Breaking Through Physical Pain with Mindfulness Meditation
Editor’s Note: This article was originally written by patient expert Shelly Young.
If you have diabetes, you may or may not have a pain related condition. Yet everyone experiences physical pain both major and minor.
As soon as pain arises in the body, our minds usually become preoccupied with how to relieve it. If we can remove the cause of the pain or eliminate it with pharmaceuticals, this is good. But most people, at some time in their lives, face significant pain from which they cannot escape. If you become a victim of injury or disease, you could end up living each day in unavoidable and often excruciating pain.
If you cannot escape from the pain then there is an alternative way to escape: not from the pain but rather into the pain through mindfulness meditation.
Research strongly supports the effectiveness of mindfulness techniques for managing physical pain. One of many studies on the effects of mindfulness on chronic pain can be viewed here. There is also a study demonstrating that mindfulness practice actually reduces pain sensitivity.
Mindfulness meditation offers practical ways of focusing attention onto the pain with precision awareness, while at the same time dropping the resistance to it. As we develop this skill, the pain causes less suffering, and may even “break up” into a fluid experience. This may sound too good to be true but it is in fact a result of the practice.
I personally discovered this on a meditation retreat about 30 years ago. I was in strong physical pain and decided not to move because my deepest desire was to be able to be with all conditions of life without suffering. So as I sat and applied my techniques, the resistance fell away and the excruciating pain turned into bliss and I could have sat forever without moving. Did the pain go away? No. The resistance had been removed which made the pain no problem at all and a life-transforming experience. The experience motivated me to incorporate mindfulness meditation practice into my life and it ended up transforming it in every way.
The techniques of mindfulness take time, effort and determination, but anyone can learn to develop the skills with regular practice. I want to be honest with you by saying that managing pain through meditation is not a quick fix. However it is a “deep and ever widening” fix. What makes the methods of “observing and opening” so extraordinarily powerful is that they work for all types of painful experiences, regardless of the type of pain, its intensity or its cause. The same basic concepts and skills work equally as well for emotional pain such as anger, grief, fear, guilt and shame.
I want to discuss a mindfulness technique that you can apply to pain. Close your eyes and sit in a comfortable position. Get a clear sense of the size and shape of the painful region. Is it long, round, triangular or some other shape? Is it flat or is it three- dimensional? Is it uniform or does it have areas of greater or lesser intensity within it? Are its borders diffuse or sharp? Does it spread throughout the body or is it completely isolated? You now have much more clarity about the painful sensation.
Now observe even more closely as if it were a living being like a centipede on the wall. How and when will the centipede move? Will its borders change? Will it get stronger or weaker? Now watch carefully and notice that every few seconds the pain may change, even if only in a tiny way. Every time the pain changes even slightly, relax your whole mind and body into it and just observe it without judgment. It may take many times of observing the pain, but eventually it will reveal its wave-like nature. When it does, then you can surf the waves
Anyone can break through pain with mindfulness meditation by bringing forth the resolve to have patience with the process of learning a new skill.