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While everyone experiences pain from time to time, for some people pain is more persistent and/or severe.
When it comes to pain, studies show the mind plays a large part in either making our experience better or worse.
Mindfulness meditation is a particularly useful practice for understanding how to work with the mind when dealing with pain.
It’s easy to get caught up in fearful thoughts, worrying about the pain, scared it will get worse, resenting our experience and wishing things were different.
Unfortunately, these habits of mind negatively impact our mental health and can even make physical symptoms of pain worse.
Mindfulness is a practice for lessening the mind’s amplifying effect and learning to live as well and happily as possible despite (or with) pain.
Studies show that mindfulness not only supports mental wellbeing and our ability to cope with pain and discomfort, but it also supports healing if that’s physically possible.
Whenever we have pain and discomfort it’s quite normal to feel anxious and concerned, to worry how we’ll cope, what the pain means for our quality of life, and whether it will get worse.
Unfortunately, if we don’t know how to work with our mind, catastrophizing, worrying, ruminating, and being in a mental war with pain makes the experience worse.
Studies show the biggest difference to our experience of pain is directly related to how the mind makes sense of things, what we give attention to and the attitude we bring to our experience, which is where guided mindfulness meditation practices can make such a big difference.
When we’re not mindful, it’s easy to bring on a whole stream of unhelpful thinking. The mind might project an idea of what the future's going to be like - ‘Oh, I can't stand this. This is awful, how long will it go on for?’ Or perhaps we go back into the past blaming ourselves for the choices we made that may have led to this pain.
When the mind starts resisting and catastrophising about our experience, suffering really intensifies.
Through mindfulness we’re learning to cultivate a different way of coping and relating to the experience of pain and discomfort, which can dramatically improve our quality of life.
We’re not trying to control pain, so much as being less controlled by it.
Mindfulness is a practice for training the mind to come back to the present moment, to be calmer with the experience of pain, and to be less fixated on it. Doing so switches down the stress response and opens out our attention to whatever else is going on in our lives which can lessen pain. That’s what we’re doing when we practise mindfulness.
It is possible to be emotionally and mentally well, even while living with pain.
Obviously, we need to do what we can to medically alleviate pain and its underlying causes and while mindfulness meditation cannot eliminate pain, studies confirm it can reduce pain by helping you reduce reactivity, stress, despair, and anxiety around pain.
When you have pain or discomfort, it is useful to learn how to come into the present and relax. While its natural to resist discomfort or pain of any kind, this resistance simply creates more stress and tension and makes pain even harder to bear.
With mindfulness meditation, we practice using the body or the breath as a resting point for the attention and to anchor the mind in the present moment. When we are present for extended periods of time, energy draining worries and concerns about the past and future begin to have less influence, the mind may even calm itself and settle. As a result, our way of being with challenges like pain may improve.
Becoming obsessed with and reactive to pain tends to make us hypervigilant, which adds more stress to our system and inadvertently sensitises the brain’s circuits and accentuates pain.
Meditating is a wonderful way to interrupt the mind from spiralling out of control and to learn how to deeply relax.
Finding peace of mind and ease amid pain or discomfort is a particularly important skill to learn, especially when pain becomes acute and more difficult to cope with.
Meditation can help you deal with discomfort by shifting your attention away from pain by opening your awareness to your surroundings and connecting with the senses - hearing, smell, and sight.
Opening your attention out to your surroundings is an extremely useful practice if you are finding it challenging to stay engaged and mindful with the breath and body due to overwhelming physical pain.
Over time we learn that it is possible to spend a little more time in the presence of pain or discomfort, while being able to switch to an external anchor point as a refuge when needed.
When we are in pain, it’s normal to feel worried, frustrated or even angry about our situation. Dwelling on these feelings, unfortunately, only increases tension and discomfort in the body and mind.
It is particularly useful to learn how to cultivate deeper levels of kindness and compassion toward ourselves and our situation, instead of feeding feelings like fear or frustration.
