I am reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever you go, there you are.

It is the work with UW's Roam Echo Pain and Addiction clinic that has led me to his book. I have been reading more and more about the brain and about the changes that opiate pain medicine can cause. At the on line conference Friday, Dr. T said that a colleague's studies in male Norway rats are showing that opiates can permanently change the brain cells and that it is life long. Luckily this still appears questionable. We are not rats, but Dr. M had already said to me that it looks like the brain cells can become permanently dependent on opiates. Without abusing them, just by using them. People are more high risk if they have been addicted to something else, grew up in an addict household, are depressed or have another behavioral health diagnosis, have a high ACE score, etc. I don't know what percentage of the population that is, but rather higher than I'm comfortable with.

I have been reading on my own to see what I can find for chronic pain patients instead of opiates. Chronic opiates can lower chronic pain scores about 30% on average, which seems pretty lame when the medicine can permanently change the brain, addict you or kill you. So what else is there? Jon Kabat-Zinn has been studying mindfulness meditation. For chronic pain patients, it can lower pain scores an average of 50%. That looks pretty impressive to me, so I am reading one of his books.

Meanwhile I am starting to meditate again. I had an ex-Jewish Zen Buddhist boyfriend in college. I did zen meditation sitting on my zafu facing a wall daily for about three years. At 20 I liked the idea of attempting to sit still and not follow my thoughts anywhere, but let them wash over me. We did 40 minute meditations. I did some reading and liked that the Zen buddhist masters really seem to have a wicked sense of humor.

With recent events and grundoon's cancer, I keep finding that I want to be rewarded for meditating. "I'm being good. I'm being spiritual. Reward me by making grundoon's cancer go away." Jon's book reminds me over and over that that is not what meditating is about. It's not about avoiding feelings or avoiding reality. It is about sitting with reality and being entirely present for whatever comes up. Including grief and fear. The universe is not going to reward me with a cure for cancer or an intimate relationship or world peace. Those things may happen or they may not. It is not as if being "good" will provide my reward.

I still have my zafu, have moved it with me ever since college. It feels good and bad and both difficult and easy to sit again. In college I would sometimes fall asleep facing the wall. I got so that I could keep my balance, facing the wall, and would wake up when the singing bowl rang. It was easier to meditate with two of us, and we had a group that would meet sometimes on the weekend. I wonder where they all are now?

I think that I can read this book over and over. It echos in my consciousness. I read a little at the end of the day, when I am done seeing patients, and I need to debrief. When I meditate, my breathing slows down. I try to focus on just my breathing. But there are feelings, turbulence, my posture, a cat who perches on one of my thighs, on the side where she too is facing the wall. She chooses the side that faces the window, even though it is covered by a sheer curtain. Sounds of cars, sounds in the house, my heartbeat, my right knee complaining. Breathe. Breaths.

for Science Quest 2012