We don’t like it. It’s unpleasant. It disrupts our concentration. It saps our energy. It can, if we let it, make our lives unlivable. And at the same time, we cannot avoid it, if we live long enough.
Pain may be the single most helpful asset to a mindfulness meditation practice. Granted, that’s not much comfort if you’re in pain, especially if you don’t practice meditation. Even if you do practice mindfulness, it can be very challenging to apply this practice to pain. We tend to equate mindfulness practice with pleasant feelings, despite how wildly inaccurate that equation may be. When we’re in pain, we simply don’t want to feel our feelings, because, well, they suck.
It is the fundamental suckiness of things that led Shakyamuni Buddha to his realization of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Now, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to see some logic in these. Really, they amount to a diagnosis and prescription for the problems of life. They are, briefly, in my own loose translation:
1. Life sucks because there’s always some pain, annoyance and dissatisfaction.
2. There’s a reason that life sucks, and the reason is that what sucks is actually your mind, not the world.
3. We all have the potential to liberate ourselves from the suckiness of our minds.
4. That liberation is accomplished through a number of practices, including mindfulness meditation and ethical living.
Now, the temptation is to think that this “liberation” Buddhists speak of amounts to being “free from pain.” Nothing could be further from the truth. What meditation can free us from is the UNNECESSARY SUFFERING that we unconsciously impose upon ourselves, by believing what our minds tell us.
So in the case of pain, there is the actual sensation — technically termed nociception — then there is the psychological reaction to the sensation. These two feed upon one another in a sort of vicious cycle. The more reactive we are to painful things, the more we think painful thoughts and have painful feelings. The more we have painful thoughts and feelings, the more we suffer from the original nociception, the “pure pain.” Sometimes the loop can even be completed and our psychological suffering can cause tension in the body that actually increases the nociception itself.
We can break this sort of vicious cycle, or at least disrupt it to some extent.
Mindfulness practice offers a range of skillful ways to respond to this universal, sucky experience of pain. Here is one: We can focus our attention on the pain itself–the nociception. We can notice, in a detached way, the physical properties of the nociception. Is the sensation sharp or dull? Pulsing or steady? Where is it exactly, and where are its boundaries? What are its boundaries like; are they sharp and clear, or vague and gradual? What is it like to examine these intense sensations so intimately, with such openness?
We can also examine thoughts that arise as we place our attention on the pain in the body. Many of the thoughts we experience during pain typically amount to some version of either
“I can’t stand this!”
“This is going to kill me!”
Paying close attention to the mind when it produces these thoughts, neither suppressing them nor buying into them, can be helpful. They are, after all, just thoughts. And they might not be very helpful thoughts. Our mind is often not our friend when we are in pain.
This post discussed one method to work with pain (composed of two aspects, mindfulness of the nociception and mindfulness of the associated thoughts). This approach doesn’t take the pain away, but it can reduce suffering. Next post I’ll talk about some other ways to work with pain.
And, in some ways, that post will surely suck. But I’m okay with that, because it may also be useful.