It had been an especially hideous week: Just days earlier, my left contact lens had ripped while I was pulling it out – leaving a third of it inside, lost somewhere, and burning my eye; and the weekend before, I’d vomited uncontrollably after taking a sleeping pill for insomnia.
Like it wasn’t enough that I was suffering from chronic pain — with degenerated discs pressing nerves up and down my spine all day. So when my friend Rivi invited me to a two-night body work retreat in the middle of the Judean desert, three hours south of my Tel Aviv home, I politely advised her that I was going no farther than five miles from the nearest hospital, thank you very much.
“But getting out of the city is exactly what you need, and you’ll be in a healing environment,” she protested, offering to lend me her car should the need arise for an escape vehicle. “No,” I insisted.
When all you want to do is brood under the covers and drown in Ben & Jerry’s after a breakup, Rivi is the kind of friend who will yank you out of bed, throw open the curtains, and make you jog around the block three times.
So there she was banging on my door at 7:00 am on Thursday, hot cup of coffee in hand. “We’re going,” she announced.
Hours later, her little Fiat was bursting at the seams with my…
- two camping mats and two yoga mats
- regular pillow and buckwheat pillow
- green plastic “S” self-massage contraption
- book on self-acupressure
- ankle brace and knee brace
- yoga strap
- set of 2lb dumbbells
- five bottles of vitamins and supplements for natural pain relief
- one pack of extra-strength pain medication in case the natural routine wasn’t enough
- codeine in case the drug routine wasn’t enough
- sleeping pills in case nothing was enough (to sleep)
and a host of respiratory aids and medications addressing issues above and beyond those orthopedic.
Only then did I pack jeans, underwear, and two t-shirts, along with a tent, sleeping bag, sunblock, flashlight, and hat. Rivi’s necessities, meanwhile, sat quietly in a little bag in the far corner of her trunk.
We jumped into the car; Rivi kicked the engine into gear; and I rolled down the passenger window – sticking my head out and ululating Middle Eastern-style. It might prove to be a disastrous outing, but at least it would be an adventure.
Upon arrival, I spent the first couple of hours obsessing about the possibility of random specks of contact lens still floating around my left eyeball. I did, however, manage to take in the beauty of the desert and the specialness of the occasion:
It was Passover, and I was just a few hours away from where the Exodus action had taken place thousands of years earlier. I mean, how cool was that!
Despite the many layers with which I padded my tent floor that evening, however, I just couldn’t recreate the feel of my $1,000 King Coil orthopedic bed. Waking up in excruciating pain, hating life, I stumbled through the scorching hot sand toward the breakfast tent — snarling at all the happy people I passed and kicking myself for agreeing to come to a hot-shower-free zone. (For most people, it’s a matter of cleanliness. For me, it’s a matter of survival.)
The grand plan was to eat a plate of scrambled eggs, then retreat to my tent — where I could avoid the crowds and silently drown in misery for the remainder of the day. On my way back, however, I felt pulled to a shaded area where a small group was practicing gentle yoga.
I walked over tentatively, then joined at the edge of the circle — where I did pose adaptations for pain management. My body loosened up; my critical thoughts subsided; and I began to feel calm. But it was only during the closing meditation that something new happened:
“Feel the ground beneath you,” the teacher guided. “Feel the weight of your body pressing down; feel the sensation of the mat on your skin.” He paused for a moment. “You are not the ground. You are not the mat. You are not the weight pressing down. You are more than this.”
As he led the group through numerous other sensations – each time reminding us that we were more than any of them — I was so in the moment that it took a while to notice my pain had disappeared.
Over the previous decade, I’d tried physical therapy, yoga, acupuncture, Feldenkrais, swimming, weights, qi gong, chiropractic, tai chi, and other modalities as pain management techniques. I knew how much effort it took to reduce pain through natural means. So how could someone just talk me out of it?
Recognizing a crack in the cement of my incessant suffering, I felt enraptured. Something magical existed in a realm beyond what I’d experienced up until then, I knew, and I could access it myself if only I could find the gateway.