Living in our heads
One of the unfortunate side-effects of our modern world is that we live most of our lives in our heads. We spend so much time thinking, planning, striving, competing and just getting things done that our bodies — the amazing, indispensable machines that propel us through our daily existence — are often neglected or ignored.
By focusing primarily on our mental world, we pay a heavy price. We lose awareness of our bodies’ needs and signals. We become deaf to our bodily sensations and the way our physical and mental realms affect each other. Each of us is, after all, composed of physical, mental and spiritual components that all work together to make up one unique individual.
But when we don’t pay enough attention to our bodies, they don’t just quietly leave us alone. They make themselves heard in lots of ways. One of those ways is pain. Regularly ignoring our bodies’ needs can cause muscles to atrophy, injuries to worsen, and chronic pain to become even more chronic.
I know this because I’ve lived with chronic back pain for more than 20 years. But I’ve found something that helps.
A mindful approach to painMost people approach pain as a medical problem and I was no exception. When my back pain suddenly appeared out of nowhere in my early 20’s, I assumed there must be a pill to make it better. There was, but the pain didn’t disappear. So there were more doctors and more pills.
Luckily I rarely needed narcotic painkillers (and my doctors were wise enough to withhold them even when I asked for them), so I didn’t have to risk addiction. But eventually it became clear that pills wouldn’t fix the problem. The pain wasn’t going away and I would have to find a way to live with it.
When I finally opened up my mind to new approaches, I discovered that I was dealing with the pain all wrong. Instead of trying to run away from chronic pain, I needed to make friends with it. It was totally counterintuitive, but I learned that the best way to deal with my chronic pain was to pay more attention to it.
There are many mindfulness-based programs for pain relief. One of the most well-known is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D, in 1979. There have been dozens of studies of this approach over the past few decades and they all point to one thing: it works. Participants report a reduction in pain levels of as much as 33-50% after just a few weeks of practice.
When you adopt a mindfulness-based approach to chronic pain, you learn to:
- Stop judging the pain. Ruminating about how terrible the pain is only makes it worse. Plus, it increases your anxiety and depression, which also contribute to your pain.
- Let go of goals and expectations. Your brain wants to solve the problem, but thinking can’t make it go away. Letting go of expectations allows you to begin exploring new options.
- Observe the pain with curiosity. Directing non-judgmental attention toward the pain allows you be curious about why the pain exists and what it can teach you.
- Smile at the pain and begin to make friends with it. Adopting an accepting attitude means that, over time, your attention can go elsewhere and the pain will begin to fade away.
Once I learned this new approach, I began to notice the pain less and less. When I later adopted my own meditation practice, the pain was reduced even more. I now regularly use the meditation below to help my body and brain slowly heal themselves.
My 10-minute meditation for healing painThis is the routine that works for me. You don’t have to follow it exactly. Modify it as needed or find something similar that works for you.
- Lie down/prepare your body. Find a comfortable position on the floor with plenty of room. Stretch your arms out to the side with palms facing upward. Close your eyes, relax your jaw and take several deep breaths, gradually letting your breath become softer and slower. Continue to focus on the repetitive in/out motion of your breath for about a minute.
- Become aware of the vibration of your body. At all times, your body is vibrating with energy and potential, though you rarely notice it. Take a moment to become aware of the tingling/vibrating sensation that is always present in your skin and muscles. Notice how this vibrational energy exists in every part of your body. (You’ll want to memorize this feeling, because you’ll be coming back to it regularly.) Do this for 30 seconds or so, just enjoying the feeling of gently pulsating energy.
- Begin to scan your body’s vibrations. Start in the fingertips of one hand and very slowly move your attention from the tips of your fingers, along your hand and arm, all the way to your stomach, noticing the vibratory feeling in every small section along the way. Take plenty of time and don’t rush this part. Now repeat it with the other hand/arm. Then do the same with each leg, beginning with the toes, all the way to your stomach, then from the top of your head all the way down your chest to your stomach. End by repeating the same process from the back of your neck all the way down your spine to your pelvis. Completing the whole body scan should take 2-3 minutes…again, don’t rush it.
- Notice and love the sources of pain. Now shift your attention to the areas that are hurting. One by one, identify the areas of your body that are the source of pain. Each time you notice one, smile at the pain and recognize its need to be there. Remind yourself that the pain is there for a reason and that it can teach you something. Direct love and compassion toward the area before moving to the next. Do this process for a minute or so until you have covered all painful areas in your body.
- Breathe in healing energy. Now that you’re aware of the areas of pain, begin to inhale more deeply. With each in-breath, imagine that you are inhaling a healing energy that is warm and glowing. With each out-breath, imagine that you are exhaling the negative, cold energy that amplifies pain. Focus on one area of pain at a time and imagine a healing light swirling around the pain. If you’re a religious person, this would be a good time to ask for God’s healing love to surround each area. Continue this process for about 3 minutes.
- End with gratitude and breath. Take a minute to let your breathing relax and soften. Remember that your body is an amazing creation that knows how to heal itself if you give it the right attention and love. Be grateful for your body and all it does for you. Notice again that the tingling energy is still present in your body.
- Repeat in small doses throughout the day. Several times during the day, pause for a moment and notice the sensation of vibration in your body. Remind yourself that your body is continuing its healing work.
I recommend doing the meditation at least once a day, twice if possible. Over time, work your way up to 20 minutes per session.
A healing mindset
Like most mindfulness and meditation practices, what matters is the practice. This type of meditation will feel relaxing and soothing if you do it just once, but it won’t heal your pain. The repetition allows you to form new habits that, over time, strengthen and heal your mind and body.
Our bodies are complex, carefully balanced organisms. They store memories and pain left over from old injuries, both mental and physical. Once we better connect with the body, it can more easily do its natural work of healing itself. But the process requires our attention and love.
After reading this, I can imagine someone asking: “Is the pain really being healed, or is it just less noticeable because you’re learning to think about it differently?”
My question: “Is there a difference?”