A friend of mine recently posted online to say she suffers from regular physical pain from a chronic health condition, and that her therapist had assigned a body-awareness meditation technique to help her to deal with it. She wrote that she was feeling annoyed by practicing it, however, because, when she has, she has felt the pain more, not less, and that’s specifically what she hasn’t wanted. She posted to ask how meditation might be used to feel less pain, and tagged me in the post. I replied:
Hi – I feel bummed reading that you are in that much pain. I am wishing you ease with that.
As for how mindfulness/meditation can help you in your situation – it depends what your goal is.
To understand the ways mindfulness can help with pain, imagine a messy room representing suffering and being miserable while experiencing painful and difficult body sensations, emotions, and thoughts, and a clean room representing for a more calm, spacious, easeful, and open mind.
What many people do when they feel pain that is difficult to deal with is try to ignore it, by watching TV, drinking or getting high too much, video games, compulsive internet, or whatever. This can tend to create problems, because the person is tuned out and not paying close attention to their life. It’s like putting a plywood board on top of the piles of stuff all over the floors in a messy room and walking over that, trying to ignore the crunching and cracking sounds as breakable stuff under the plywood is smushed.
Another thing that people do is to just simply suffer, and maybe spin out with overwhelm, anxiety, and short-circuiting. The equivalent in our room analogy would be to just live among the mess, never knowing where anything is, getting food scraps and big dust balls on clothes, not able to function or live a normal life.
It’s more pleasant, obviously, to live in a clean room.
One way we can clean the room quickly us by jamming everything in a closet. My main teacher Shinzen Young often says, there are two ways to “use” mindfulness meditation with any human experience – to intentionally turn away from it and ignore it, or to intentionally turn towards it and dive into the heart of it. Quickly throwing everything into a closet is like the “turning away” method, the equivalent of calming oneself from a painful experience by turning away from the pain and intentionally ignoring it, and, say, using mindfulness to concentrate the awareness on the breath, on a mantra, on the soles of feet while walking, or on another object of concentration.
The upside here is that doing this creates calm and happiness more quickly. The downside however is that the a constructive open relationship has not been developed with the pain, and it will still often be a confusing, messy, horrible experience at the times when it unexpectedly pops up. It’s like, it’s nice to have a clean room, but the mess is still in the closet, waiting to fall out everywhere when we open the door too quickly.
The other option is to turn towards unpleasant experiences, developing our capacity to tolerate pain, and to intentionally, in rich detail, fully perceive, feel, and experience all of the sensations and experience of pain exactly as they are. This is the equivalent of deep cleaning the room by washing and folding the piles of clothes, rearranging boxes and drawers, repairing broken items, doing all of the dishes, taking out the trash and taking stuff to Goodwill, etc. The downside of this is that it takes more time and is, obviously, in the short term more unpleasant and difficult. The upside however is that learning to have a full and intimate experience of our pain is a thorough solution to the issue of suffering. Our relationship with pain changes, such that we feel more spacious and at ease and suffer less from then on.
I recommend this article by my teacher Shinzen about how to suffer less and feel more ease by “turning towards” pain. In it, he says:
Mindfulness meditation is a way of focusing awareness on the pain and observing it with precision, while at the same time opening up to it and dropping resistance. As we develop this skill, the pain causes less suffering, and may even “break up” into a flow of pure energy. This may sound too good to be true, but it is a fact that has been discovered by thousands of people. The technique of mindfulness takes time, effort and determination, but anyone can learn to develop this skill with regular practice. I want to be honest with you though: managing pain through meditation is usually not a quick fix. But that is compensated for by the fact that it is a deep and broad fix.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Shinzen:
There are two ways to reduce suffering. One is to change the circumstances that trigger our pain. Sometimes that is possible, and sometimes it is not. So, the other approach is to train myself to practice mindful awareness of the pain. If you develop that skill, you will have the ability to escape into discomfort.
“Escaping into discomfort” may seem like a strange idea, but most people have had a taste of it in their lifetime. Once or twice, everyone has had a situation that was physically, mentally, or emotionally uncomfortable—or all of the above—and they just stopped fighting it. Instead, they opened to it, embraced the sensory effects, and still felt pain or discomfort, but it was no longer a problem. You can so fully experience discomfort that you escape into it.
The idea that you can experience pain or discomfort without suffering is deep and important, because it gives you an option whenever you can’t change circumstances, and you don’t want to just numb or drug yourself, or turn away from the circumstances. In a sense, you experience suffering with greater poignancy, but less problematically—that is, it hurts more but bothers less.
That makes it sound like mindfulness instructions are that the best thing to do is to always turn towards painful experiences. But a classic teaching however is that sometimes we need to turn away from pain just to gather our strength and have some clarity and calm for a while, and then we can turn back towards it. It’s like, sometimes the messy room is so impassible that we need to throw some stuff in the closet to even to just clear a path and to be able to walk into it to start to clean it. But we only throw as much stuff in the closet as we need to, and our actual main goal is to do the deep clean, when able.
So, if you’re asking me for meditative advice on how to deal with intense physical pain, I’d say: when it’s driving you crazy and overwhelming you, intentionally de-escalate it by turning away from it, perhaps by focusing and settling your mind on your breath (you can find breath meditation instructions here) or on pleasant sounds like music or wind chimes. But, when you feel strong enough to, I think that turning towards the pain and intentionally, fully feeling it with openess and acceptance by using a body awareness technique may be the best practice for you. I suspect that it may actually be the thing that you can do that will give you the most relief from the suffering of pain in the end.
Hope that helps. Might not be what you wanted to hear, but, I think it’s the most thorough answer.