Mindfulness for Physical Pain: Use mindfulness to cope with chronic pain

Mindfulness for Physical Pain: Use mindfulness to cope with chronic pain

Spread the love:

In this article, we’ll discuss how mindfulness for physical pain can help you cope with chronic pain. Mindfulness is not like traditional painkillers, which are intended to dull or eliminate pain. While many experts recommend mindfulness-based practices to manage pain, the goal of those practices is typically not to remove pain entirely, but to change your relationship with it so that you can experience relief and healing in the middle of uncomfortable physical sensations.

Pain, like everything else, is transient. The two guided meditations that we’ll experience in this lecture are designed to give you an experiential acquaintance with the basic techniques for working with pain mindfully. These exercises will help you release your anger toward pain and accept your situation in moments of pain.

As a result of these practices, you might be less inclined to feel pity for yourself by thinking your situation of pain is unfair. Throughout the world, at every moment of every hour, millions of people endure great pain. Pain is a fact of life.

(Related: Anger Management with Mindfulness: Cooling The Fires of Irritation)

I.      Mindfulness for Physical Pain #1: Responding to Pain

To be embodied means to be vulnerable to pain. Because of our physical nature, we are susceptible to viruses and bacteria, head-on collisions, slipping on icy sidewalks, random violence, heart attacks, bee stings, and tsunamis.

Even if by some miracle we escape the pain associated with disease and injury, we must still face the pain of getting old and watching our bodies wear out. Pain is a fact of life.

Our typical response to pain is aversion. We simply don’t want it, and we seek to avoid painful experiences as much as possible. As we’ve noted, however, aversion is an unwise strategy for living.

Because pain is a fact of life, feverishly trying to separate ourselves from it is tantamount to separating ourselves from life itself. Instead, it is important to accept pain and other unwanted experiences as part of the greater affirmation of living life to its fullest extent.

Mindfulness practice is a way to teach ourselves how to accept life as it is—in both its sweetness and its dreadfulness. Because pain is an immense, and often terrifying, a component of life’s dreadfulness,

learning to respond to it in a wholesome way is an essential part of fully embracing life.

II.   Mindfulness for Physical Pain #2: Pain versus Suffering

Central to the mindfulness approach to pain is grasping the distinction between pain and suffering. In this tradition, pain is understood to be a name we give to a range of unpleasant sensations because what constitutes pain is highly subjective.

Pain is usually an indication that some facet of our being requires attention. In those cases, of course, we should seek out any medical intervention that may reduce or eliminate the sensations of pain and address its root causes.

In principle, the mindfulness tradition has no reluctance about using medication or other medical procedures to diminish pain, but it does urge us to use wisdom when doing so.

Sometimes medication used to diminish pain can be addictive or can hinder us from seeking out the deeper causes of our distress. Sometimes medication and intervention are simply ineffective. In these cases, coping with pain by mindfulness is helpful.

Mindfulness is perhaps an even greater ally in dealing with suffering. Suffering in this context occurs when the mind responds negatively to the sensations it identifies as pain. It’s not always easy to distinguish pain from suffering.

This distinction is important because the mindfulness tradition considers pain to be inevitable—an inescapable part of life as we know it. Suffering, on the other hand, is regarded as optional.

In the case of pain, what generates suffering is resistance, which means wanting this moment to be other than it is. Resisting pain can take many forms, including responding with fear and panic, with anger, and with hatred—all of which are types of aversion.

The more we resist the pain that is undeniably present, the greater our suffering—and the greater our suffering, the more likely we are to act in unskilful ways.

The key to diminishing the suffering that we usually connect to physical pain is acceptance. Acceptance means confronting unwanted pain without fear or hatred. In the following guided exercises, we’ll begin to work with our pain by learning to accept it for what it is, to greet it with compassion, and inquire about what it may have to teach us.

III. Mindfulness for Physical Pain #3: Preparing for Guided Meditations

The following guided meditations offer instructions on ways to work with pain. Feel free to participate whether or not you are currently experiencing pain. It’s beneficial to learn to work with milder forms of physical distress before trying to apply mindfulness techniques to pain’s stronger manifestations.

Before you begin these exercises, remember that it’s important to let go of any attachments you may have to attain specific results with these exercises—especially because pain is a complex phenomenon, and our responses to it are deeply conditioned.

Accordingly, we shouldn’t expect significant changes initially. The results of these exercises may become apparent only after a significant period of practice.

Furthermore, meditating on pain may never remove the unpleasant sensations you must live with. That is simply an unrealistic hope. However, scientific studies do support the view that diligent mindfulness practice can significantly ameliorate the suffering associated with pain.

IV.   Mindfulness for Physical Pain #4: Pain and Awareness

In the same way, as you would prepare for sitting practice or a body scan, choose whichever posture you find most comfortable and most conducive to alertness. As always, make sure your environment is quiet and free from distractions.

