A Stoic Blueprint For Chronic Pain

I didn’t make this thing to talk personal stuff. The following is about useful ideas, but I do need to paint a quick picture.

I had urination problems and couldn’t sit down without a doughnut cushion. My sore back and guch (don’t google image) meant I spent most of 5 months laying down. After seeing multiple experts I still don’t have a good reason as to why.

It sucked but some people are much worse off.

Here’s how in some ways, it’s made my life better.

Dystopian Holograms

Anxiety is largely the distance between expectation and reality.

If you expect a promotion at work and don’t get it, life sucks. If you expect everyone to be nice and they’re jerks, it’s a bad day. If you don’t expect your back to hurt and it does, it’s stressful.

Pain sucks but what sucks more is the domino effect is creates. Why does it hurt? Will it be like this forever? Will it get worse?

Beginning every day I prepared myself for it.

Not just a little but worse than I’d ever had. There was no gap between expectation and reality. By preparing myself I couldn’t be disappointed, I could only be pleasantly surprised. On an average day I now felt lucky.

Now there’s just one domino.

Pain sucks but in isolation it’s just sensory data, like indigestion. The story you tell yourself multiplies it. If you tell yourself how much it hurts it’ll hurt more. If you tell yourself it’s sensory data it hurts less.

This data can be a focus of meditation.

. . .

When your at work watching the clock tick, you might imagine yourself sunbathing on a deserted beach somewhere. Occasionally this process will be the impetus to quit your shitty job and travel – good for you.

Most of the time though, this mental simulation doesn’t result in anything.

Utopias don’t exist, neither do dystopias. You dreams and nightmares aren’t true. What this utopian hologram does is provide contrast to your current experience. We don’t have an internal value meter so compared to this inaccurate hologram, your crappy job seems even worse.

A monk observing the birds is practicing non-judgement. This is perhaps ideal, but for regular humans isn’t so easy.

If a holographic utopia isn’t altering decision making, your better off imagining a dystopian hologram.

I watched March Of The Penguins the other day. Being a penguin sucks, I’m so glad I’m not a penguin. Being stuck in bed sucks but some people are much worse off. I could be paraplegic. I could be cognitively impaired. I could be a definition-debater.

It’s easy to imagine a utopia, much more mental effort is required to run a dystopian simulation.

You can overdo it though – there’s a difference between acknowledging downside and fixating on it. Stoicism and cynicism are not the same. Despite preparing for the worst daily this didn’t make me a pessimist, I simply choose pleasant surprise over disappointment. Over the long term I was always optimistic.

By running dystopian simulations you become more grateful. You see things more positively.

So that’s the coping, but how was this better?

. . .

Rich celebrities sometimes kill themselves. Sewerage farm workers sometimes love their life.

From an extrinsic perspective being bed ridden sucks. From an extrinsic perspective any benefits would be minuscule, but look hard enough and there are some benefits.

I’m really happy to be alive in 2016, it’s way better than being alive thousands of years ago. But our tribal ancestors probably didn’t suffer from too much paradox of choice. The order of their to-do list was basically made for them: find water so you don’t die, stay away from sabertooth tigers so you don’t die.

Our first world problems are petty but the stress of those problems isn’t. Just because your stressing about something doesn’t make it important. Is it just me or does picking the right film on Netflix spend way too much mental energy?

Being bed ridden drastically limits decision-making stress. With my to-do list is now ordered for me, I was no longer stuck between different mental worlds.

A billionaire would love to have the spare time I had. When I was working long hours I’d have loved so much spare time.

I could read all the books I didn’t have time to read. I could start projects I’d been putting off.

There’s is such a thing as extrinsic value, but intrinsic perspective is more important. By meditating and telling yourself the right stories you can become a more skilful thinker. You can inflate the positives and deflate the negatives.

The Other Side

In The Art Of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (great book), he recalls breaking his wrist 7 weeks prior to the National Tai Chi Push-Hands Championship. Doctor’s told him that best case scenario he’d get the cast off in 6 weeks. Given how much his muscles would atrophy though, there was no chance he’d be able to compete.

He resolved to anyway. He practiced visualisation exercises on the injured wrist and kept trained with just the left. In doing so he started to become competitive with only one arm. He goes on,

I became so comfortable fending off both my opponent’s hands with my left, that the idea of ultimately getting back my right hand felt like an unfair luxury.

He got the cast off in 6 weeks and thanks to the visualisation techniques, the wrist had barely atrophied.

He won the tournament.

. . .

On good days I’d go for short beach walks.

Sometimes while strolling I’d find my hands cupped behind my back. Has any sane person under 40 ever done that? Couple this with back pain, predominantly grey hair and sexual dysfunction I’d officially aged about 30 years.

But there’s one thing you can say about old people, they appreciate the waves and a sunset more.

The monk observing birds can extract more juice from that moment than a hungover 19 year old at the Grand Canyon (I can attest). I’d become a more talented experiencer.

Dealing with a significant stressor made other peoples problems seem petty. It made my old problems petty.

Like Josh using two arms, once this was over it would almost be unfair how trivial normal stresses would be.

Good & Bad?

You can’t predict the future, at least in any domain that matters. If you can’t predict the future you therefore can’t foresee certain outcomes. Unforeseen outcomes can either be good or bad.

The obviousness of a good or bad event is a trick.

Maybe I read a book that gave me a life changing insight. This information could change future decision making, making me more money, new relationships, new hobbies etc. Maybe this blog opens doors that I can’t see right now. Maybe an awesome job opens up right when I get better.

Alan Watts puts this idea better than I can here.

I dunno – that’s the point.

. . .

So where am I now?

I went to lots of experts, who did not disappoint me.

I ran a million different personal experiments to try and figure it out. Dry needling, chiropractic, acupuncture, non steroidal anti-inflammatories, liposomal curcumin, photobiomodulation, Mckenzie exercises, ketogenic diet, a rotation diet to weed out food intolerance, fixing my breathing mechanics, inversion therapy, high-dose vitamin C.

I wasn’t in the business of controlling variables, I just wanted to get better. So I can’t tell you what worked best. But self-experimentation achieved two things: It provided a sense of agency during a time of little control and it made me feel way better.

With my to-do list organised for me, your now reading these words.


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