The morning my husband put his back in the garbage.

Understanding Pain
My husband and his strong, resilient, and adaptive back. Photo: Bredon Purdy


It had been a rough night with our sick 2-year-old. It had been a rough week of nights. I was fumbling around the kitchen in a sleep-deprived haze when my husband comes upstairs and announces:

“I threw my back out.”

My poor husband. I imagine a compassionate response in this moment would have been: “Oh, man, I’m sorry – that sucks. What happened?”

But that is not what he got from me.

Instead, exhausted and anxious, I’m thinking about myself: “Does my own husband seriously not understand what I do? Does he not understand how pain works? How have I failed to convey that it matters how you speak about your body?”

I muster up an ounce of patience, try to take it less personally, and offer: “At work, I try to coach people not to use language like that.”

As my husband walks towards the door, he follows up with: “There is something mechanically wrong.”

And in this moment, I believe he believes that and I’m speechless because my brain isn’t processing fast enough to offer a compassionate, helpful, and authentic response. The unhelpful response on the tip of my tongue is: “Are you kidding me?”

Fortunately, before I say anything, my husband turns around with a smile on his face and says, “I’m joking!”

I furrow my brow a little. Not funny.

Okay, a little funny.


Those of you who haven’t dabbled in pain neuroscience might be a little confused at this point. I probably lost some of you with my lack of sympathy for my husband throwing his back out. But let us really pause there for a moment.

What does that even mean? “Throw out”. Did he put it in the garbage? Toss it out the window?

No. Of course not. It means he is experiencing pain in his back.

But – and this is the key piece – he is using language that implies a structural problem or weakness in his back. Language that suggests something went wrong, that something is out of place.

You might be thinking at this point, “Okay, I hear you, but what does it matter? It is just an expression. We know what he means.”

Here is why it matters:

Pain is a protective response. It is like a built-in alarm system for your body. If your brain believes your tissues are under threat, it will sound the alarm.

Contrary to popular belief, the alarm itself is not a reliable representation of what is happening in our tissues. Countless variables influence whether or not your alarm will trigger, but the one that matters with respect to this story is your thoughts.

What you think (and what you say) plays a significant role in your brain’s perceived need for protection. This is not airy-fairy yoga talk; this is neuroscience.

If you speak of your body as broken, fragile, or weak, you are contributing to the cues that you are in need of protection. Using language like this will increase the likelihood of a protective response. It will increase the likelihood of pain.


So, how do we think and speak about pain in a way that will decrease the likelihood of a protective response?

Use language that is as precise as possible. Use language that describes the actual experience you are having, not an attempt to explain why you might be having it.

Take my husband’s back as an example: what did he know that morning?

He knew that he started experiencing pain in his back. “Wow, I am feeling some pain in my back.”

He could probably tell me which part of his back was painful. “Right in the middle of my back.”

He could have used words to more richly describe the sensation. “It’s pretty sharp and sudden.”

What else does he know in this moment? Not much. And it is a good idea to respect that.

When you are in pain, practice using language that focuses on describing your immediate experience of the pain. Let go of language that attempts to provide an explanation for the experience because that language will inevitably be less precise.

Even the best physician, physical therapist, or neuroscientist won’t be able to tell you exactly why you are experiencing pain. Pain is far too complex to be reduced to a singular mechanism.

But the more we start to respect this complexity, the more empowered we are to influence our experiences of pain in new and significant ways. Independent of other factors, how you think and speak about your pain will influence this protective response.

When you speak to your experience of pain, stick to what you know and hold to this truth: human bodies are strong, resilient, and adaptive. Human beings are strong, resilient, and adaptive.

You are strong, resilient, and adaptive.



Moseley, G. L. (2007) Reconceptualizing pain according to its underlying biology. Physical Therapy Reviews 12: 169-178.

Moseley, G. L. & Butler, D. S. (2015) The Explain Pain Handbook: Protectometer. Noigroup Publications: Adelaide.

“Or this could be Hell.”

Awareness Ishvarapranidhana Living Yoga Meditation Yoga

I attended a yoga class 10-or-so-years ago that was themed around this line from the Eagles’ Hotel California:

“This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.”

The intention behind the theme was to emphasize the idea that we can influence our experience of things. An experience, in this case, a set of challenging asana (yoga postures), could be heaven or hell depending on how we respond to it.

