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How Can Mindfulness Help With Pain?

Vidyamala reflects on her experience of managing pain with mindfulness and explains how mindfulness helps to tease apart the experience of pain and to open yourself up to a more fluid, expansive experience.

Welcome, it's Vidyamala here. I've been asked to answer the question, how can mindfulness help with pain? And I'm really grateful for this question, as it goes straight to the heart of the matter. How can mindfulness help you manage your pain? So first of all, I'm going to tell you a little bit about my own personal experience as someone who's lived with pain in the body for many, many decades, 45 years, in fact. Then I'll unpack a little bit about what mindfulness actually is and how it can lead to choice so we don't feel so compelled by our habitual reactions. I'll talk a little bit about how meditation is a way to train the mind and I'll finish with some really practical tips that you can take into your life straight away.

But first of all, I'll tell you a little bit about my own journey. I first injured my spine when I was 16 years old, way back in 1976. This led to two major operations the following year, and was the beginning of my life of chronic pain. Then five years later when I was 23, I was a passenger in a car crash and I fractured another part of my spine. I struggled on for a couple of years after that.

And then when I was 25, I had a collapse as it had all got too much for me, the endless grinding pain and struggle. And when I was in hospital, I was lucky enough to be introduced to meditation by the hospital chaplain. And this was my first taste that it would be possible to use my awareness to change my subjective experience. And this blew my mind. It was amazing.

To go from feeling completely trapped in my mind and my body to have this tiny little chink of light that my subjective experience of pain changed depending on what I did with my awareness. I also had another very significant experience when I was in hospital in an intensive care ward, where I realized that I only experienced my pain one moment at a time and that a lot of my torment was worrying about the future and longing for the past before I'd had my accident, when I was very fit and sporty. So my mind was stretched out over the past and the future agonizing, distressed, worrying, regretting. And I had this experience of dropping into the present moment very, very fully. And then I knew, oh yes, I can do this.

I can manage my pain if I take it one moment at a time and that the present moment was bearable. When I came home from hospital, I had a wonderful social worker. And I said to her that I really wanted to learn how to train my mind. I really wanted to learn how to meditate. So she got me lots of cassette tapes from the library.

This was before the digital age. So these were these old cassette tapes. And I had many months lying on my bed, basically. My back was still really, really bad. But I had many, many hours when I could learn how to follow my mind, work with my thinking, change my relationship to my body and to come more deeply inside my body, come to terms with what had happened and come to terms with this body that I was now living within.

I went on to become a Buddhist. I spent many years living in a retreat center, did a lot of intensive meditation retreats. And found it just so very interesting to make training my mind or coming to know my mind, and by mind, I also mean my emotional state, I mean the whole mental, emotional continuum. By really exploring that very, very deeply, I became more and more confident and more and more convinced that my mind gave me a tool to help me manage my body. And it's definitely not mind over matter.

It's not some kind of wishful thinking or denial of my physical experience. Maybe it will be more accurate to describe it as mind with matter, using my mind to be with my body rather than to fight my body and resist my body. Then in about 2000, I started offering these skills to other people. And I founded the Breathworks organization. And this has been profoundly moving and satisfying to offer these skills, which are in essence, very simple, as I'll describe in a moment to many, many other people and to see many other people also discover this great gift of mind training to help the body.

So how does it work? What is it that I'm talking about? Essentially, what I'm saying is, first of all, identify the problem. If you've got pain, what is the problem? And the problem is that you hurt. That's the experience. That's the problem. In my own case, with my back pain and my leg pain, the unaware experience is it hurts and I hate it and I don't like it, and I want it to go away.

That's the kind of basic human, normal, totally understandable experience. But with mindfulness, which is essentially awareness, if I was to describe mindfulness in one word, I would say it's awareness. With awareness, this mindful awareness, what you're able to do is to investigate that experience of hurt, investigate the experience that we label as pain. So in my case with my chronic back pain, what I needed to learn to do was to come inside my body to learn how to rest inside my body and to examine the sensations that I label pain. And by doing this, I discover that the sensations are unpleasant sort of achy feelings, stabby feelings in my lower back.

And I also discover this extraordinary thing that they're not solid. They're not static. But they're changing moment by moment. Now, of course, when I'm not aware, if you said to me, perhaps how's your back, I might even say, or I'd certainly think, oh, my back is killing me. My whole back is killing me.

But by coming closer and getting curious about this experience I call pain, coming inside it, I realize, oh, it's not my whole back. It's my lower back. It's not killing me. I've got unpleasant sensations. And they are unpleasant.

I'm not denying that. I'm not pretending otherwise. They are unpleasant, but they're just in my lower back. And they're fluid and changing moment by moment. So, this is the first training, is to come closer to the direct experience that you label pain and to begin to investigate it.

