Inquiry 2/4: What Chronic Back Pain Has Taught Me About Tolerating Bullsh*t

This is the second in a series of four posts preparing us for the Autumn Equinox on 9/22. To catch up on the first one, click here.

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In my rough ‘n tumble twenties, I put my back through the ringer. Between getting bucked off a horse running full speed to crashing ATVs to getting rear-ended, my spine has experienced its fair share of bruises. Add on stress, poor posture, and having to schlep around a tiny human and all her gear, and most days, I’m on the couch with a heating pad by 5:00. If it’s a day where world events get me particularly enraged, the heating pad comes out by 2:00.

I resisted going to physical therapy for a long time, but it got so bad that I stopped hemming and hawing and finally went.

The physical therapist poked and prodded a bit, asked me some questions, and quickly told me that due to my egregiously poor posture, the small muscles in my upper back were having to do little micro lifts all day, every day.

Without the support of alignment, they were doing their best to keep everything intact, but it was like asking someone to lift a 2-lb weight all day - not that big of a deal at first, but eventually their bicep would become worn out and angry, like my back does.

So, she gave me some exercises to do at home, taped my back so I’d be forced to sit up straight, and sent me on my way.

This image of my poor muscles making tiny little lifts all day without any rest got me thinking about all of the other small exertions we make in our lives that wear us out.

Not being ourselves takes effort. Anytime we say something we don’t really believe, agree to something we don’t want to do, wear something we don’t like, or tolerate anything we think is actually bullshit, it’s like a tiny muscle contraction. And while this might not be a big deal in isolation, when it’s done over and over again, it becomes incapacitating.

I started to see little contractions everywhere - in the show I was watching that I wasn’t really into, in the food I was eating reluctantly, and even in the materials in my home that felt outdated and like a compromise.

It was especially clear in social interactions where I’d tolerate behavior that didn’t feel good. Right around the time of my first PT appointment, I went to a cafe in Portland called Crema, where I’ve always gotten rude service, but for some reason, I kept going back. This time, though, the baristas made it especially clear that my existence was offensive to them, and I promised myself I wouldn’t put my soul-muscles through that again. Simply choosing not to tolerate that minor thing anymore made me feel lighter in my step.

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Merriam-Webster’s definition of “tolerate” is: to allow to be or to be done without prohibition, hindrance, or contradiction; to put up with.

I know that in life, we just have to tolerate, or put up with, certain things - it can’t always be roses and butterflies. I also know that much of our suffering is caused by the in-tolerance or resistance to what is actually happening, and I’m a big proponent of radical acceptance.

That said, it’s important to be thoughtful about the things we bring into our environment and into our bodies, whether it’s the food we eat, the friends we keep, or the words we speak. We don’t have to ask our soul muscles to keep contracting and bearing the weight of the bullshit around us - we can line up with what works for us, sit up straight, and move forward in a better way.

As we approach the Autumn Equinox on September 22nd, we have an opportunity to shed the compromises, negotiations, and contractions that are causing us to expend energy toward what doesn’t ultimately nourish us - even if these things seem minor, like a 2-lb weight we “should” be able to lift all day.

In keeping with the practice of open-ended inquiry that I referred to in my first post, What the Elements Have to Teach Us About Nourishing Careers, I want to offer you one that can take up space and live in you:

Today’s inquiry is:

What in my life is ready to be composted?

On the Autumn trees, both death and life are present. Some leaves are in the active process of dying, some leaves are still green, and the combination creates the most vibrantly colored trees.

You too have leaves that are ready to fall to the forest floor and leaves that are ready to stay on a bit longer.

What are you tolerating that’s ready to be sloughed off and thrown into the compost bin so that it can give life to something else?

It could be anything - negative thoughts, a sweater don’t want to wear anymore, a friendship that’s weighing you down, or a job you’re tired of tolerating. Try to let your body show you what’s ready to go and take this inquiry beyond the first few things that pop into your mind.