A note from the author: I felt compelled to take a brief break from the “Convert a Friend” series of guest articles to share an experience that I had this week. I plan to resume the “Convert a Friend” series in a few days.
My love affair with reading began well before I started school and my appetite for the written word was insatiable. I read every volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. When I finished them, I read my father’s back copies of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. And I read countless editions of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
I believe that it was in the latter that I read an account of John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam.* McCain endured unimaginable torture at the hands of his captors. When he started questioning how much longer the torture was going to continue, he wasn’t able to take it. Similarly, when he wondered how much worse the pain could get, the anticipation of pain not yet suffered made his current pain unbearable. Eventually, he learned that the only way that he could endure the pain was by repeating, “In this moment, I am fine.”
Even as a child, I realized that there was something profound about McCain’s mantra. In the ensuing years, I have recited it innumerable times, most often when I was in the throes of a migraine. As long as I focused on the pain that I was currently experiencing, I was able to bear it. When I started wondering how much longer it was going to go on, or how much worse it was going to get, my suffering grew exponentially.
As anyone who has experienced one can tell you, a migraine is not just a headache. It is a syndrome with a whole host of symptoms, which can include extreme nausea and vomiting, inability to put a sentence together and photophobia just to name a few. Add the sensation of an ice pick stabbing your eye socket and you can begin to imagine how horrible a migraine is. While I’m in no way saying that a migraine compares to a torture session, I am incredibly grateful that I had McCain’s mantra to hold onto on the many occasions when death seemed preferable to the pain.
Fast forward to this week. After decades of envisioning a butterfly tattoo on my forearm I booked an appointment with an artist at Daredevil Tattoo. (That sentence would have sounded far more badass without the butterfly.) After a brief consultation, the artist asked me to lie down on a table and stretch my arm out on a padded support. He said, “You’ll be okay,” and patted my arm.
“Really?” I asked. “I was hoping for more.”
He paused for a moment and said, “Nope. That’s all the pep talk I give my clients.”
The initial stabs of the needle weren’t bad. They didn’t tickle, but they were bearable. I told myself that I had endured countless Botox injections on my face, into my jaws and the base of my skull in an attempt to prevent migraines. Surely I could stand some little needle pricks in my arm.
I wasn’t watching, but my sense is that the outlines were relatively painless, but filling them in, which evidently is done with several needles simultaneously, hurt like hell. It felt more like repeatedly scraping a razor blade over the area than individual punctures.
I tried to “check out” through meditation. While focusing on my breathing helped a bit, the pain kept calling me back. My meditation teachers always said, “If something in your experience is insistently calling to you, like sound, emotion or pain, you can make that the focal point of your meditation.” So I decided to focus on the pain. Not to wonder when was going to be over or how much worse it was going to get but on the experience itself. I became “curious” about the nature of the pain. And an amazing thing happened: It became more bearable.
The needle went in hundreds or thousands of times per minute. It hurt. Badly.
The second that the needle stopped, so did the pain.
The artist dragged several needles across my skin. It hurt. Really badly.
And the second that the needles stopped, so did the pain.
Soon I was focusing not only on the pain itself, but on the brief respites between the pain. I wasn’t anticipating the pain. Nor was I anticipating the respites. I was experiencing both sensations as they occurred.
I was able to maintain my moment-by-moment experiential curiosity for the duration of the session. And though the pain was no less intense, it was far more bearable.
And when it was over, it had transformed into a beautiful butterfly.
*I have been unable to confirm that McCain’s experience as a POW appeared in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. Thus, the account presented above is reconstructed purely from my (perhaps faulty) memory. If you can provide confirmation, please do.