Pain as the Object of Meditation

It’s cliché to start with a definition, but here goes. One of the most useful definitions of pain I have heard is, “Sensation with the desire to pull away.” I would extend this to painful thoughts as well. Dr. Dan Siegel does a great illustration of this. Do it with me: Inside your mind, repeat the word, “No,” to yourself for 1 minute. Notice how it feels. Repeat this exercise while saying the word, “Yes,” to yourself. Feel the difference?

Similarly, Vydamala Burch uses the Fist Exercise to illustrate physical pain. Again, do it with me: Make a tight fist with both hands. (Option to tense your upper or lower body instead.) Take a deep breath. Notice how it feels. Now relax your muscles and take a deep breath. Feel the difference?

So how do we say, “Yes” and relax? I’m not suggesting embracing pain with open arms, but there is a different way to engage with it: meditation.

The first step is to lay the groundwork by practicing on a regular basis when you feel good to develop a mind-body connection and awareness of internal dialogue. Any style will do, but common favourites are yoga nidra, body scan, and breath-focused meditation. Be sure to find a style that works for you so that you will stick to it over time. The aim is to be able to step back and observe your experience without getting caught up in it.  Like a trip to an art gallery, look but do not touch.

The next step is to put mediation in to practice when you are in a painful situation. It is more difficult, and not always possible, but this can be where some of the most powerful work of mediation is done. Use your typical meditation style, with the option to notice everything about your current discomfort: the size, shape, sensation, associated thoughts and emotions, where it is felt in your body and how it changes as you watch it. Like a sculpture at an art gallery, accept that it is there and allow it to exist. You may even find that reading these words gives you the desire to pull away, say no or grip tightly. The cure for that of course, it to observe that desire through mediation.

I know it is easier said than done and won’t always seem to work, especially at first. It may be easier to give up or fall into bad habits. It often said that it is slow medicine, but strong medicine and my hope is that it takes the edge off for you.

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