meditation and pain

We need to take meditation more seriously as medicine

wildmind meditation newsJacoba Urist, Time: To be fair, I’m not sure how I would have responded had my surgeon suggested I meditate before or after surgery to ease my anxiety or post-operative pain. My guess is, like many women, I would have been skeptical: what exactly did sitting in half-lotus pose or breathing deeply have to do with the tumor in my right breast? And why was a doctor— whose job and training and every measure of success is rooted in science and clinical outcomes— prescribing a spiritual or religious method of therapy?

But a new review study, published last week in the Journal …

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Relax, you’re going to be criticized

RickHansonThe title of this practice is a little tongue-in-cheek. What I mean is, most of us – me included – spend time worrying about criticism: past, present, and even future. Yes, try hard, keep agreements, “don’t be evil,” etc. But sooner or later – usually sooner – someone is going to point out the error in your ways. Often in subtle versions that still have an implicit criticism, such as giving advice, helping or teaching when you don’t really need it, making corrections, comparing you negatively to others, or focusing on the one tile in the mosaic of your actions that’s problematic while staying mum about the 99 other good tiles.

In other words, criticism is unavoidable. Sometimes we take it in with good grace, other times it stings, and sometimes both are true. As profoundly social human animals, it is natural for criticism to sting sometimes. But whatever sting is inherent, we add to this pain with the jabs we give ourselves.

This “bonus pain” – a self-inflicted wound – includes continuing the criticism inside your head long after the other person has moved on. Or pounding on yourself way out of proportion to what happened; on the highly technical 0-10 Messing Up Silly Scale (MUSS), what you did was a 2 but on the related 0-10 Fiercely Undoing Self-worth Scale (FUSS), you are lambasting yourself at a 5 or even 10: not fair at all. Or ignoring all your many other good qualities – the other 99 tiles – while ruminating about the criticism.

We also jab ourselves with needless pain when we brace ourselves against possible future criticism, or play needlessly small to avoid it. In many cases, the criticism is never going to happen or it’s very unlikely or even if it did happen it would not be a big deal. We tend to transfer into adulthood expectations we acquired as children, or as younger adults. Maybe there was a lot of criticism from someone back then but you’re probably in a different place today. I’ve spent way too much of my life hunkering down or over-preparing to preempt an anticipated shaming attack . . . that would not occur anyway.

And even if the criticism does come, will it actually be the terrible experience you dread? Usually not. You can roll with it, take what’s useful, form your own conclusions about the person making the criticism, learn and move on. Accepting criticism as inevitable and refusing to live under its shadow will free you up and make you happier.

When criticism, even subtle, comes your way, pause and try to sort it out in your own mind so you’re sure you understand it. Sometimes criticism is narrow and specific, but often it’s vague, general, and has multiple things mixed up in it (e.g., some statements are accurate but others are exaggerated, tone, content, rationale, values). Slow down the interaction so it doesn’t go off the rails. The ancient emotion centers in the brain get about a two second head start over the more recent logical centers, so buy yourself some time for all the resources inside your head to come on line. Meanwhile, shore yourself up by thinking about people who like or love you, and by remembering some of the many ways you do good and are good.

Once you understand the criticism in its parts and aspects, make your own unilateral decision about it. A fair amount of the criticism that comes your way is flat out mistaken. The other person is wrong on the facts or doesn’t understand the larger context. Think of the many scientific theories that were initially scorned but have proven correct over time.

Of the criticism that remains, some is preferences or values disguised as thoughtful suggestions. For example, when you’re driving, suppose the passenger says you should slow down or speed up when actually you are perfectly safe and the other person just likes it slower or faster. Some people value closeness more than others; just because you like more cave time than your partner doesn’t make you cold or rejecting; nor is your partner smothering or controlling; it’s just a difference in values: grounds for inquiry, compassion, and negotiation, but not criticism.