Wisdom has a way of weaving itself through our lives, and I recently had this lesson come back to me in a powerful way. I was sitting in my meditation practice, and I was feeling strong urges to get things done. My mind kept wandering to things I wanted to get done, and physically, I felt like my body was a firework about to explode. Sitting still felt out of line with everything my body wanted to do in that moment.

About midway through my practice, the lyrics popped into my head:

“This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.”

And with that thought, my body softened and my mind settled. I wasn’t going to cut my practice short to try and get more things done, so I could either sit and agonize over not being able to do other things in this moment or I could meet myself where I had committed to be.

Recalling the song lyrics reminded me that there was choice in this moment. There are many things that I can’t control, but my thoughts are not one of those things. It was completely within my power to engage differently with this experience, and so I did.

I accepted that I wasn’t going anywhere until my practice was complete. And, in accepting where I was, I found significantly more ease and even some enjoyment in the moment. I reconnected with my commitment to the practice and the powerful change it has facilitated in my life. I remembered that – for better or for worse – I chose this.

But life can throw things at us that are much more challenging than yoga. Things we didn’t choose. Things no one would choose. Things that are hard and heartbreaking.

It is still worth considering that there is wisdom in reflecting upon how we respond to things, but perhaps it might be better to say something along the lines of:

“This could be [hard and heartbreaking] or this could be Hell.”

This experience could be a challenging one that pushes me beyond what I thought were my limits, or it could be a horrible catastrophe that I can’t see myself moving through. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. We can improve our ability to cope. The ego may not love the idea that we could make changes to bring more ease into our challenging experiences, but paradoxically, we tend to feel rather proud of ourselves when we do.

And then there was loss…

Awareness Svadhyaya


Empathy is popular these days. At least it is in my circles. It seems like something on how to develop empathy – in ourselves or in our children – crosses my path every few days.

One of the key messages I have taken from all this information about empathy is this: try not to respond to someone’s struggle with anything that starts with “at least”, because empathy rarely takes the form of pointing out the fortunate in someone’s misfortune.

I used to do this a lot. And sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort not to. Pointing out the “positive” comes so easily to me in those moments, but in doing so, I am missing something huge.

The interaction I am having is not about the experience of the person in front of me; it is about the emotions of the person in front of me. Brené Brown has spent the past sixteen years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and she writes:

Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us … Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.

If I focus on the story and the experience, I am missing the opportunity to support the person in front of me.

Shifting gears slightly, another piece I have taken from my explorations into empathy (and emotional intelligence, in general) is the expression: “Feel it to heal it.”

Some emotions are harder to feel: anger, sadness, grief, jealousy, and anxiety, to name a few. The idea behind the expression “feel it to heal it” is that we need to feel our challenging emotions to process them and move through them. If we ignore them or deny them, they stay with us.

I lost a friend recently. I am thinking about misfortune and challenging emotions because of this personal experience.

I’ve noticed how I have embodied the things I have been learning about. I didn’t try to tell a story of why it was okay. It’s not. It’s tragic and awful and heartbreaking. I didn’t try to numb or distract myself from feeling the pain of the loss. Well, full disclosure, I did some Netflix bingeing and I ate enough vegan spelt brownies to change the way my pants fit, but I mostly felt the depression, ache, and sadness. Some things are hard to feel 24/7.

Sitting with it has been new and different and hard.

I notice an absence of personalization. This experience is different too. I haven’t made it about me. I haven’t moved into a place of fear where I am worried that I will die or that my husband will die in a similar way.

So, here I am: feeling loss. To be honest, there is a part of me that keeps thinking, “So, what do I do now? If I am not putting a spin on the story, if I am not making it all about me, if I am not distracting myself, what do I do with this pain and sadness?”

I’m new to moving through emotions in this way, but my best guess is that I just keep feeling it. I practice patience and acceptance. I learn how to take better care of myself. Before this experience, my sense of “feel it to heal it” was that it was a faster process. I had a sense that acknowledging emotions made them go away, but I’m thinking of the other expression: “name it to tame it.” Acknowledgement can take the edge off, but it doesn’t resolve deep emotion. I see now that processing challenging emotions is more of an allowing and an unfolding.

As we allow ourselves to feel our grief, it begins to integrate within us. It never goes away, but we learn, with time, to hold it with more ease.