And through doing this, we're doing a very, very important thing, which is, we're letting go of the automatic resistance and resentment that we so often layer on top of the unpleasant sensations. And when we do that, we create what I call secondary suffering. So the primary suffering is the unpleasant sensations. And then if we're not aware, we resist, we resent, we hate these sensations and that creates another whole layer of suffering. It creates secondary physical tension.

You might have mental states, catastrophizing mental states thinking, oh my God, I can't bear it. It's terrible. It's going to go on forever. My life is ruined. Very, very understandable.

We don't judge these thoughts. But with awareness, we can think, ah, I'm catastrophizing and you can let it go. And then you might get secondary suffering as emotional states, things like anxiety, fear, depression, and so on. Again, totally normal, totally understandable. But with awareness, we can learn how to soften, let go, and reduce all these secondary layers of suffering, soften the resistance, soften the resentment, and learn how to accept with care, with love, with tenderness the primary sensations.

So coming back to my own experience right now while I'm talking to you, I've got these unpleasant sensations in my lower back, a bit achy, a bit burning. I've got pain down my legs, neuropathic pain. So it's a kind of crawling pain, burning pain burning in my feet. None of that is pleasant. But if I drop inside it, I release my breathing around it, I let my body rest down into gravity, so I'm not gripping onto my body and not tightening around my mind and my heart.

Just let it be. Let it flow through the moments. Then it actually isn't all that unpleasant. It's way less unpleasant than if I contract, resist, tighten, resent, worry, get anxious, fearful, all these other things. What we can learn to do is to soften, soften, soften all that secondary suffering and just learn how to be with the primary suffering as it flows through the moments.

So a lovely way of thinking about this or remembering this is to let your pain be a river rather than a rock. Let your pain be a river rather than a rock. It's a very, very different experience. And the main way we can learn to do this is by meditating. So meditation can be seen as taking the mind and the heart to the gym.

Mindfulness is the quality that we want to develop in our lives. And meditation is the training. So just as if you want to get fit and strong, you go to the gym to train the body. Likewise, if we want to be aware and to have this mental and emotional flexibility, agility, even creativity, we have to train. And we train through meditating.

So this is one of the main reasons why we meditate. And another way to remember that is it's learning how to get your mind working with you rather than against you. And just imagine what that will be like if your mind became your friend and your ally, rather than your tormentor. That's a huge thing to bring into your life. And a couple of lovely images for meditation training.

One image is it's like training a puppy. So you're trying to train a lovely new puppy. And of course it just keeps running off, doesn't it? There's something really interesting in the bushes over there and off it goes. And you call it back. Eventually it comes back.

Maybe it walks beside you for five seconds and then off it goes again. And you call it back and eventually you train the puppy so it just walks beside you. Again, it's become your friend. It's cooperating with you. It's your ally.

It's a lovely, free, beautifully trained puppy. So likewise, we can train the mind to be like that puppy. Another image is that the untrained mind is often likened to a monkey in a tree. It's just leaping about the tree jumping from here to there chasing after things. And the trained mind is like an elephant, steady, grounded, dignified.

And apparently elephants, if they want to look at something, they have to turn the whole body. They can't twist their heads. So they turn the whole body and they fully attend. So we can train our mind so it's like an elephant rather than a monkey, grounded, steady, stable, attentive. And another fantastic image is the untrained mind, this is a great image, the untrained mind is like a stag with great big antlers in undergrowth.

So its trying to move through the undergrowth and it keeps getting snagged and it can't make much progress. So when we've got thoughts going all over the place, it's like these great antlers that are just getting snagged on our life. And the trained mind is like a fox that's just slipping through the undergrowth, smooth, beautiful, very mindful, very agile. So that's another really great image. Rather than being a stag with these great big antlers, getting tangled up in the undergrowth, we become like a fox.

So to summarize, mindfulness is awareness. And mindfulness enables us to be with primary suffering as it arises, the primary pain, the unpleasant sensations in the body as a river, not a rock. Notice that the sensations are flowing and changing through the moments. It allows us to let go of resistance and to soften secondary suffering. We train in this through meditation.

This is the training. Training the mind, training the heart so we can learn to get our mind working with us rather than against us. So I really hope you found this answer helpful. My greatest wish is that it eases your pain a little bit. Because of course, what we call pain is a combination of the primary and the secondary, in effect.

So even if you still got the unpleasant sensations, hopefully some of that secondary reactive suffering will lessen and your quality of life will improve. So thanks for listening. And I really wish you all the very, very best.

Talk

4.7

How Can Mindfulness Help With Pain?