Another chunk of criticism coming at you is thoughtful suggestions disguised as moral fault finding; now your passenger says you should be ashamed of yourself for endangering others when in fact all you need to do is back off another couple of car lengths from the car in front of you on the freeway; you’re not reckless but could be more skillful.

Then there is that which is worthy of healthy remorse. It’s up to you to decide what this part is. Feel what’s appropriate, learn the lesson, make amends if they’re called for, know that you’ve done what you could, ask yourself how much remorse or shame you’d want a friend to bear who did whatever you did, and then see if you can ask no more or less from yourself.

Knowing that you can handle criticism in these ways, let yourself be more open to it. Don’t stonewall or intimidate others who have a criticism for you; then it just festers or bursts out in other ways.

But also don’t walk on eggshells to avoid trouble (unless you’re in a dangerous situation, which is a different sort of problem) or obsess or over-plan to make sure you make no mistakes. A close friend is an extremely successful professor at a top-of-the-food-chain elite university, and I asked him once what led to his success. He said that while his colleagues/competitors were perfecting their one paper, he was finishing three of his own; one of these would be rejected for publication, one would come back with corrections he could make, and one would be accepted immediately; then when the inevitable criticisms did come down the road, he’d already moved on to his next three papers.

Mostly, just recognize that criticism in its various forms and flavors (and smells) is a fact of life. So be it. Our lives and this world have bigger problems, and much bigger opportunities. Time to live more bravely and freely.

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Can Byron Katie help our Buddhist practice?

Byron Katie

I came across the work of American self help guru Byron Katie ten years ago. She has published a variety of books which offer a series of simple questions designed to challenge and overturn your perception of any situation you’re struggling with. The questions work by flooding your mind with the ‘fresh air’ of a new (often reversed) perspective.

It’s an appealing technique when you’re in pain. But her techniques always struck me as being like Paracetamol – a short term solution. My old views always came back, dragging their long tail of complicated emotional responses. What’s more, the persistence and tenacity of my habitual thought patterns endowed them, to my thinking, with truth.

Buddhist teaching has suggested to me more recently, though, that there’s probably nothing ‘true’ about my entrenched thoughts and feelings.

With this in mind, last summer I went down to Kensington Town Hall to attend the day workshop Katie holds annually in the UK. In a deserted Sunday morning London, the queue was quite a sight – 800 people, who went on to fill the venue to capacity. I was reminded of the Dead Sea, a place of pilgrimage for Israelis with physical ailments. In Kensington we wore our sufferings mostly on the inside, but the atmosphere of hope, reverence and nervous anticipation was very similar.

When Byron Katie arrived with her husband and squeezed through the queue, many people gasped and one woman whispered, ‘did you feel it?’ This idea made me squirm, but the truth was that I had felt something; her radiance and calm were tangible.

Hate Thy Neighbour

In the packed Hall, she asked us all to fill in a ‘hate thy neighbour’ form. We had to name someone who annoyed us, explain why, and put down in detail what we thought they should do differently. We went into details about the behaviour that we never wanted to endure at the hands of this person again.

She asked for a volunteer to work through the contents of their form. There was no shortage, and a young man was chosen to go on stage and sit opposite her in a comfy chair. He read out what he’d written, and she asked him her four key questions: ‘Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought?’

Here’s an extract from Byron Katie’s book ‘A Thousand Names For Joy’ that will give you a flavour.

Book extract

Rather than pick a person to dislike, Peter had chosen something about himself. ‘I’m angry at my reading and writing disability, my dyslexia, because it makes it hard to write, read, communicate, do the Internet, e-mail, work.’

