Unweaving pain’s tapestry
There are three main approaches that can help make meditation enjoyable and sustainable when meditating with pain.
1. Learning to deal with resistance
The first hurdle is actually getting down to meditation. Even after meditating for 20 years I almost always have to overcome resistance — and I’m not alone. This tendency is especially pronounced if you’re living with pain. When you meditate you turn towards your experience in an honest and open way, including your pain. That takes courage, but often I don’t feel so brave and when I contemplate meditating suddenly I find many other things that need doing instead. I’ll make that phone call, I’ll have another cup of tea, I’ll check my emails. Alternatively, I may think, I can’t bear to sit with myself and my pain — I’m too tired. Then I roll over in bed and go back to sleep.
But I always regret it when I give in to the resistance and I always feel better when I find the energy and courage to meditate. Even if I struggle in a particular session, I still end up feeling more honest and aware, which leads to more confidence and stability as I learn to be with my pain in a clean way. It’s important to persevere and to recognize resistance rather than to be ruled by it.
2. Examining your agenda
Even when you’ve got down to meditating, attitudes still affect the practice and it’s important to investigate them. Most of us living with pain or illness long for our pain to go away and you’ll probably bring this desire with you when you start to practice meditation and mindfulness. No matter how much you think you’ve accepted your pain, many of us retain a secret hope that meditation will reduce or even eliminate it. On the face of it, this is entirely reasonable, but for people with intractable pain, mindfulness means coming to terms at the deepest level with the aspects of pain you can’t avoid and making peace with the situation.
When I first encountered meditation in my mid-twenties I definitely brought an escapist agenda to my practice. I had intolerable pain and I wasn’t coping well; I wanted to escape my body and dwell in states of calm and bliss and I hoped meditation would be a quick fix. That fantasy was understandable if you consider the ideas that circulate about meditation. I’d read books on Buddhism and meditation — and selectively remembered certain parts. Most of the literature gives a rounded picture of the human condition and describes how meditation can help you to be more awake. But instead I focused on descriptions of people who achieved meditative states in which they no longer experienced their body or described having a heart and mind that was vast, clear and boundless, or described the body becoming so spacious and diffuse that it was like having a body of light. Fantastic, I thought, I want some of that.
These descriptions of higher meditative states were very attractive and each time I meditated, I strained to be magically transported to a pain-free, blissful state. I even became adept at generating similar states through willpower and fantasy. At this stage, I would gather my awareness in my head, away from my painful body or outside my body altogether, and for a time the pain would lessen and I felt calm and joyful. But there was also a lot of strain and as soon as the meditation ended, I crash-landed back in my body and felt worse than before I’d started.
Many of us who learn to meditate when living with pain are motivated by a similar wish to escape the experience of the body — friends who are experienced meditators and also live with painful bodies have told me they had experiences of strain and escapism in their early meditation experiences that were very like my own. One woman, who has a great deal of pain, told me how her practice has finally become much deeper and quieter:
My body is aging and stiffening. More and more, I’m seeing this as an advantage as I simply can’t be very active and the frustrations just have to be faced and accepted. My life has greatly simplified this year, internally as well as externally … I’m seeing more clearly how I’ve pushed against life! Relaxation is what I’m learning right now (and I’m discovering how unrelaxed I am at a deep level). I’m meditating much more than ever before, but without pushing at it. Life is more painful, but more real and therefore more rich.
Another friend suffers from a degenerative spinal condition that causes him a great deal of pain and stiffness. He describes the end of an escapist meditation session as, “crash-landing back in hell,” which was very confusing and unpleasant. All three of us have now moved on to the next phase: using meditation to dwell ever more deeply within the body and using the experience of pain to cultivate equanimity and peace with life as it is.
One of the wonderful things about meditation is that it seems to bring out one’s native intelligence and wisdom. If you meditate with sincerity and bring an unrealistic agenda, you’ll realize that something’s not quite right. In my case it took many years to realize this, but eventually instead of trying to move away from my experience, I turned to face it. I began the journey of engaging with my body with awareness.
3. Understanding the paradox of pain
Rather than trying to move out of the body in a vain attempt to escape pain, the answer seems to lie in moving towards it, going more and more deeply into the body. This might seem a bitter pill to swallow — it’s certainly counterintuitive. It may sound as if I’m suggesting that day after day, your whole meditation experience will involve sitting with awareness of pain. Hardly an inspiring prospect! But what I’m actually suggesting goes far deeper than that. To a large extent my meditation practice consists of simply sitting with an experience that includes the discomfort and pain, noticing the thoughts and emotions that arise and working with my reactions to avoid piling on secondary suffering. But there are also times when I become awake to my experience in a very accurate and refined way. My awareness sinks deeply into my body, which starts to feel diffuse and spacious. The sense of space and translucence that fills me comes not from going outside myself into space, but from sinking so far inside that space and light seem to arise from within.
As a metaphor for this experience, consider the image of a tapestry such as those you might you see in country mansions and châteaux. From a distance the tapestry depicts a complex scene that looks dense and solid, but as you come closer you realize it’s made up of thousands of colored threads. If you looked into the weave of the threads with a microscope, you’d see millions of tiny spaces in between the threads. Through meditation, you develop this open, expansive perspective and you find the spaces in the weave of your experience and gently rest there.
These experiences of profound spaciousness are part of the world opened up by meditation. They are the states that I’d read about and been drawn to when I first learned to meditate but then I made the mistake of trying to bypass my body to achieve them. Only by sitting with the pain can one access intense joy. I like to say that the open sky lies beneath the earth. Feeling supported by the earth, you can take your awareness so far inside the body that you come to a place of peace and calm.
Vidyamala is a co-founder and director of Breathworks, a company offering ‘mindfulness-based strategies for living well’.
She runs courses in Manchester UK for people suffering from chronic pain and illness, teaching them how to optimize quality of life using meditation and other mindfulness-based strategies. She also is involved in running a training program for those wishing to deliver the Breathworks program in other localities.
She suffered a spinal injury in 1976 and has used meditation and mindfulness to manage her own chronic pain for many years.
Vidyamala’s CDs of guided meditations — developed as part of her Breathworks pain management program — are available for sale in our online store.
This article is extracted and adapted from her forthcoming book, “Living Well with Pain and Illness: the mindful way to free yourself from suffering,” Which will be published by Little, Brown in November of 2008.