Finding Your Flexibility

On Finding Your Flexibility

Find­ing Your Flex­i­bil­i­ty — Some years ago, the Work­er’s Com­pen­sa­tion Board in Ontario invit­ed me to start work­ing with injured work­ers. Dar­bel­la and I taught them med­i­ta­tion, qi gong, and some yoga stretches. 

We thought we were going to take the project province wide, but then the gov­ern­ment shift­ed pri­or­i­ties, and stopped hir­ing out­side con­sul­tants. Or some­thing like that. 

So, we had all of this mate­r­i­al, and decid­ed it was so good, we’d turn it into an online course. And that evolved into a pdf book­let, and online videos.

On the off chance that you might be expe­ri­enc­ing any kind of pain (phys­i­cal or men­tal), this course might be for you.

Check out Finding Your Flexibility here!

Here’s the introduction!


This is the first in what will be a series of book-online video com­bi­na­tions. Our goal is to make Qi Gong, Med­i­ta­tion, Stretch­es and Breath­work ‘do-able’ by peo­ple begin­ning these prac­tices in mid­dle age, and by peo­ple  with phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions. We designed this pro­gram because of a request from Ontario’s Work­place Safe­ty and Insur­ance Board, to aid injured workers.

The Phoenix Centre’s work is always inte­gra­tive, and part of “inte­gra­tion” is the­o­ret­i­cal. In oth­er words, you need to “get where we are com­ing from”—to under­stand the con­cepts that under­lie the exer­cis­es. You don’t have to accept or believe them—just hold them loose­ly in your mind as you exper­i­ment with the tech­niques on the on-line videos.

After one sem­i­nar, a par­tic­i­pant said, “I am real­ly in pain. Noth­ing has worked, and it’s only going to get worse. Now you show up with these ideas. I can’t accept them until they work, and they can’t work until there’s a change in my body mechanics.”

I said, “Or, you could just give some of this stuff a seri­ous effort, and see what hap­pens.” He paused, and then said, “It can’t hurt, I guess.”

I would only ask one thing of you. Approach this process with an open mind, and actu­al­ly do the exer­cis­es on the on-line videos. Read and re-read this book, and com­mit to 30 days of repeat­ing the exer­cis­es. See where things are at that point. There are no guar­an­tees in advance, oth­er than this one:

 If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll like­ly get the same results.

Medical Disclaimer:

In the inter­est of avoid­ing injury or mishap, any kind of stren­u­ous phys­i­cal activ­i­ty con­duct­ed with­out the assis­tance of a pro­fes­sion­al coach or train­er should be dis­cussed with one’s physi­cian or per­son­al health­care advi­sor. The exer­cis­es and advice put forth in this book and on-line videos are by no means a sub­sti­tute for med­ical care or exper­tise. Nev­er over exert your­self. If you expe­ri­ence any sort of dis­com­fort stop imme­di­ate­ly and, if nec­es­sary, seek med­ical attention.

Self-Responsible Pain Management

Through­out this book, and to some extent on the on-line videos, I’m going to describe East­ern and West­ern approach­es to liv­ing, to Body­work and exer­cise, and to pain man­age­ment. I want to help you see how com­bin­ing these two approach­es might be the smartest thing you ever did.

My ini­tial train­ing was in West­ern psy­chother­a­py, which is often called the “talk­ing cure.” There were body ele­ments to this: we looked at breath­ing; we did psy­chodra­ma (act­ing out sce­nar­ios, in groups) and stud­ied Gestalt, which has many phys­i­cal aspects.

In my clin­i­cal prac­tice, I had years of suc­cess with the “talk­ing cure.” What I noticed, how­ev­er, was that the relief tend­ed to be men­tal—in oth­er words, peo­ple gained com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, bet­ter under­stand­ing of their sto­ries, and tools for talk­ing through emerg­ing issues. What wasn’t hap­pen­ing was any (or much) change on the phys­i­cal lev­el. Peo­ple with great men­tal cop­ing skills were still in phys­i­cal pain, and things weren’t get­ting bet­ter with time.

I start­ed explor­ing East­ern philoso­phies and tech­niques, to see if I could find some­thing to try. I learned that there was a direct and fun­da­men­tal con­nec­tion between what peo­ple thought (clung to,) and what was hap­pen­ing in their bodies.

In 1996, I attend­ed a 25-day pro­gram at The Haven, near Nanaimo, B.C. There, I learned a West­ern ver­sion of Body­work. I learned Body­work the­o­ry—that our bod­ies hold with­in their phys­i­cal struc­ture the sto­ry of our unre­solved issues and past trau­mas, phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal. A trained Body­work prac­ti­tion­er can sim­ply look at how you car­ry your­self and can there­by tell you much of your life story.