Peter: In today’s world.
Katie: Yes. So “You need to read and write” – is that true?
Peter: Only to communicate with somebody who’s not in the present location.
Katie: “You need to read and write” at all, even for that reason – is it true?
Peter (after a pause): No. Ultimately, it’s not.
Katie: How old are you?
Peter: Forty-three.
Katie: You’ve been okay for forty-three years.
Peter: I don’t know if I’d use the word okay.
Katie: Well, other than your thinking, how’s your body?
Peter: My body’s great.
Katie: Except for your thoughts, haven’t you done well?
Peter: Yes. But I’ve had all the education possible to try to teach me how to read and write…
Katie: “You need to read and write” – is that true?
Peter: No. I actually do pretty well without it.
Katie: Good to know. Feel that, sweetheart. For forty-three years, other than your thinking, you’ve done fine. Your boots match.
Peter: Actually, I made them (The audience applauds and hoots.)
Katie: People who read and write may have a problem with that (The audience laughs.)
Peter: I know.
Katie: We’re too busy reading and writing (The audience laughs.)
Peter: The thing is, my mind doesn’t work in two dimensions; it works in three dimensions.
Katie: How do you react when you believe the thought “I need to read and write” and you can’t, because you’re dyslexic?
Peter (with tears in his eyes): Ashamed. Embarrassed. Society takes reading and writing for granted. It hurts.
Katie: Give me a peaceful reason to believe that you need to read and write. Or to read or write.
Peter: It would be nice to be able to help my ten year old son with his homework.
Katie: Oh, really? You’ve been spared! (The audience laughs.)
Peter: You’re right.
Katie: It’s like you’re wishing for an additional job. And the reality of it leaves him with something very important; it leaves him responsible for what he learns.

Their dialogue goes on, with some interesting twists and turns, for another eight pages, so I’ll stop there and go back to Kensington, where Katie’s way of bringing alternative views out was – as in the above extract – humorous and bracing.

People took a long time to answer her questions, naturally, and were on stage for between half an hour and an hour, during which time she would often ask the first two questions ten times or more. Eventually the person would tend to drop their voice and say, ‘No. I can’t absolutely know it’s true.’

If that sounds boring, it wasn’t, partly because every person’s case was different and partly because it was impossible to predict what Katie would say. One woman who’d asked to go on stage began a painful story from her seat in the auditorium. She said she’d reached rock bottom and so had her daughter, who was very ill but had no support of any kind in her life.

Audience members gasped as Katie simply cut the woman off. ‘No support?’ she said. ‘What about the chair she sits in; the air she breathes? They support her life, surely?’ ‘Yes but…’ said the woman. ‘Now, we’ll move to that gentleman over there,’ said Katie. ‘Yes, you sir, in the red shirt…’

I don’t know why she moved so swiftly on at that point, nor what governed her selection of people to go on stage, but would guess she needed volunteers who would respond quickly to her material.

Katie’s personal story

Her personal story is compelling. After years of severe depression in her thirties, during which time she’d contemplated suicide and often been unable to leave her bedroom, she woke up one morning in 1986 with a life-changing realisation. ‘I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.’ (from ‘A Thousand Names for Joy’)

In other books, Katie details further discoveries, for example the loss of herself as ‘I’ and the sense of herself more as ‘it’. She writes that she had to ‘put on’ a sense of ‘I’ again to be able to deal effectively with the world.

It is like reading a description of Enlightenment. Katie makes no claim regarding this. And while she does seem to be living from a different perspective than the majority of us, I’m not sure we can get there ourselves simply by applying her techniques.

I’m reminded of the advice attributed to the 17th century poet, Matsuo Basho, ‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.’

Having said that, Byron Katie’s her techniques can undoubtedly jolt us out of a certain painful narrowness and plunge us into an infinitely more generous view of the world. Perhaps if we repeat that experience often enough, the tight corset of self may begin to loosen.

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Day 15 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 015One of my meditation students, Janette, wrote saying that doing a body scan meditation had helped her with pain:

I have tried the body scan twice and love it ! I suffer a lot with arthritic pain and felt I was floating above all this during the scan. Really felt the breath flowing through the body and then there was only the breath and I was absolutely pain free and so at peace.

