3 ways mindfulness can help you overcome pain
Pain. We all know it, have it, and hate it. When your back aches constantly, or a relationship is going badly or ends, or you are suffering from chronic stress, anxiety or depression about work, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Physical, emotional and even existential pain are all-consuming and frequently keep us from enjoying the present moment. We wish to be anywhere but here and now, and often disassociate in an effort to escape the pain.
Here are 3 ways mindfulness can help you overcome pain.
1. When you resist the pain
When we experience pain, we not only feel the physical sensations of discomfort, but we often compound the pain by adding our mind’s reaction to the pain. We judge it, label it, dislike it, and wish it would go away. We think constantly about the pain, where it is, why it’s there and who caused it. We mull over the past events leading up to the pain and obsess about what we’re going to do about it in the near future. Our minds try to ‘solve’ the pain and when we can’t, we feel angry, frustrated and overwhelmed. Oh yes, and we resist the pain. With all our might, we resist the pain.
Very rarely do we sit with the pain, experiencing it just as it is in the present moment, without judging it.
Recently, at an 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, the facilitator rather mathematically explained that if you imagine pain on an X axis and our resistance to pain on a Y axis, then X x Y equals our total suffering. The greater the pain and the greater our resistance, the greater our overall suffering. While we may think we have no power to reduce the actual pain, we can always reduce our resistance to it. By accepting not the pain itself, but the present moment, just as it is, we reduce our resistance to it which lessens our overall suffering. And often the experience of pain itself is also lessened in the process.
In “The Power of Now”, Eckhart Tolle says: “the intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment, and this in turn depends on how strongly you are identified with your mind…. In other words, the more identified you are with your mind, the more you suffer….the more you are able to honour and accept the now, the more you are free of pain, of suffering..”
2. When you’re ‘always’ in pain
When you meditate or practice mindfulness, you realise that you are not your mind, which is constantly thinking and analysing, criticising and judging. You are the watcher of your mind, a deeper being, essence or soul.
Similarly, mindfulness teaches that by focusing your awareness on your experience of pain in the present moment rather than getting caught up thinking about it, you become alive to the fact that you are not your pain, but the watcher of the pain.
Once you are able to create a gap between the pain and who you truly are, you can begin to gain some objectivity regarding the pain. People who have learned to use mindfulness to cope with chronic pain often report that while they initially believed that they were ‘always’ in pain, in fact the pain ebbed and flowed over the course of the day and sometimes ceased altogether. This awareness was found to be very liberating, lessening their overall suffering.
3. When pain becomes part of your identity
Sometimes, we can become very identified with our pain, to the point where it’s all that we know. It begins to define who we are and it can be very difficult to break free of it. Even when we try to let it go, the mind and the ego tend to hang on tightly to the pain as they struggle to remain in control. Who are you, says the ego, if not one who suffers pain?We can become quite attached to the pain, constantly thinking and talking about it.
Practicing mindfulness allows you to stay present to the pain, as you experience it, without judging it. Slowly, you begin to notice your unique thought patterns and habits that fuel the ongoing experience of the pain. As you become more and more aware of these patterns and habits, the gap between noticing these thoughts and reacting to them increases, and you can begin to choose a different response.
Using mindfulness to overcome pain takes time, patience and consistence. But it is worth it, especially if it means you can reduce or stop taking prescriptions. Once you have learned to use the power of your sustained focused attention, you can transform your experiences and regain control over your life.
It reminds me of Spencer Johnson’s book “The Present”, where the old man gently explains “pain..is the difference between what is, and what you want it to be. Pain in the present, like everything else, is constantly changing. It will come and go. When you stay fully in the present and have felt the pain, and feel drained by it, you can begin to look for what is right, and build on it”.