Pain. You have experienced it many times. We all have. Sometimes it may be intense and short-lived. Other times it may linger for an extended time. And occasionally it can become chronic, i.e. continue for months or years or forever. Meeting pain with mindfulness, rather than suppressing the pain can make all the difference between endless suffering and freedom from suffering.
The experience of pain
The physiological processes that we call ‘pain’ are complex, but in simplified terms this is what happens; some part of your body (e.g. your toe) sends a message of an event (you stubbed it on something) via a nerve path to your brain, where the message gets decoded and you experience… yes, agony. But have you ever considered where the actual experience takes place?
The toe simply sends message about what has happened. This message may be alarming, saying that a terrible thing just happened, and that the toe tissue is ‘under attack.’ But fundamentally the message is just a message, which in an of itself isn’t the agony. The nerve path passes the message on, without experiencing pain as such – it is basically just a cable (well, sort of) that transports the message to the brain. As the brain receives the message, and learns what has happened to the toe, the immediate reaction is that this is bad and unwanted and needs to be stopped! And, believe it or not, this where the experience becomes what we call ‘pain.’
The resistance to the message, to what has happened, and to what may continue to happen, is an essential component for the experience to be painful. And the more negative thoughts that get added into the mix, the more painful the experience gets, and the more you suffer. Research on pain has demonstrated that the way people interpret and respond to their body sensations is a strong determinant of their future experience of suffering, because our thought processes actually influence the nervous system activity that underlies pain perception.
Your relationship with pain
So, while the experience of pain is certainly real and very tangible, the degree of suffering that is causes is largely determined by how you relate to the pain. Relate to the pain?! Yes, the more you are able to allow it to be there, to accept that it is there, and to actually become curious and interested in its minute details, the less suffering it will cause you. For most of us this is of little interest, since the discomfort we experience is typically infrequent and short-lived. But for those unfortunate people who suffer from chronic pain, it is crucial to understand that it is actually possible to transform the relationship with pain to one where it, while still unpleasant, is no longer a problem – where pain no longer equals suffering.
Meeting pain with mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation practice has proven to be a very useful ‘tool’ in the management of chronic pain. There is now a large body of scientific research studies [see * below] which have clearly demonstrated that mindfulness practice can alleviate pain and decrease suffering from chronic pain. Through mindfulness practice we can learn to observe, with openness, curiosity and interest, the physical features of pain; tingling, burning, pulsing, throbbing, and so forth. We can learn to deconstruct pain into its primary constituents; sensations and energy. And we can learn to separate the awareness of pain from the pain – the awareness of the pain is not itself suffering – we can learn to shift our awareness from the contents of awareness onto the awareness itself; awareness of awareness.
Meeting pain with mindfulness, i.e. turning toward and embracing, rather than turning away or denying or suppressing pain, can make all the difference between endless suffering and freedom from suffering. But simply hearing about and thinking about this possibility will make no difference to your suffering. You need to explore it experientially to discover what mindfulness practice can do for you. If you are interested in learning mindfulness meditation practice, to deal with chronic pain, or for other purposes; don’t delay – contact me today!