Vidyamala reflects on her experience of managing pain with mindfulness and explains how mindfulness helps to tease apart the experience of pain and to open yourself up to a more fluid, expansive experience.

Duration

Your default time is based on your progress and is changed automatically as you practice.

Welcome, it's Vidyamala here. I've been asked to answer the question, how can mindfulness help with pain? And I'm really grateful for this question, as it goes straight to the heart of the matter. How can mindfulness help you manage your pain? So first of all, I'm going to tell you a little bit about my own personal experience as someone who's lived with pain in the body for many, many decades, 45 years, in fact. Then I'll unpack a little bit about what mindfulness actually is and how it can lead to choice so we don't feel so compelled by our habitual reactions. I'll talk a little bit about how meditation is a way to train the mind and I'll finish with some really practical tips that you can take into your life straight away.

But first of all, I'll tell you a little bit about my own journey. I first injured my spine when I was 16 years old, way back in 1976. This led to two major operations the following year, and was the beginning of my life of chronic pain. Then five years later when I was 23, I was a passenger in a car crash and I fractured another part of my spine. I struggled on for a couple of years after that.

And then when I was 25, I had a collapse as it had all got too much for me, the endless grinding pain and struggle. And when I was in hospital, I was lucky enough to be introduced to meditation by the hospital chaplain. And this was my first taste that it would be possible to use my awareness to change my subjective experience. And this blew my mind. It was amazing.

To go from feeling completely trapped in my mind and my body to have this tiny little chink of light that my subjective experience of pain changed depending on what I did with my awareness. I also had another very significant experience when I was in hospital in an intensive care ward, where I realized that I only experienced my pain one moment at a time and that a lot of my torment was worrying about the future and longing for the past before I'd had my accident, when I was very fit and sporty. So my mind was stretched out over the past and the future agonizing, distressed, worrying, regretting. And I had this experience of dropping into the present moment very, very fully. And then I knew, oh yes, I can do this.

I can manage my pain if I take it one moment at a time and that the present moment was bearable. When I came home from hospital, I had a wonderful social worker. And I said to her that I really wanted to learn how to train my mind. I really wanted to learn how to meditate. So she got me lots of cassette tapes from the library.

This was before the digital age. So these were these old cassette tapes. And I had many months lying on my bed, basically. My back was still really, really bad. But I had many, many hours when I could learn how to follow my mind, work with my thinking, change my relationship to my body and to come more deeply inside my body, come to terms with what had happened and come to terms with this body that I was now living within.

I went on to become a Buddhist. I spent many years living in a retreat center, did a lot of intensive meditation retreats. And found it just so very interesting to make training my mind or coming to know my mind, and by mind, I also mean my emotional state, I mean the whole mental, emotional continuum. By really exploring that very, very deeply, I became more and more confident and more and more convinced that my mind gave me a tool to help me manage my body. And it's definitely not mind over matter.

It's not some kind of wishful thinking or denial of my physical experience. Maybe it will be more accurate to describe it as mind with matter, using my mind to be with my body rather than to fight my body and resist my body. Then in about 2000, I started offering these skills to other people. And I founded the Breathworks organization. And this has been profoundly moving and satisfying to offer these skills, which are in essence, very simple, as I'll describe in a moment to many, many other people and to see many other people also discover this great gift of mind training to help the body.

So how does it work? What is it that I'm talking about? Essentially, what I'm saying is, first of all, identify the problem. If you've got pain, what is the problem? And the problem is that you hurt. That's the experience. That's the problem. In my own case, with my back pain and my leg pain, the unaware experience is it hurts and I hate it and I don't like it, and I want it to go away.

That's the kind of basic human, normal, totally understandable experience. But with mindfulness, which is essentially awareness, if I was to describe mindfulness in one word, I would say it's awareness. With awareness, this mindful awareness, what you're able to do is to investigate that experience of hurt, investigate the experience that we label as pain. So in my case with my chronic back pain, what I needed to learn to do was to come inside my body to learn how to rest inside my body and to examine the sensations that I label pain. And by doing this, I discover that the sensations are unpleasant sort of achy feelings, stabby feelings in my lower back.

And I also discover this extraordinary thing that they're not solid. They're not static. But they're changing moment by moment. Now, of course, when I'm not aware, if you said to me, perhaps how's your back, I might even say, or I'd certainly think, oh, my back is killing me. My whole back is killing me.

But by coming closer and getting curious about this experience I call pain, coming inside it, I realize, oh, it's not my whole back. It's my lower back. It's not killing me. I've got unpleasant sensations. And they are unpleasant.