Body­work emerged from the insights of Wil­helm Reich, a 20th cen­tu­ry psy­cho­an­a­lyst. He iden­ti­fied what he called “char­ac­ter traits,” and decid­ed that such traits were reac­tions to the person’s reject­ed (and blocked) emotions.

His idea was that peo­ple devel­oped rigid per­son­al­i­ties, made up of var­i­ous inter­nal stories—these sto­ries, if left unex­am­ined, became rigid states as opposed to flex­i­ble choic­es.

Reich decid­ed that char­ac­ter traits were held in place by the person’s “char­ac­ter armour,” which is an actu­al tight­en­ing of the mus­cles of the body. He fur­ther dis­cov­ered that guid­ing clients into their tight­ness, (through Breath­work and apply­ing pres­sure to the body,) helped clients to break through the char­ac­ter armour, and from there, to begin to dis­as­sem­ble the inef­fec­tive char­ac­ter traits and stories.

So, let’s apply this to you. You might ask yourself:

Why do I expe­ri­ence pain in this part of my body, and
what’s the sto­ry I tell myself about it?”

I think you might dis­cov­er that there has been sig­nif­i­cant tight­ness in the part of your and now, this same tight­ness adds to the pain you feel as you work with this area. There is more hap­pen­ing beneath the sur­face than is imme­di­ate­ly apparent.

Well, that was a bit about Reich and West­ern approach­es. Of course, oth­er West­ern tools are things like phys­io­ther­a­py, drugs, and surgery.

On the East­ern side of things, East­ern meth­ods assume that the body is filled with ener­gy. This ener­gy can be direct­ed, and used for heal­ing. You’ll hear us talk a bit about merid­i­ans, about ener­gy (called chi or Qi,) and about how ener­gy block­ages cause the body to be “out of balance.”

In East­ern thought, our bod­ies are seen holis­ti­cal­ly, as Body­Mind­Spir­it. We are designed to nat­u­ral­ly be in bal­ance. Inter­nal ill­ness­es and exter­nal injuries cause the ener­gy to flow non-nat­u­ral­ly, and this in turn leads to pain and inflexibility.

Pain reduc­tion and increased flex­i­bil­i­ty are goals of this program—we assume that this will hap­pen as the body comes more and more into bal­ance. In oth­er words, through spe­cif­ic exer­cis­es and med­i­ta­tion, we’ll treat the imbal­ance, and allow the pain and stiff­ness to take care of itself.

We men­tioned that there are things you’d need to “get,” and here’s the first one. You will need to see how your Body­Mind­Spir­it is right now as part of a longer ‘story’—in a sense, to accept the idea that your body is hold­ing unex­pressed emo­tions and trau­mas that pre-dis­pose you to be in less than opti­mal con­di­tion.
We call this under­stand­ing “the core of self-respon­si­bil­i­ty.” In oth­er words,

I am how I am, right now, because of how I thought, act­ed,
and dealt with my life, up to now.”

I’m ask­ing you to look to your­self, to iden­ti­fy areas you have been ignor­ing, and to gen­tly turn your atten­tion to those things. No one but you can turn the tide. You’ll have to break habits and learn to think and act in a new way, but hey, the way you were doing things hasn’t exact­ly panned out, now has it?

The real work is always self-work.

The sim­plest way to begin is to have a sense of humour. Notice how you stay stuck, notice where in your body you are tight, and smile and shake your head. If you do not like how you feel or how you are think­ing, change your focus and direc­tion. In oth­er words, no mat­ter what, fix your­self as soon as you notice you are going off the rails. 

No mat­ter how bad a sit­u­a­tion seems to be,
it will only change when you do.

It’s impor­tant to watch how we deal with events that seem larg­er than life—that we think of as “Not fair!” Gath­ered under this umbrel­la are things like death, ill­ness, acci­dents, pain, suf­fer­ing, glob­al cat­a­stro­phes, abuse, and the like.

When we are kids, we hear fairy­tales about peo­ple liv­ing ‘hap­pi­ly ever after.’ We believe in San­ta and the East­er Bun­ny. Then, we grow up, and give up on San­ta, fairies, and the Bun­ny, but seem to keep the ‘mag­i­cal thinking’—if I am good, only good things will hap­pen to me. For free. All the time.

