Pain and discomfort — whether physical, mental or emotional — are unavoidable. How we cope with pain, however, differs from person to person, and our relationship with pain can be improved. In other words, pain management is a skill that can be learned.
Unfortunately, what we learned growing up — or what we were born with — were tendencies to fear and resist pain. Consequently, when pain or discomfort arise we usually do our best distract ourselves. We suppress painful emotions, we try to swat disturbing thoughts away, we head for the medicine cabinet when our bodies begin to ache or throb or hurt. We assume that pain is our enemy and that it needs to be beaten, vanquished, or conquered.
In meditation, these assumptions about pain can be explored and perhaps challenged. We can notice what happens when we respond to pain by turning towards it, and by listening to the ‘voices’ of pain instead of running away from or attacking them (all the time). And we can adopt the attitude that pain is necessary or useful; that pain is a form of communication.
We may also entertain the possibility that pain is not our enemy. It may, from a new perspective, be an ally that deserves our patient attention, rather than our resistance. We can assume that pain doesn’t intend to harm, but to help. Pain might be an invitation to attend more closely to a specific aspect of our physical, mental or emotional experience.
When we see pain just as a problem or pathology our impulse will likely be to get rid of it, as quickly as possible. But this is a bit like shooting the messenger. Strategies to avoid pain might just prolong the pain. Drugs can mask pain, but what do we learn by sedating ourselves? Do we discover the causes of our pain? Do we continue to do the things that contributed to the pain in the first place? When we do our best to block out the experience of pain, with drugs or alcohol or even surgery, we may only be temporarily suppressing symptoms.
In meditation, discomfort is not uncommon. Confusion, nausea, tension and discomfort can manifest unexpectedly and in a wide variety of ways: just as you begin to relax an unpleasant memory might intrude, or your back might begin to ache. Faced with these challenges you may be tempted to give up, or to think either of yourself, or meditation, as a hopeless cause. But these discomforts are a part of the process; signs, in fact, that you are relaxing, and opportunities to relax more deeply. In such situations we can choose to sink into and feel the discomfort. We can observe our impulses to run away from such feelings, and then choose the counter-intuitive strategy of staying put. This requires a degree of courage, and of trust. And of course, no one else can really feel your pain. It’s something you have to do: sink into the pain as you would into a warm bath. You might just dip your big toe in to start, to check out the temperature. You pull back. Then you try again. Slowly, bit by bit, ever-so-gently, you immerse your whole body in the ‘heat’ of the pain. Then strangely, surprisingly, you may even begin to enjoy the experience.
You may even begin to notice that oftentimes the most painful thing about pain is your resistance to it. When you allow pain to become a focal point you may find that it can work just like other meditation objects, such as the breath, body or sounds. Exploring painful sensations can be strangely soothing. The throbs, spikes, twinges and aches of pain can also be surprisingly compelling, and counter-intuitively, by focusing upon them you may find yourself relaxing, even to the point of sleep.
Learning to relate to pain in this way is not complex. You just choose to be a little less resistant, a little more curious. There’s no need to try to fix, change, understand, visualize, transform, heal or manipulate the discomfort in any way. Instead, you simply give it your attention. Of course, the impulse to resist and avoid discomfort will still be there. At times you may prefer to escape the pain. At times you may wish to explore resistance itself. At other time you may feel comfortable immersing yourself in the pain. The point is, you have a number of options. You can choose pain and discomfort as things to explore, and you can investigate the ways in which your attitude towards pain shapes your experience of pain. When does the pain intensify? Under what conditions does it diminish? What seems to cause or trigger pain? Do your mental and emotional states have an effect on physical pain? How does pain respond when your intent is to get rid of it? How does pain respond when you ignore or block it out? What are the building blocks of pain?
Most of us habitually ignore or suppress pain to some degree. We probably also regard it as a problem or enemy, rather than as a messenger or friend. What might happen if we patiently and consciously approach our pain; not by looking for a quick-fix, but through a gradual transformation in the ways we habitually relate to discomforting experiences.
For a guided meditation on pain, have a listen to The Instant Pain Reliever.