by Mariel Berger, Guest Writer
Photograph by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
[Image description: This photograph, taken from the top of a mountain in Hinsdale, NH, shows a cloudy sky with blue mountains in the background, dark green trees in the middle distance with homes and roads scattered throughout, and small olive-green shrubs and sumac in the foreground.]
Because of nerve and disc damage gone too long undetected from my bike accident three years ago, my body has seized up. After I left the hospital, I refused to let pain limit my way of life and very quickly went back to playing a heavy accordion, running miles every day, and doing other activities not good for a recently torn body.
For most of my life, I refused to acknowledge physical pain. I fiercely believed in mind over matter and that I could push myself to be more than my body. I often escaped pain by staying in my head and reading or doing any other pure intellectual pursuit.
For me, living fully meant ignoring the limitations of the body. I would go on a run even if I were writhing in pain from cramps. I would bike everywhere, refusing to take the subway even if I had to go as far as Washington Heights. There were numerous summer days that I rode my bike an hour to the beach, played soccer and ultimate frisbee, swam in the ocean for hours, and then rode all the way home.
All of these extreme physical activities were more of a mental experience. I wasn’t actually deeply in my body sensing what I could handle. If I had been fully in my body I would have felt the subtle aches – tiny cells crying for a rest.
Two years ago, there was a vibrant house concert followed (as usual) by a crazy dance party. I had been having a lot of tension in my shoulders and back, but I had been ignoring it, thinking it would pass. During the raging dance party, I was so exhilarated by the explosive energy around me that I danced on top of chairs, jumped up and down to Beyonce, and threw myself on the ground trying to slide across the room to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
The next morning I woke up feeling shitty, but figured my morning run would snap me back into place. And that’s when my body broke.
When I saw an acupuncturist, he asked me how I had gotten to this point and why I hadn’t come in earlier. I said I thought I was stronger than my pain. I thought that living fully was living extremely. I felt that I had to push myself in order to be more – in order to be recognized.
Had the person I was so in love with at the dance party noticed me? (It’s hard to miss the silly girl dancing on the couch.)
If, all my life, I’d held to the belief that I had to be MORE and BETTER in order to be loved, why would I stop for a moment to rest?
Why would I only practice piano/accordion for two hours when there were ten more hours that I could be getting better?
Why would I hang out with friends at night if I could bury myself in my journals and write and read into the night?
I would only be seen if I were different and GREAT. How tiring it is to be at war with myself! But the younger me didn’t realize how much the war was hurting – and that both sides were losing.
This past summer, my body started to crumble more. And now, I am seized up in pain from years and years of ignoring asymmetries and tension in my body. Now, I move slowly – not by choice, but because my muscles are frozen trying to fiercely protect damaged nerves. I have eliminated all of my activities down to the most essential.
I am learning about less.
Yesterday, all I did was go on a walk for 20 minutes when pain started shooting up my back and into my neck, shoulders, and head. Now, I HAVE to listen to my body because it is SCREAMING all of the time. There is no mind over matter. Actually, the mind does not matter!
I don’t care about stimulating and expanding my mind if it means I’m disconnected from the rest of my body. The ONLY thing that matters is being present each and every moment INSIDE my body, aware of its sensations. It took the crying and neglected child to run away in order for the parent to realize that the most important thing in life is paying attention to the child.
My body will heal. Right? And when it does, I promise I will NEVER take my physical health and mobility for granted.
Two days ago, a good friend was over, and I was heating my lower back with a hot-water bottle to help my spasming muscles. We were talking and, at times, I noticed that it was REALLY hot on my back, but I was completely absorbed in our conversation. I was even telling him about my new revelation that I don’t pay attention to my body when it’s in pain.
After he left, I touched my lower back and, to my surprise, found a blister the size of a quarter from the heat burning my skin. I had been so hyper-attentively involved in the conversation that I let myself get burned! I guess learning to slow down and listen to my body takes time. I can’t just suddenly change life-long habits.
Extreme can’t be countered with more extreme.
Years ago, I was in Costa Rica working on a farm, and one of my life mentors, Chandra, gave me advice to stay more grounded in my body and connected to the earth. She suggested walking very slowly, bare-footed, focusing on the sensation of each step.
So I, the overachiever, decided that I would practice this a LOT and intensely in order to get enlightened FAST. I spent an entire day walking barefoot throughout the farm and forest, even in the rough, rocky parts. I came back to her with blisters and cuts on my feet.
She laughed. “I didn’t say to go walk on sharp rocks!”
I laughed too. Luckily, being human is hilarious. And luckily, life keeps offering gentle (and harsh) reminders, and many, many more chances to learn.
As I sit now in acute pain, I ask for some more chances, and I will try to stay here in my experience – to stay here in my body, noticing everything. For even in the times of extreme pain, there are subtle things changing slowly.
I will try to wait for the healing that comes simply by being tenderly present in my life.
Mariel Berger is a composer, pianist, singer, teacher, writer, and gardener living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been playing the piano since she was three and, in the last seven years, has taken to writing poetry and prose. Having recorded her debut singer-songwriter CD in May of 2014, Mariel has bridged her two passions of music and poetry.She writes for Tom Tom Magazine, which features female drummers, and hosts a monthly house concert series promoting women, trans*, and gender-non-conforming musicians and artists. She gets her biggest inspiration from her young music students who teach her how to be gentle, patient, joyful, and curious. You can find her website at www.marielberger.com.
Having been dealing with chronic pain in this past year, Mariel is learning the powerful lesson of slowing down and living more fully in her body. Her pain is teaching her how to be more loving with herself and those around her. Mariel longs for a softer and slower world – one in which there is more space and time for healing and care. She is learning the powerful lesson of slowing down and living more fully in herbody. Her pain teaches her how to be more loving with herself and those around her.