The oth­er side of this coin is the idea that if ‘bad stuff’ hap­pens, the recip­i­ent must have ‘deserved it.’ It’s think­ing, “Bad things only (or should only) hap­pen to bad peo­ple.” If you hang around wakes or funer­al par­lors, and if the dead per­son died of any­thing oth­er than of old age, you will hear some moron say, “I won­der why God was mad at him. I won­der what he did to deserve this.”

Being a prac­ti­cal, Zen per­son, I won­der, “Why not this person?”

What, exact­ly, is “fair” treat­ment? There is no such thing. There is just the truth of life—this hap­pened, and this hap­pened, and this happened.

The real­i­ty of our lives is that we live in the midst of pain, suf­fer­ing, and death. No one has escaped this. Most of us will out­live our par­ents. Some of us will out­live our chil­dren. There will be ill­ness­es, acci­dents, pain. Won­der­ing about “why” is an attempt to avoid con­fronting the real­i­ty of our own sick­ness, age­ing, and death.

There is no why. What­ev­er hap­pened in your life did hap­pen, so what’s the sense of putting ener­gy into the “why?” thought? It’s also use­less to go a step fur­ther and start assign­ing blame. “Some­one should have done some­thing!” This should nev­er have happened!”

And what changes? Nothing! It still happened.

The only cure for all of this is the total accep­tance of what is. From a place of accep­tance, I can then choose to act dif­fer­ent­ly right now, instead of just whin­ing about unfairness.

The way it is, is the way it is,’ and fair­ness has noth­ing to do with it.

Pain and Suffering

Pain is one real­i­ty that touch­es all of our lives. For all of us, there will be the emo­tion­al pain of grief and loss. If we are injured, there must be phys­i­cal pain. In every life, pain is not optional.

Suf­fer­ing, how­ev­er, is optional.

All suf­fer­ing is self-imposed. The Buddha’s first truth is, “Life is suf­fer­ing.” But his sec­ond truth is, “All suf­fer­ing is caused by cling­ing and aver­sion.” In our exam­ples, cling­ing is hold­ing on to mag­i­cal think­ing. Aver­sion is the unwill­ing­ness to embrace (accept) the real­i­ty of the pain. The irony is that such aver­sion, cling­ing, and denial is crazy mak­ing, men­tal­ly painful, makes the actu­al phys­i­cal pain much worse, and changes absolute­ly noth­ing.

One root of suf­fer­ing comes from cling­ing to the past—wanting every­thing to be the way it was before the ‘bad’ thing hap­pened. This, of course, will not and can­not ever hap­pen, no mat­ter how much you wish it were so. And so, you suffer.

The oth­er root of suf­fer­ing comes from imag­in­ing the future—and mak­ing that future as grim and pain-filled as pos­si­ble. I won’t get into why we do this—it’s not worth the read­ing. This imag­i­nary sto­ry caus­es us to phys­i­cal­ly tight­en up and to dump a load of adren­a­line into our systems—and this, in turn, adds to our pain.

In both cas­es, suf­fer­ing comes from hat­ing and resist­ing pain. Yet, the pain is real—is part of our reality.

Ram Dass once said some­thing like,

Life is painful; it’s like hav­ing a hot stone placed on the palm of your hand.
You have two options.
Grasp the stone tight­ly and burn your whole hand, or
hold the stone light­ly and only burn the part under the stone. Choose.”

Most choose hard­en­ing and tight­en­ing around the pain, while adding in the “This isn’t fair” litany. And so, they suffer.

So, what is the alternative?

The Buddha’s third truth: If you let go of cling­ing and aver­sion, and live your life ful­ly and com­plete­ly, you can let go of suf­fer­ing (but not pain, sick­ness, and death—this is not optional!)

In other words, situations do not change—you do!

I am not min­i­miz­ing pain—I am sim­ply say­ing that it is ‘how it is.’ There will always be phys­i­cal pain, and there will always be sit­u­a­tions that are ago­niz­ing. There will always be depraved peo­ple prey­ing on inno­cents, and tragedy and death are as much a part of life a blue skies and sun­sets. Bemoan­ing the exis­tence of such painful sit­u­a­tions changes pre­cise­ly nothing.

Cre­at­ing anoth­er way of being with the sit­u­a­tion is always pos­si­ble. The key to liv­ing life with a min­i­mum of suf­fer­ing is to hold life, and your opin­ions, loose­ly. While it is tempt­ing to play the “It’s not fair” game, it is essen­tial to remem­ber that this accom­plish­es noth­ing in the real world.

The world is nei­ther fair, nor unfair. The world sim­ply is. Accept­ing this real­i­ty, as well as our abil­i­ty to deal with the pain that life brings, is essen­tial for man­ag­ing your pain.

Hold the burn­ing stone loosely.

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