“You don’t have to get through until morning. You only have to get through the present moment.”
That thought transformed Vidyamala Burch’s relationship with her pain. A catastrophic car accident had left her with permanent damage and permanent pain – and that was on top of an incident during life-saving practice that had already damaged a vertebra.
Following one procedure she was required to sit upright for twenty four hours. During the ordeal she felt “impaled on the edge of madness.” It was as though she could hear two voices arguing inside her. “I can’t bear this. I’ll go mad. There’s no way I can endure this until morning.” The other replied, “You have to bear it, you have no choice.” Then, out of the chaos, came something new, a third voice which said, “You don’t have to get through until morning. You only have to get through the present moment.”
She recalls: “Immediately, my experience was transformed. The tension torturing me opened into expansiveness…..I knew, not intellectually but in the marrow of my bones, that life can only unfold one moment at a time.”
But her insight is not only applicable to living with pain – it’s one any of us could adapt to countless unpleasant situations. This adaptability is a major strength of her book Living well with pain and illness – the mindful way to free yourself from suffering.
So much in this book applies to everybody who practices mindfulness as well as to those who experience chronic pain and stress that it will be a valuable addition to the bookshelf of every mindfulness practitioner.
It has an additional value if you suffer chronic pain: when it comes to developing a mindful relationship with with pain, Vidyamala Burch has credibility: she has walked the walk.
Her transformative insight set her off on her journey into mindfulness. Since then she has started the Breathworks programme for people who wish to use mindfulness to help with their pain and chronic stress. She lives in Britain and her website is at https://breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk/
As I said above, this book has all sorts of great information and advice in it for anybody who uses mindfulness in their lives. Consider her Five-Step Model of Mindfulness:
1. Notice what you are experiencing right now.
2. Move toward the unpleasant.
3. Seek the pleasant.
4. Broaden awareness to become a bigger container and cultivate equanimity. In other words realise that you can contain both the pleasant and the unpleasant.
5. Choose to respond rather than react.
When I took a group through this series of steps recently they were very impressed by the third one – seeking the pleasant. Somehow they had got it into their heads that advocates of mindfulness were all in favour of turning towards pain but rather dismissive of turning towards pleasure. The idea that we should pay attention to the pleasant as well as to the unpleasant, since both are fleeting, was new and welcome.
But that’s not always easy if you’re in pain or discomfort. “Seeking the pleasant is like being an explorer searching for hidden treasure,” writes Vidyamala. “It might be as simple as noting the warmth of your hands or a pleasant feeling in the belly, or seeing a shaft of sunlight streaming through the window.”
Shutting out physical pain, she notes, can also mean shutting out pleasure: “Hardening against pain also shuts out the pleasurable side of life, and we lose the sensitivity that allows us to feel vibrantly alive and experience pleasure and love,” she writes. “You might not feel the pain so much, but you’ll numb yourself to other people, the beauty of nature, or the simple pleasure of the body’s warmth while sitting in the sun.”
I also loved instruction in the mindfulness of breathing practice to “drink from the well of the pause.” She is referring here to that little pause between the end of the out breath and the beginning of the in-breath, “A moment of hovering anticipation, a vibration that gathers into the next in-breath.” It’s a great way to practice mindfulness of breathing – for me, that’s a mindfulness practice in which I need something to hold onto and “drinking from the well of the pause” is that something.
The book also has many physical exercises with illustrations. These will be of particular help to people with chronic pain or stiffness – a source of hope and a practical demonstration of how to change your relationship with suffering.
I hope I’ve given enough indications here that this book is a gem, both for those who suffer pain and stress and for everybody with an interest in mindfulness. If you buy it and read it, you won’t be disappointed.
Padraig O’Morain teachers mindfulness in Ireland. His most recent book Is Light Mind – mindfulness for daily living. His mindfulness blog is at www.lightmindblog.blogspot.com