Healing Within Chronic Pain
Updated: Jun 8, 2022
Many of my patients have complained of constant, ongoing physical discomfort. It's not surprising that I've treated the problem so often, given that 1 in 5 people has some form of chronic pain. Many times they cannot easily find relief from the world of medicine. More unhelpful, many of the prescriptions available are addictive and damage health. It's a challenging cycle, and my heart goes out to anyone feeling trapped within it!
There are many kinds of pain, and the human truth is that not all are reliably treatable, especially as we age. However, there is one aspect of our discomfort that everyone can learn to reduce or even entirely release. I will repeat that. While some forms of pain are very tough to treat, there is an aspect of that experience that can be reliably helped through training. Like most practical methods, it will take regular practice to learn. Yet please believe me when I tell you that it will transform your life for the better!
-Kuehn B. Chronic Pain Prevalence. JAMA. 2018;320(16):1632. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.16009
Watch the video of this lecture: https://youtu.be/RZUemEZlCpU
Watch a guided meditation for chronic pain: https://youtu.be/6Yn47rZmfac
After finishing graduate school, my partner and I moved into a tiny cabin within Yosemite National Forest. Such a stunning landscape! For a couple of years, I gave free classes and treatments to the locals. One rainy night, I was walking home through the woods. I was cold, exhausted, out of patience, and suddenly stubbed my toe on a rock. Objectively, the pain was negligible. However, internally, a line was crossed, and I had a minor meltdown next to a waterfall.
I'm sure everyone has experienced moments like this. Maybe a lot of them. Many of my students seem to live their lives constantly on the edge of this line. Always near a moment of breakdown. Think about why. Was it really so terrible to stub my toe? Or that the rain was being unkind? Of course not. The experience would have been peaceful or even funny on a different night. What was the difference? Was it outside in the air, or was it inside of me? Was it inside my toe, or was it in my mind? Pause to think and feel about it for a moment. You must find the place in your mind and heart that reacts this way.
As I walked in the dark to my cabin, my tears mingling with the rain, a sudden change occurred inside me. I burst out laughing at the situation. I realized that I wasn't actually uncomfortable. The pain from my injury had disappeared quickly, yet the wound I had given myself was tremendous. The story I had built up around myself and my experience completely opposed what was happening. I didn't want it to be dark or raining, yet my childish feelings didn't cause the sun to rise or the clouds to part. I was upset because the world wasn't performing as I thought it should, and my discontent was the most painful part of my life. I found it hilarious and liberating. I had discovered the cause of my suffering.
Just as with my Great Toe catastrophe, most people with chronic pain are actually suffering from two wounds at the same time. The first is their genuine physical discomfort. This hurt is a real experience that deserves care and healing. Most of my lessons are devoted to that form of recovery. The second wound is their reaction to the pain and is usually the worse harm of the two. This aspect of our mind that resists reality and demands things be different causes us enormous distress. Fortunately, with training, it's an imbalance that we can learn to heal. We can lessen or even remove suffering from the experience of chronic pain! This truth has inspired thousands of years of practitioners, and soon you'll see why.
Again, I will cover specific practice methods in a few separate lessons. For now, I want to explore this simple idea a bit more thoroughly. People hearing this for the first time mustn't misunderstand my meaning. When I talk about a second injury and call it suffering, I describe a mental-emotional reaction to the experience of physical pain. However, you must understand that I don't recommend you repress or disassociate yourself from genuine feelings. Every practice that I share is based on a kind of deep authenticity and honesty. So, for example, if you stub your toe and find yourself angry, it is essential to allow yourself to have that experience. Don't drive the anger out of your body. Please don't push it down so that you cannot feel it. Don't manipulate it to become a different emotion, like wearing a fake smile or pretending to be a "spiritual "person above having feelings. Be honest with your experience.
In my life, it seems like the self-identified "spiritual people" suffer the most! Often they are trying to change because they dislike themselves. Not only have they dealt themselves one extra wound, but they sometimes strike a third! They are resistant to their experience, which is painful, and then feel like they shouldn't be resisting. So they resist their resistance! This kind of person is angry about feeling sad and then becomes afraid of their anger. It becomes a very tangled web of extra heartache! Instead, understand that the cure for resistance is acceptance. This point is vital. Feeling dissatisfaction is treated by practicing contentment. Agitation is healed by cultivating peace. This is the center of our training method. Learn to let go of the clenched fist within your heart.
People who suffer greatly and take up this practice of decompressing may discover that they cannot accept their discomfort. We all feel that way at first. Do not give up on yourself! At the very least, do not get upset at your tension. Do not resist your resistance. If you cannot accept your pain, at least acknowledge it with peace. It's okay for you to have the experience you are having. That is the beginning of healing. Feel your feelings. Observe your pain and get to know it intimately. Over time the clarity itself will begin this healing process. The ability to see things as they are will bring liberation.
Another common misunderstanding surrounds the word "acceptance." I do not mean that you have to try to enjoy the experience of pain. It is perfectly normal for any creature to move away from pain. Within this tradition, we aim to understand, not repress. To become quiet, not complacent. To become gentle, not apathetic. Acceptance is simply the process of clearly acknowledging how things are occurring. To feel what you are feeling without pretending or inventing a story about the experience. You are not telling yourself that life is unfair or wishing you were different. Pretending that you are someone or somewhere else makes contentment impossible. Acceptance means you begin your healing journey with the place under your feet. You start where you are.