Sometimes when we have pain we focus on it in a rather “obsessed” way, so that it fills the whole of our experience. I suspect that what’s happening in your Janette’s is that she’s experiencing all the things that are “not pain” so that her pain becomes just one part of her experience. Experience becomes a large “container” which includes the pain as just one of many sensations.

Having connected with the larger space of experience, we can also turn back and gently approach your pain with kindness and curiosity. There’s a danger that we try to “escape” pain by “fleeing” into the non-pain space around it (i.e. paying attention to everything but the pain). And that’s not entirely mindful, because we’re excluding something that’s important (pain is important). So, ideally we allow the pain to be part of our experience. We can breathe with it. We can offer it our love (it needs love, as we all do when we’re hurting). We can even look deeply into it to see what the various components of this pain are, noticing the coming and going of various experiences of pulsing, throbbing, heat, tingling, stabbing, pressure, etc. And sometimes when we do this we may even find, for a time, that our pain has dissolved.

It all becomes less scary when we turn toward our pain, and so there’s less of a need to flee it. We also find that we tense up less, and so our pain is reduced. We learn to fear our pain less, and our pain, in a way, learns to fear us less.

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Letting life live through us

Many years ago, after several years of experiencing a long chronic illness, I attended a six-week Vipassana meditation retreat. Given my struggles with sickness, I looked forward to this time entirely dedicated to sitting and walking meditation.

I was out of my body and into my mind: “Whoa … I still really feel sick.” The first few days went smoothly. Yet, towards the end of the week, I started having stomach aches and felt so exhausted I could barely motivate myself to walk to the meditation hall. At this point it was a matter of making peace with discomfort. “Okay,” I figured a bit grudgingly, “I’m here to work with … unpleasant sensations.”

For the next twenty-four hours I noted the heat and cramping in my stomach, the leaden feeling in my limbs, and tried with some success to experience them with an accepting attention. But in the days that followed, when the symptoms didn’t go away, I found myself caught in habitual stories and sinking into a funk of fear, shame and depression. “Something’s wrong with me … with the way I’m living my life. I’ll never get better.” And under that, the deep fear: “I’ll never be happy.” The familiar trance threatened to take over, and I took that as a signal to deepen my attention.

On a clear and brisk afternoon at the beginning of the second week of retreat, I took off into the woods and walked until I found a patch of sun. Wrapping myself in a warm blanket, I sat down and propped myself against a tree. The ground, covered with leaves, offered a firm, gentle cushion. I suddenly felt at home in the simplicity of earth, trees, wind, sky, and was resolved to attend to my own nature—to the changing stream of sensations living through my body.

After taking some moments to release any obvious tension, I did a quick body scan, and noticed aches and soreness, a sinking feeling of tiredness. In an instant again I watched my mind contract with the idea that something really was wrong.

Taking a deep breath, I let go of these thoughts about sickness and just experienced the sheer grip of fear, which felt like thick hard braids of rope, tightening around my throat and chest. I decided that no matter what experience arose, I was going to meet it with the attitude of “this too.” I was going to accept everything.

As the minutes passed, I found I was feeling sensations without wishing them away. I was simply feeling the weight pressing on my throat and chest, feeling the tight ache in my stomach. The discomfort didn’t disappear, but something gradually began to shift. My mind no longer felt tight or dull but clearer, focused and absolutely open. As my attention deepened, I began to perceive the sensations throughout my body as moving energy—tingling, pulsing, vibrations. Pleasant or not, it was all the same energy playing through me.

As I noticed feelings and thoughts appear and disappear, it became increasingly clear that they were just coming and going on their own. Sensations were appearing out of nowhere and vanishing back into the void. There was no sense of a self owning them: no “me” feeling the vibrating, pulsing, tingling; no “me” being oppressed by unpleasant sensations; no “me” generating thoughts or trying to meditate. Life was just happening, a magical display of appearances.

