When you feel pain, your first inclination is likely to try to avoid it or “kill it.” However, a growing body of research shows that we can use our minds to “turn towards our pain” in a way that can ease it.
“Mindfulness” based meditation techniques may be effectively used in place of or in combination with pain medication. Let’s explore three components of pain and how you can use your mind to ease pain in all three.
When you feel pain, the experience arrives first as a physical sensation. It’s likely that you will then have an emotional reaction to that sensation such as fear, irritation, or frustration. Then, you might tell yourself a story about what your pain means, such as “Maybe I have a terminal illness,” or “It’s my own fault for doing such and such.”
These are the three layers of a painful experience– sensations, emotional reactions, and thoughts or “your story” about it.
You can use mindfulness to step into all three of these layers and shift your relationship to your pain. Not only might this help to ease your suffering, but it may also stimulate your body’s healing resources to resolve the cause of your pain. Applying mindful attention to your body can change how you feel and facilitate healing.
So what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is consciously paying attention to what is happening in the present moment with an accepting, non-judgmental attitude. It is “witnessing” what is happening without being swept up in, overwhelmed by, or getting lost in the experience. You observe your inner experiences–your sensations, feelings, and thoughts–as “events” that move through you.
Through mindfulness, you realize that all experiences come and go. In fact, as you become mindful of pain, you may find that it shifts and possibly even resolves. Whatever happens, you will change your relationship to pain so that it is less likely to “take you over” and “rule your life.”
You can practice mindfulness in three steps:
First, you can observe the story you are telling about your pain. Much of the story you are telling may not be true. It may come from memories of others suffering, from your own past experiences, or just be imagined and “made-up” future possibilities. It can be helpful to separate the facts, things you really know about your painful experience, from imagined
outcomes based on your fears or self-judgments.
Second, you can observe your emotional reactions to the pain. Notice if you are aggravated, afraid, or even angry about having this pain. Again, see if you can observe your emotions without identifying with them or being swept away by them. It can be helpful to label your feelings to get some observational distance. You can simply identify them with the word that feels most appropriate–fear, resentment, irritation. . .
Finally, you can apply mindfulness to the raw pain sensation itself by gently and lovingly paying attention to it. First, take several deep breaths to relax your body as well as you can. Then, feel around the edges of the painful area–just noticing the raw sensations, breathing into them, and noticing any ways they shift or change.
If you are able to get somewhat comfortable with this, next, see if you can enter into the middle of the painful area and breathe in and out of it. Allow your breath to bring a sensation of spaciousness and a feeling of nurturing acceptance into the pain. You may also find it helpful to “ask the painful area to speak to you.” Is there any message the pain has for
you? You may be surprised at what you discover.
Mindfulness is a practice that you get better at the more you work with it. You can apply it anywhere in your life to become more present, discover clear insight, and facilitate positive resolutions to any issue you face.