I'm not denying that. I'm not pretending otherwise. They are unpleasant, but they're just in my lower back. And they're fluid and changing moment by moment. So, this is the first training, is to come closer to the direct experience that you label pain and to begin to investigate it.

And through doing this, we're doing a very, very important thing, which is, we're letting go of the automatic resistance and resentment that we so often layer on top of the unpleasant sensations. And when we do that, we create what I call secondary suffering. So the primary suffering is the unpleasant sensations. And then if we're not aware, we resist, we resent, we hate these sensations and that creates another whole layer of suffering. It creates secondary physical tension.

You might have mental states, catastrophizing mental states thinking, oh my God, I can't bear it. It's terrible. It's going to go on forever. My life is ruined. Very, very understandable.

We don't judge these thoughts. But with awareness, we can think, ah, I'm catastrophizing and you can let it go. And then you might get secondary suffering as emotional states, things like anxiety, fear, depression, and so on. Again, totally normal, totally understandable. But with awareness, we can learn how to soften, let go, and reduce all these secondary layers of suffering, soften the resistance, soften the resentment, and learn how to accept with care, with love, with tenderness the primary sensations.

So coming back to my own experience right now while I'm talking to you, I've got these unpleasant sensations in my lower back, a bit achy, a bit burning. I've got pain down my legs, neuropathic pain. So it's a kind of crawling pain, burning pain burning in my feet. None of that is pleasant. But if I drop inside it, I release my breathing around it, I let my body rest down into gravity, so I'm not gripping onto my body and not tightening around my mind and my heart.

Just let it be. Let it flow through the moments. Then it actually isn't all that unpleasant. It's way less unpleasant than if I contract, resist, tighten, resent, worry, get anxious, fearful, all these other things. What we can learn to do is to soften, soften, soften all that secondary suffering and just learn how to be with the primary suffering as it flows through the moments.

So a lovely way of thinking about this or remembering this is to let your pain be a river rather than a rock. Let your pain be a river rather than a rock. It's a very, very different experience. And the main way we can learn to do this is by meditating. So meditation can be seen as taking the mind and the heart to the gym.

Mindfulness is the quality that we want to develop in our lives. And meditation is the training. So just as if you want to get fit and strong, you go to the gym to train the body. Likewise, if we want to be aware and to have this mental and emotional flexibility, agility, even creativity, we have to train. And we train through meditating.

So this is one of the main reasons why we meditate. And another way to remember that is it's learning how to get your mind working with you rather than against you. And just imagine what that will be like if your mind became your friend and your ally, rather than your tormentor. That's a huge thing to bring into your life. And a couple of lovely images for meditation training.

One image is it's like training a puppy. So you're trying to train a lovely new puppy. And of course it just keeps running off, doesn't it? There's something really interesting in the bushes over there and off it goes. And you call it back. Eventually it comes back.

Maybe it walks beside you for five seconds and then off it goes again. And you call it back and eventually you train the puppy so it just walks beside you. Again, it's become your friend. It's cooperating with you. It's your ally.

It's a lovely, free, beautifully trained puppy. So likewise, we can train the mind to be like that puppy. Another image is that the untrained mind is often likened to a monkey in a tree. It's just leaping about the tree jumping from here to there chasing after things. And the trained mind is like an elephant, steady, grounded, dignified.

And apparently elephants, if they want to look at something, they have to turn the whole body. They can't twist their heads. So they turn the whole body and they fully attend. So we can train our mind so it's like an elephant rather than a monkey, grounded, steady, stable, attentive. And another fantastic image is the untrained mind, this is a great image, the untrained mind is like a stag with great big antlers in undergrowth.

So its trying to move through the undergrowth and it keeps getting snagged and it can't make much progress. So when we've got thoughts going all over the place, it's like these great antlers that are just getting snagged on our life. And the trained mind is like a fox that's just slipping through the undergrowth, smooth, beautiful, very mindful, very agile. So that's another really great image. Rather than being a stag with these great big antlers, getting tangled up in the undergrowth, we become like a fox.

So to summarize, mindfulness is awareness. And mindfulness enables us to be with primary suffering as it arises, the primary pain, the unpleasant sensations in the body as a river, not a rock. Notice that the sensations are flowing and changing through the moments. It allows us to let go of resistance and to soften secondary suffering. We train in this through meditation.

This is the training. Training the mind, training the heart so we can learn to get our mind working with us rather than against us. So I really hope you found this answer helpful. My greatest wish is that it eases your pain a little bit. Because of course, what we call pain is a combination of the primary and the secondary, in effect.

So even if you still got the unpleasant sensations, hopefully some of that secondary reactive suffering will lessen and your quality of life will improve. So thanks for listening. And I really wish you all the very, very best.

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