Dedicated to Jennifer who requested this page, and to all who experience chronic pain.
Important Note: Meditation is offered not instead of medication. No one is suggesting you should soldier through pain and deny yourself relief if it is safe to do so.
But there is so much we can do to learn how to be in relationship with sensations that arise in our experience that can really help to cope and bring much more than just relief.
How we typically react to pain when it arises in our experience
We feel a painful sensation.
Either it is a sensation we have had before or it is new.
If it’s a recurring sensation we may say, ‘Oh no, not this again.’ We are suddenly back in the past when we had this pain before. Perhaps it was more intense, so now we worry it will get worse. Perhaps it lasted a long time, so now we worry this pain will as well.
What happened here? We took a sensation of this moment and amplified it. It was just one of many things going on in this moment, but now it is the star of a whole drama playing out in our thoughts and emotions, blocking out every other thing — pleasant and unpleasant — happening right here and now.
If it’s a new sensation we may go into a different but equally compelling drama. ‘OMG, what fresh hell is this?’ The possibilities are endless and an internet search reveals we’re going to die from a rare incurable disease or be fine, depending.
Notice how the actual sensation is lost in the shuffle of all this mental activity. As are all other experiences of this present moment.
Is there an alternative to this? Yes! Through our practice of meditation, we learn to greet each sensation, emotion and thought that arises with spacious compassion. ‘Spacious’ because we make room for it but don’t entangle with it. ‘Compassion’ because seeing anything as an enemy activates fear that causes us more pain than anything else life can throw at us. This doesn’t mean that everything we encounter is going to be our new best friend. More than likely we will simply acknowledge it in a non-engaging way. You might think of sitting on a park bench on a pleasant day and simply smiling and nodding at all who pass by.
Pleasant, unpleasant and neutral
When a sensation of pain arises we might register it as unpleasant. Noticing a ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ reaction to current stimuli can remind us to not get caught up in thoughts about it but instead to return to noticing pure sensation. (There’s also ‘neutral’ but we rarely notice that.)
Often we talk about this kind of noticing in regard to a sound that is ‘disrupting’ our pleasant experience of sitting in silence meditating. Instead of just acknowledging sound as sound, we judge it, get irritated by it, blame someone for making it and wish it would stop. We can get so reactive that we may feel the sound has ruined our whole experience! Then thinking back on it ruins our whole day. And on, and on. It’s skillful to notice this pattern and to gently short circuit the pattern by simply noting ‘unpleasant’, then return to following the breath or other sensation.
Even if it is a pleasant sound, we may get caught up in thinking about it, wondering what kind of songbird made that sound, etc. Wishing it would go on, wishing we’d learned to identify bird calls, wondering if they offer a course at the local college, etc. Our minds are capable of wandering far afield in space and time in nanoseconds! Our practice is to shepherd our attention back to what is arising here and now.
Is it the sound that caused the disruption? No. The sound is just a part of life living itself. Our patterns of aversion and craving actively disrupt our own experience of what is arising.
All this to identify how the same patterns apply when we experience physical pain. We take the pure sensation as a launch pad into endless thought streams. We compound the pain because our thoughts are likely negative, full of fear, resentment, ‘Why me?’ ‘Why now?’ And whatever else may be happening in the moment, no matter how delightful, goes completely unnoticed.
How to meet the pain itself
When we learn to pay full attention to a sensation, even a very unpleasant one, we begin to see that it is not just one sensory experience but a symphony of experiences, each sensation a note played by a different instrument in a grand orchestra. The closer we pay attention, instead of just ‘pain’, we can notice ‘pressure’ or ‘pulsing’ or ‘ache’ or any of many other words that more accurately describe what we are experiencing in that moment.
The closer we attend what is going on in our spacious field of experience, in this little ‘symphony of now’, the more we see that each sensation gets stronger and then softer; makes itself known, then disappears. Through this refined noticing, we likely discover some relief noting how each sensation passes away, even if replaced with a slightly different sensation.
We also likely find that while when we registered the overall experience as ‘pain’, it felt overwhelming, now, with this close attention to all the small sensations within the experience, that none of them are insurmountably difficult to endure.
If pain is a major player in your life, then this kind of investigation is well worthwhile. And doing this kind of practice will enhance all other areas of your life as well, as you begin to notice in a more present and compassionate way all that is arising in this moment, beyond the pain.
Remembering to see the whole of this moment’s experience
We have been looking at how to attend pain, but it is also skillful to recognize that the sensation of pain is just one of many things going on in this moment. We don’t want to avoid any pain that’s arising in our experience, or even distract ourselves from it. But we do want to see the whole of all that is going on in any moment. If you have pain in your left knee, check out the right knee and give it equal attention. Expanding the scope of your noticing will help to put the pain in context. We are not avoiding it or shoving it aside, but seeing it as one of an amazing array of sensory experiences in this moment.
May you be well
Whatever your experience, may you be well. This is not a wish for some future outcome but to bring full attention to the wondrous way the body’s patterns, networks and circuitry have of healing, nurturing and regenerating in this and every moment, if we relax, release our tight holding of resistance and allow life to love itself.