As every passing experience was accepted with the openness of “this too,” any sense of boundary or solidity in my body and mind dissolved. Like the weather, sensations, emotions and thoughts were just moving through the open, empty sky of awareness.

When I opened my eyes I was stunned by the beauty of the New England fall, the trees rising tall out of the earth, yellows and reds set against a bright blue sky. The colors felt like a vibrant sensational part of the life playing through my body. The sound of the wind appeared and vanished, leaves fluttered towards the ground, a bird took flight from a nearby branch. The whole world was moving—like the life within me, nothing was fixed, solid, confined. I knew without a doubt that I was part of the world.

When I next felt a cramping in my stomach, I could recognize it as simply another part of the natural world. As I continued paying attention I could feel the arising and passing aches and pressures inside me as no different from the firmness of earth, the falling leaves. There was just pain … and it was the earth’s pain.

Each moment we wakefully “let be,” we are home. When we meet life through our bodies with Radical Acceptance, we are the Buddha—the awakened one—beholding the changing steam of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Everything is alive, the whole world lives inside us. As we let life live through us, we experience the boundless openness of our true nature.

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Science shows what meditation knows: pain is not suffering

kelly mcgonigal

The wonderful folks at Buddhist Geeks bring us this video from their 2012 conference. Here, Stanford University researcher Kelly McGonigal shows us what happens in the brains of non-meditators, new meditators, and experienced meditators when they’re exposed to physical pain or emotionally distressing images. The findings are fascinating!

Meditators are well aware that pain is not suffering. Our most common reaction to pain is to want it to stop. And so we start up an inner monolog around the pain: “This is horrible! This is never going to end! Why me? Stop!!!” But meditators know that if you have physical pain this can be experienced simply as a physical sensation, albeit an unpleasant one.

The research McGonigal presents shows what this looks like in the brain when people are subjected to pain, in the form of heat applied to the leg. In non-meditators the brain’s default network, which is involved in rumination and evaluation, is very active. In meditators, the parts of the brain that are active are those that are paying attention to the pain. So meditators are very attentive to their pain, but not evaluating it. This is how pain is separated from suffering. In fact, the more the experienced meditators were able to decouple the sensations of pain from evaluating the pain, the more discomfort they were able to bear.

Also, experienced meditators need more heat in order to bring about the same level of discomfort that non-meditators experience.

When new meditators, those who have been practicing for just four days, are given the same pain tests, those who are better able to bear the pain were those who suppressed the pain by focusing on something else. This is the opposite of the strategy of attentiveness to pain that experienced meditators employ.

New meditators also suppressed their emotional pain by shutting down emotional processing, but experienced meditators remained open to their emotional experience. Instead of suppressing their emotions, experienced meditators attend to their emotions but don’t evaluate with the default network.

With research like this, I have to ask people who don’t meditate, why not?

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Connecting with Our ‘Soul Sadness’

hands holding sad-looking withered leaves

>Marge, a woman in our meditation community, was in a painful standoff with her teenage son. At fifteen, Micky was in a downward spiral of skipping classes and using drugs, and had just been suspended for smoking marijuana on school grounds. While Marge blamed herself — she was the parent, after all — she was also furious at him.

The piercings she hadn’t approved, the lies, stale smell of cigarettes, and earphones that kept him in his own removed world — every interaction with Micky left her feeling powerless, angry, and afraid. The more she tried to take control with her criticism, with “groundings” and other ways of setting limits, the more withdrawn and defiant Micky became. When she came in for a counseling session, she wanted to talk about why the entire situation was really her fault.

An attorney with a large firm, Marge felt she’d let her career get in the way of attentive parenting. She’d divorced Micky’s father when the boy was entering kindergarten, and her new partner, Jan, had moved in several years later. More often than not, it was Jan, not Marge, who went to PTA meetings and soccer games, Jan who was there when Micky got home from school. Recently, the stress had peaked when a new account increased Marge’s hours at work.