This first exercise is designed simply to direct your attention to the pain and allow you to feel the sensation as much as possible. Rather than trying to take our mind off the pain, in this meditation, we’ll be bringing our awareness right into the painful sensation and staying with it.

First, make sure your body is in its proper position. Make yourself as comfortable as possible, but stay alert. You may keep your eyes open or closed, as you prefer.

Begin by taking several deep breaths, and gently bring your awareness to the sensation of breathing. With each inhales and each exhale, allow your body to settle into a deeper state of relaxation. As your body becomes more at ease, your attention becomes more focused on this present moment.

Now, allow your attention to range throughout your body and let it alight on that part that seems most in distress at this moment. It may be an area of mild discomfort or a part that seems to be in a fair amount of pain. Once you’ve made your selection, stay with that area for the remainder of the exercise.

Let your awareness approach the area slowly and cautiously. You may be a bit apprehensive about focusing your attention on this location. Sometimes we’re afraid to look at painful places too closely for fear that we might be overwhelmed by unpleasant sensations or by frightening thoughts about what might be causing the pain. If you detect this sort of resistance, softly note it to yourself, let it go, and proceed.

Your purpose is simply to observe. You’re making no judgments about the pain. And, you have no intention to change it in any way. You neither want it to leave nor to stay. You merely want the pain to be what it is and to give it the attention it deserves.

Let your attention come as close to the pain as possible. If your resistance to getting close becomes too great, you can always escort your awareness back to the breath and try later. When you’re ready, give the painful area your full awareness and observe it with kind-hearted curiosity. Silently note your observations.

Try to define the region that feels painful. Try to gain a sense of the contours of the painful area. Observe how deeply the pain goes into your body. Imagine a three-dimensional model of your pain.

Then, consider how you might describe the quality of your pain. Pain is experienced in a wide range of ways, and its descriptive vocabulary is immense. Choose the words that make the most sense to you. It may be, however, simply indescribable.

Now, examine the dynamics of the pain. Most of the time, pain is changing, although it’s not always easy to detect this change. Consider if the pain is fluctuating in its intensity.

For the next few moments, simply keep your awareness on the painful area, and remain keenly observant of the sensations you feel. This time, avoid labeling the sensations and simply feel them.

Note: The key to diminishing the suffering that we usually connect to physical pain is acceptance.

Now, try to become aware of your awareness of the pain. That may sound a little paradoxical, but it can be done. Simply watch yourself as you’re observing your painful sensations. As you do so, see if your awareness is in pain.

If you can become an observer of your awareness, you may discover a place where there is no pain. Dwelling in this awareness may help mitigate the painful sensations in your body.

You’re no longer a person in pain but someone observing a person in pain. Being in this observing space may allow you to see that your pain is not you, and you are not your pain. Staying in this particular place of awareness is not easy, and it takes practice to do so—just as it takes practice to remain focused on the breath.

Now, let’s return to the breath and draw this exercise to a close. Let your attention come back to your breathing for a few moments.

Reflect on your experience with the practice we’ve just completed. Did you notice any initial resistance to turning your attention to the painful area in your body? If so, what thoughts or emotions lay underneath that resistance? If you were able to give your paint fuller attention, how did you mind responding?

V.  Mindfulness for Physical Pain #5: Pain and Thinking

In this second exercise, we’ll incorporate more of the thinking process into the practice. It’s not necessary to perform this exercise immediately after the one we’ve just completed; you can spend more time working with the first exercise before trying this one.

First, take your position in the posture of your choice. Begin as you always do by relaxing your body and focusing on your inhalations and exhalations. Direct your attention to your breath, and stay attentive to what is occurring moment by moment.

Now, permit your awareness to range over your entire body, and let it come to rest at the place of greatest discomfort. Be attentive to this location and observe the character of the sensations there as you did before.

After you’ve had a chance to be aware of these sensations, turn your attention to your thoughts. Has the attention you’ve given this area of your body generated any mental commentary? If so, notice the character of those thoughts.

As you become aware of these thoughts, try to relinquish them. See if you can distinguish the sensations from your thoughts about the sensations. Try to anchor your awareness in the bodily sensations alone. If a thought arises, simply observe and let it fall away.

After some practice, see if remaining focused on the sensations and dropping thoughts alleviates the discomfort.

Now, let’s return to the breath and draw this exercise to a close. Let your attention come back to your breathing for a few moments.

The exercise we’ve just concluded intended to investigate the role of thinking in the experience of pain. Essentially, we wanted to see if our conditioned thought patterns worsened the unpleasant sensations we call pain.

Next time, try to minimize any negative commentary to see if that helps. Imagine experiencing the sensation without labeling it as pain. How do you think that would change your experience?

VI. Things to Consider:

1. Examine your history with pain. What attitudes toward pain have you developed? What habits have you created for coping with it?    

2. In your experience, which strategy do you find more helpful: giving full attention to the manifestation of pain or trying to divert attention away from it?

(Also Read: How to Practice Mindfulness?)

Spread the love:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *