective processes.  I’m over a week out on Sarno’s program, and so far, so good.  After years of worsening back pain, I’m virtually pain-free, and when pain starts to twinge, I can write about what is bothering me and the pain disappears.

Mind you, I’ve been in four car accidents.  But Sarno says the mind is clever.  He writes about simultaneity, and how psychogenic pain seems to occur at old injury sites.  He says it occurs at odd times–like doing lots of exercise and yoga (which I do) without pain and then randomly throwing out your back turning over in bed.  Which has happened to me more than once.  More than twice.

And lest you think I am just abnormally insane, he basically states that psychogenic pain is universal and can be linked to everything from sore throats to back pain to cancer.  Everyone has some at some point.  Certain personality types–perfectionists, like me, or people pleasers like most of my friends–are more prone to it becoming chronic.

In other words, if you don’t find a voice for your pain and rage, if you can’t face it because it might dent your view of yourself, your brain takes on the job of distracting you.

I have become so interested in this.  I call my German mother a hypochondriac, because she always came down with a headache or sinus problem withing five hours of me arriving home to visit.  She’d go to bed, expecting me to make dinner and take care of the house and kids.  This made me not so keen on the idea of self-induced sickness, because in my world view, it was used to manipulate.

Though this had truth, it wasn’t the most compassionate view.  My mother was also a perfectionist, she had also been the oldest daughter, both of her parents drank A LOT, as did her husband, and she felt responsible to contain the uncontainable–in other words, people.  Now I think it probably wasn’t conscious.  I believe my mother was dying to have someone love and take care of her, and she felt rage at never having been nurtured or nurtured enough, and the only way to escape the responsibilities of taking care of six kids was to get sick.  I didn’t like being the one who the extra responsibilities landed on, and I eventually put a stop to it, but it now seems like such a universal thing–who doesn’t, as an adult, want to be nurtured?  In this culture, with our nuclear families and marriages that don’t work, it’s still seen as shameful to admit such things…that we have unmet needs, that we’re pissed off about them, and that our unconscious minds are very busy trying to keep us both civilized and protected from knowing what we really feel.

I’ve been mentally teasing at something else I’ve noticed in couples I know in which one partner is sick with Lupus or Lyme disease–how often the healthy partner eventually also becomes ill.  I mean, what is that?  I’ve often noticed it with judgment (rooted, no doubt, in my own experience of a mother who liked to lie down a little too much), but really, what happens?

Sarno would say that the well partner feels so much rage at having all the extra responsibility that the mind has to distract from the power of that emotion.  He would also say that it’s likely the ill partner has some form of mindbody syndrome.  Think of it.  In a marriage, one person ill with rage, and the other ill with raging at the illness.

I think of David Schnarch with his definition of normal marital sadism and Wow!  the layers of this, and the dark underside of our needs, our jealousy, our need to be primary…it’s a bit much to face.  But interesting.

My friend who believes in unconditional peace also believes strongly that in a marriage, you must depend primarily on your own spirituality, and not at all on your partner.  I don’t find much to disagree with there, but I still want my partner to hold me when I’m sad, to witness my struggles, to enjoy my happy moments and I know she wants that as well.  Maybe it’s just dangerous when the needs become dependency, when either partner can’t handle a, “no, not now” or “no, not this one.”  We can’t feel entitled to each other’s care.  But we need to care…

Sarno’s work releases all this unconscious emotion into consciousness.  And good-bye chronic back pain, and thank whatever/whoever it’s working.  But what am I supposed to do with all the information and extra emotion?  Sarno says we don’t have to change who we are, but I’m sorry, it’s like I have to just move over to make room for how pissed I am that I have these ridiculous standards for myself, and how pissed I am at people in my past who have hurt me, and how pissed I am that the world is unjust.  I can’t just go around blowing up; I mean, supposedly I’m becoming LESS reactive, not more.

It’s a big pain in the ass, having to work this out, but I suspect I’m on to something.  I mean, I’m training my unconscious.  I’m learning to send more oxygen to certain muscles with my conscious mind.  That’s cool.  And I’m also learning something about relationships that right now is inchoate…something about intimacy, dependency, the leftover remnants of childhood (Sarno would reference Freud’s Id).  My partner and I have started meditating together, and doing this witnessing practice.  (No, not a suggestion from couples therapy, though I wish we had a therapist that was that smart.)  We want to occupy a spiritual life together, to be more honest, to see into the things we are embarrassed to own about our emotional needs and own them anyhow.  And yet, I know I still want the freedom to act like a child or an absolute freak, to do handstands and make jokes…I want to trust her to hold me in the sacred compassion of spirituality, and also trust her enough to let myself be messy with her.  Can we really be this honest?  Can we talk about unconscious rage and normal marital sadism?  Can we play in these uninhibited ways?  All I know is that when we are honest about the hard stuff, the closeness is incredible, frightening, wonderful…and gives rise to a lot of inappropriate humor on my part.

Listen, I may be a freak, but the truth is, I’m not that much of a freak.  We are all so scared to come close to each other, much as we want it.  We are terrified to be honest, we hate being judged, we discover levels of shame when we reveal ourselves in our truest beauty and our truest darkness.  I don’t want to run from this.  It is a fire to stand in, but there has to be a way to bring the keen light of our minds–conscious and unconscious–into this business of intimacy, and have it help.  I mean, if we can increase blood and oxygen flow consciously, if monks can melt snow with their body temperature when they meditate outside in winter, there must be a way to open into this…training ground, this healing confrontation with the other who is also, on some level, myself.

My partner and I meditate together to bring calm into our marriage.  We witness to bring honesty.  We go to f-ing couples therapy to see what we can’t see without help.  To be confronted, called out, understood, helped.  Or because we hope for those things.

I am thinking that when I finish applying these mental techniques to my back, I may apply them to some other things.  Emotional blocks, for example.  Emotional stuck places.  I’ll keep you posted.  I’m sure the vulnerability and floods of emotion will pretty much suck, but knowing me, I’ll be so fundamentally interested I won’t want to stop.

Metta for all of us.  Especially the insanely curious inner investigators, like me.

PS-Lest you think I have spent my week in bed (I am still sick) thinking only these deep thoughts, I should say that yesterday I watched all of Season 8 of Project Runway and am deeply saddened that it’s over.  Mondo should have won.  I’m in love with him, too.  You know, he’s added to the list.

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