For those of you who are asking if this method will help the physical pain, the answer is yes. The mind and body are the same system. Studies have proven that using this kind of mindful clarity does help the body heal in several ways. For our purposes, however, that is not our focus. Simply a remarkable side benefit. And be aware that I always include links to scientific studies and white pages in my blog for those interested in research.
As usual, I will include a few cautions for your practice. The quality of your mindfulness matters a great deal. Allow your mind to be friendly to your experience. Kind, quiet, and attentive, without harshness or obsession. Stay light and easy, and you will heal much more quickly.
Where you place your awareness also makes a difference. While we will take the time to investigate the painful areas, it is essential to avoid dwelling there too long or with great intensity. This caution will avoid provoking reactions that make the pain relatively worse. Not only does increased awareness allow us to feel the discomfort more clearly, but it also brings more energy into a sensitive area. We may increase our reactivity to that discomfort as both occur. For instance, when I focused on the pain in my toe, I began to grip my jaw, hold my breath, tighten my leg, and clench my foot. This reflex dramatically increases the tension throughout my whole body, especially around the new injury. It makes it more difficult to heal and more likely for me to feel pain. And, of course, increases the amount of misery and discontent I am experiencing. We need to find a balance within our responses that allow us to be mindful of the discomfort without making things worse. Each time you train, this experience will differ, and your abilities will grow a bit each session. Be patient and persistent with your healing!
I recognize that this can be a difficult concept to grasp on the first try. We often identify with our pain and reaction to it, and saying they are not the same process seems somehow unacceptable. Even scary. It is a typical reaction to many forms of transformation, and it's something that you experience again as you continue this healing journey. However, be assured that I am not asking you to do anything strange. I am asking you to look carefully to see the distinct experiences of pain and a reaction to that pain. With regular practice, you will learn to reduce the size of your reaction, dramatically decreasing your amount of suffering. Again and again, I've heard my patients voice their new freedom, "I still feel the pain, but somehow it doesn't bother me anymore." That's the destination of this particular journey.
The Next Step:
Meditative inquiry is the best practice for investigating your experience. It is simply sitting quietly and paying close attention to the functioning of the mind & body. Explore my other classes to learn about proper posture and internal methods to improve your practice. I will provide guided meditation sessions in the following lessons.
If you have great difficulty with this practice, take extra time developing the ability to settle and quiet your mind using the other techniques in the series. By first softening in different ways, many find that meditation becomes more effortless.
Keep in mind the idea that suffering is the habit of resistance. It is discontent with the way things are. We are cultivating gentle acceptance and understanding of the experience. Friendly curiosity about our own life.
(Pain x resistance = suffering)
If possible, begin these practices when your pain level is as low as possible to make it easier to learn. Place yourself in a comfortable position, silence all distractions, and take a few moments to find calm and center.
As you practice, observe your experience with care. Stay within the present moment and monitor what is happening with friendly curiosity. This means you attend to whatever comes up without judgment or emotional reactivity. Don't make up a story about what is happening or avoid thinking about the experience. Remain quietly mindful; when your attention wanders away, simply smile and bring it back.
Start small to learn more quickly. When you notice slight discomforts, please pay attention to them. During the guided meditation, I will be asking you questions to help you see the subjective experience of pain more clearly. How wide is it? Can you feel where its edges are? Is it in the skin or deeper in the body? Does it feel hot or cold? Empty or full? Does it vibrate or move around? Does there seem to be any emotion associated with the pain? A color or a sound?
The more time you take to understand precisely what the pain is, the easier it becomes to see what it isn't. The discomfort may be a stabbing heat, but it isn't sad. There may be itchy vibrations, but there is not necessarily any desire within the feeling to be different. The sensation is simply sensation. Notice that any resistance to the feeling arises separately in your mind. This knowledge is a small but vital step along the path of wisdom and a big step toward freedom from your suffering.
Chronic pain is exhausting, so ensure you get enough sleep when you can. If the pain wakes you up during the night, you need to spend more time resting each day.
The activity of constant pain makes it more challenging to focus coherently. Higher functions of your brain are physiologically muffled. Sound familiar? Pain also makes it more likely for you to feel depressed or irritable. What does this mean? It means that you should be extra nice to yourself. Recognize that it will take you longer to complete tasks, so make sure you make that time available in your schedule to avoid stress and guilt. It means you'll feel less patient and generous than you might typically feel. That's okay too! Simply practice good communication skills with the people you love. Tell them why you're not feeling well and that you may not be acting like yourself.
As usual, if you have the opportunity to work with a doctor or specialist, please take the time to seek their help!
Simply put, your homework is to cut yourself some slack. You're not feeling well, and it's normal to function suboptimally. Try to be kinder to yourself today. That's another practical way to reduce pain!
Share your own experience of pain and healing in the comment section. We are all human, and we all know hurt and suffering. Let that knowledge of our shared humanity soften your heart and expand your desire to spread kindness in this world!
Enjoy your practice!
Remember that this is only a tiny part of a more extensive system and sequence of teaching videos. Subscribe to my channel to learn more!
Make sure that you begin your practice at the beginning of the sequence
Ready to train? Follow along with traditional practice sessions
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