Metta meditation (also known as loving-kindness) is a practice for bringing kindness and gentleness to the way we relate to our body and our experience by being kind to ourselves, cultivating patience, and giving ourselves permission to rest.
It’s like telling your body, ‘hey I’m here for you’ and giving your body a tender hug, like you would a friend who is going through something difficult. Even if you experience frustration or impatience, you learn that you can bring gentleness and kindness to that too.
By giving those parts of your body that are struggling, some friendly warm attention, Metta meditation helps to shift your perspective gently and patiently, from all the reactions and judgement that discomfort sometimes triggers, to kindness and friendliness.
Studies show these practices can have a profoundly positive impact on wellbeing.
You cannot win your argument with reality. It is what it is.
Meditation advances our understanding of how to find, work with and let go of deeply held resistances and tensions around pain by exposing subtle mental habits that add to our suffering.
Meditation helps you to settle the mind and cultivate a more relaxed attitude by practising being present, here, now, and to gently accept your situation and the feelings and sensations that come with it.
Accepting our experience, is a practice for reducing mental and emotional pain. It doesn’t mean liking the experience, or that it is easy: it’s just accepting that this is how it is in this moment.
Over time meditation encourages us to experience what is happening in the body without judgement, fear, or harshness. We learn to gently observe physical sensations, to let what is happening happen, while letting the flow of emotions and thoughts about how you’re feeling come and go, without needing to cling to them, push them away, or let them dominate your experience.
And while it may seem counterintuitive to lean into the very thing you’re wishing to avoid, paradoxically, unexpectedly, it helps you feel more in control.
If you’ve been dealing with pain, you may be exhausted. Tired from the experience of pain itself, but also from the effort to resist or avoid pain.
Aversion is the opposite of acceptance. It typically shows up as resistance or rejection of unpleasant experiences like pain. That’s okay if we can control our experience, but mostly we are not able to do that, so we have to learn to work with it.
Mindfulness meditation encourages you to notice the mind’s aversion to pain, to any sense of “I don’t like this” and instead to allow it to be there. To accept it.
You constantly remind yourself, “It is what it is.” Not everything is under your control.
Then you begin to realise that the situation is much more malleable than you thought. You do not have to be the helpless victim of pain, but you can develop a softer, wiser, and more discerning relationship that minimises its effect on your life and your emotional and mental wellbeing.
Meditation is training you in gently challenging the mind’s habitual responses to pain.
You learn that you can be with the physical nature of the sensation in this moment now, without needing to mentally elaborate on it or anticipate what might or might not happen next.
If you’d like to try a meditation designed to settle the mind and to cultivate a more relaxed attitude toward the experience of pain, click here.
Meditation is a training ground for staying with the experience of pain while noticing our attitudes and reactions to what we call ‘pain’.
When we are in pain, we tend to identify with it. We begin to feel like this is now ‘me’, this is how I will always be, with this pain. If we take the pain for granted or see it as a constant thing that is always there, we forget that it is always changing and that our lives are much more than the pain we may be experiencing.
Mindfulness meditation can be a powerful supplement to – not a replacement for – traditional medical treatments for pain.
Mindfulness positively shifts our perspective and opens new possibilities. Repeatedly coming back to the present moment, learning how to accept our situation, and not feeding unhelpful mind states, reduces emotional distress and can even change pain intensity.
Gently observing areas and sensations of pain and discomfort in the body by bringing non-reactive, gentle attention to the physical aspects of it can positively change your experience and reduce unconscious fear and tension around pain.
Learning how to be kind and compassionate toward ourselves - even while experiencing discomfort - is particularly helpful.
To watch a brief animation explaining the range of meditations available in the Awakened Mind Pain and Mindfulness program click here.
Remember, there are no guarantees how things will work out. Mindfulness is about giving yourself the best possible chance of shifting the probabilities a certain way, by bringing balance back to the system and helping nature with healing if healing is possible.