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“I wish I’d been there for him more,” she said. “I love him, I’ve tried, but now it is impossible to reach him. I’m so afraid he is going to create a train wreck out of his life.” I heard the despair in her voice. When she fell silent, I invited her to sit quietly for a few moments. “You might notice whatever feelings you’re aware of, and when you’re ready, name them out loud.” When she spoke again, Marge’s tone was flat. “Anger — at him, at me, who knows. Fear — he’s ruining his life. Guilt, shame — so much shame, for screwing up as a mother.”

I asked her softly if it would be okay to take some time to investigate the shame. She nodded. “You might start by agreeing to let it be there, sensing where you feel it most in your body.” Again she nodded, and few moments later, put one hand on her heart and another on her belly. “Good,” I said. “Keep letting yourself feel the shame, and sense if there is something it wants to say. What is it believing about you, about your life?”

It was a while before Marge spoke. “The shame says that I let everyone down. I’m so caught up in myself, what’s important to me. It’s not just Micky, it’s Jan, and Rick (her ex-husband), and my mom, and … I’m selfish and too ambitious, I disappoint everyone I care about.”

“How long have you felt this way, that you’ve let everyone down?” I asked. She said, “As long as I can remember. Even as a little girl. I’ve always felt I was failing people, that I didn’t deserve love. Now I run around trying to achieve things, trying to be worthy, and I end up failing those I love the most!”

“Take a moment, Marge, and let the feeling of failing people, of being undeserving of love, be as big as it really is.” After a few moments she said, “It’s like a sore tugging feeling in my heart.”

“Now,” I said, “sense what it’s like to know that even as a little girl — for as long as you can remember — you’ve lived with this pain of not deserving love, lived with this sore tugging in your heart. Sense what that has done to your life.” Marge grew very still and then began silently weeping.

Marge was experiencing what I call “soul sadness,” the sadness that arises when we’re able to sense our temporary, precious existence, and directly face the suffering that’s come from losing life. We recognize how our self-aversion has prevented us from being close to others, from expressing and letting love in. We see, sometimes with striking clarity, that we’ve closed ourselves off from our own creativity and spontaneity, from being fully alive. We remember missed moments when it might have been otherwise, and we begin to grieve our unlived life.

This grief can be so painful that we tend, unconsciously, to move away from it. Even if we start to touch our sadness, we often bury it by reentering the shame—judging our suffering, assuming that we somehow deserve it, telling ourselves that others have “real suffering” and we shouldn’t be filled with self pity. Our soul sadness is fully revealed only when we directly and mindfully contact our pain. It is revealed when we stay on the spot and fully recognize that this human being is having a hard time. In such moments we discover a natural upwelling of compassion—the tenderness of our own forgiving heart.

When Marge’s crying subsided, I suggested she ask the place of sorrow what it longed for most. She knew right away: “To trust that I’m worthy of love in my life.” I invited her to once again place one hand on her heart and another on her belly, letting the gentle pressure of her touch communicate care. “Now sense whatever message most resonates for you, and send it inwardly. Allow the energy of the message to bathe and comfort all the places in your being that need to hear it.”

After a couple of minutes of this, Marge took a few full breaths. Her expression was serene, undefended. “This feels right,” she said quietly, “being kind to my own hurting heart.” Marge had looked beyond her fault to her need. She was healing herself with compassion.

Before she left, I suggested she pause whenever she became aware of guilt or shame, and take a moment to reconnect with self-compassion. If she was in a private place, she could gently touch her heart and belly, and let that contact deepen her communication with her inner life. I also encouraged her to include the metta (lovingkindness) practice for herself and her son in her daily meditation: “You’ll find that self-compassion will open you to feeling more loving.”

