Pain Sucks, Part 6 of 7: Practice Mindfulness
As someone who suffers from chronic pain, I can’t say enough about the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Back in 2005, shortly after my workplace injury, I sought comfort and guidance in the Buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron and Jon Kabat-Zinn. I began my mindfulness practice with the initial view that it would help alleviate my depression and anxiety following the accident. The daily meditation practice not only helped to balance my emotional state but it also proved beneficial in the management of my physical pain on a day-to-day basis.
I learned from the practice of mindfulness that I had the power to influence and transform the way I experienced pain. I had two choices: continue to dwell on the thoughts and feelings of anger, fear and frustration that only compounded my pain or make peace with it all and learn to live with the new reality. Only by choosing the latter path did I finally understand the real difference between pain and suffering. Today my pain is intermittent and the good days far outnumber the bad ones.
Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist practice of being present in each moment. However, it doesn’t mean that we need to become a Buddhist in order to experience the benefits of mindfulness. It’s a skill that we all have and can cultivate, and which we can apply to all areas of our life.
Mindfulness means being completely aware of what’s happening within ourselves and of what’s happening in the external environment around us, from moment to moment, without judgement. It means paying attention in a purposeful or intentional manner.
Practicing mindfulness can help us to develop greater awareness, clarity and acceptance of the present moment. When we engage our present moment awareness, we gain greater access and insight into our natural resources of strengths, skills, creativity and wisdom. In the process, we open ourselves to potential personal growth and transformation.
The mind-body connection
Western culture has commonly viewed the mind and body as two separate and distinct entities. Today, an increasing number of studies reflect growing awareness of a link between the mind and body. Just as physical changes or bodily ailments can influence the mental state, psychological, social and cognitive factors in turn can also affect changes in the body.
Mindfulness-based chronic pain management
As we try to understand chronic pain and the mind-body connection, it’s important that people realize they have a great capacity for mind-body self-healing. Mindfulness meditation isn’t a miracle solution that will eliminate our physical pain but it can be a wonderful and effective coping tool for people living with daily pain. Meditation can help us change our relationship with pain by increasing our awareness of the kind of thoughts and emotions that are helpful and those that hinder recovery. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn elaborates on the idea that our mind can influence our pain experience:
“Physical pain is the response of the body and the nervous system to a huge range of stimuli that are perceived as noxious, damaging, or dangerous. There are really three dimensions to pain: the physical or sensory component; the emotional or affective component, how we feel about the sensation; and the cognitive component, the meaning we attribute to our pain… .
There is a way to work with all this, based on Buddhist meditative practices, which can liberate you, to a very large extent, from the experience of pain. Whether or not you can reduce the level of sensory pain, the affective and cognitive contributions to the pain – which make it much worse – usually, can be lessened. And then, very often, the sensory component of the pain changes as well.”
Mindfulness meditation practice
My own daily practice alternates between static and moving forms of meditations, usually twenty minutes in duration. On days when I’m feeling particularly restless or simply want variety from a sitting pose, I will opt for tai chi, qigong or yoga. For me, exercising flexibility and variety with my meditation practice produces greater consistency and benefits.
I would be lying if I said that meditation practice is a breeze. Although I’ve been meditating for a while, there are occasions when I spend more time quieting mental noise or what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” than focusing on my breathing. There have also been days when I just wrote off the idea of meditating altogether, days when migraines made focusing difficult. I quickly discovered that trying to meditate in a heightened pain state only created more stress. I simply listened to my body – an exercise in mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation freed me from needless suffering. Are you ready to liberate yourself?
For more information on mindfulness meditation and healing, I recommend the following resources:
Mindfulness-Based Chronic Pain Management courses
Dahl, J., and T. Lundgren. Living Beyond Your Pain. (Oakland,CA; New Harbinger Publicatons, 2006)
Gardner-Nix, Jackie, M.D. with Lucie Costin-Hall, M.A. The Mindfulness Solution to Pain. (Oakland; New Harbinger Publications, 2009)
Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Ph.D Full Catastrophe Living. (New York; Bantam Dell, 2005) Fifteenth Anniversary Edition
———-. Wherever You Go There You Are. (New York; Hyperion, 1994)
Gardner-Nix, Jackie, M.D. Pain Speaking. (Toronto; Pathfinder Communications, 2009). Companion 2-CD Box Set to The Mindfulness Solution to Pain.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Ph.D. Mindfulness Meditations for Pain Relief. (Louisville,CO; Sounds True, 2009)
Weil, Andrew, M.D. Breathing:The Master Key to Self Healing. (Louisville,CO; Sounds True, 2008). 2-CD Box Set.
———–. Eight Meditations for Optimal Health. (New York: Random House Audio, 1997).