Six weeks later Marge and I met again. She told me that at the end of her daily meditation, she’d started doing metta for herself, reminding herself of her honesty, sincerity, and longing to love well. Then she’d offer herself wishes, most often reciting, “May I accept myself just as I am. May I be filled with loving-kindness, held in lovingkindness.” After a few minutes she’d then bring her son to mind: “I would see how his eyes light up when he gets animated, and how happy he looks when he laughs. Then I’d say ‘May you feel happy. May you feel relaxed and at ease. May you feel my love now.’ With each phrase I’d imagine him happy, relaxed, feeling held in my love.”

Their interactions started to change. She went out early on Saturday mornings to pick up his favorite “everything” bagels before he woke up. He brought out the trash unasked. They watched several episodes of The Wire together on TV. Then,” Marge told me, “a few nights ago, he came into my home office, made himself comfortable on the couch, and said nonchalantly, ‘What’s up, Mom? Just thought I’d check in.’”

“It wasn’t exactly an extended chat,” she said with a smile. “He suddenly sprang up and told me he had to meet some friends at the mall. But we’re more at ease, a door has reopened.” Marge was thoughtful for a few moments, then said, “I understand what happened. By letting go of the blame—most of which I was aiming at myself—I created room for both of us in my heart.”

As Marge was discovering, self-compassion is entirely interdependent with acting responsibly and caringly toward others. Forgiving ourselves clears the way for a loving presence that can appreciate the goodness of others, and respond to their hurts and needs. And, in turn, our way of relating to others affects how we regard ourselves and supports our ongoing self-forgiveness.

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)

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Meditation gets thumbs-up for pain, more muted support for stress

Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times: Meditation this week won the scientific stamp of approval from a federal panel as a means of reducing the severity of chronic and acute pain. The influential committee also concluded the practice of mindfulness has demonstrated effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety, but it found the scientific evidence for that claim weaker and more inconsistent.

As a therapy to promote positive feelings, induce weight loss and improve attention and sleep, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality was less impressed with meditation. The group concluded there is currently an insufficient body of scientific evidence to conclude meditation is …

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Meditation changes experience of pain

Meditation can change the way a person experiences pain, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists.

The researchers found that during a pain experiment, expert meditators felt the discomfort as intensely as novice meditators, but the experience wasn’t as unpleasant for them.

Images of brain regions linked to pain and anxiety may explain why. Compared to novice meditators, experts had less activity in the anxiety regions.

Not only did the experts feel less anxiety immediately before pain stimulation, they also became accustomed to the pain more quickly after being exposed repeatedly to it.

The scientists, based at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, run a robust program analyzing the effects of meditation. The new study adds to a growing body of knowledge in the young field.

The study involved an advanced form of mindfulness mediation called Open Presence, but other kinds of meditation also may provide benefits, says Antoine Lutz, first author on the paper appearing recently in NeuroImage.

“We predict that mindfulness-based stress reduction and related programs should also lead to a decrease in some of the elaborate brain processes that account for distress as people deal with pain,” he says.

People use many different strategies to handle pain, including trying to avoid it (blocking it out with music, for example), redefining it (“It’s not so bad today”) and changing the context of the experience (with hypnosis or a placebo pill).

Mindfulness meditation, which stresses attention to the present moment, has proven to be useful for chronic pain, but the UW researchers were interested in understanding the brain mechanisms underlying it.

They collected a group of 14 expert meditators who had meditated at least 10,000 hours and practiced Open Presence, which aims to cultivate an effortless, open and accepting awareness of whatever is occurring at the moment. Members of the control group had no previous experience with any type of meditation, but were given instructions on how to meditate and told to practice seven days before the test.

The test involved the application of heat to inside the forearm below the wrist. Participants were instructed to indicate when the level reached 8 on a scale of 1-10, then the heat was lowered. In each trial, subjects were given 45 seconds to settle into a meditation state, then were presented with warm heat, a cue that the real heat was coming. Immediately afterwards, participants’ brains were scanned with a functional MRI.

The researchers found that during a pain experiment, expert meditators felt the discomfort as intensely as novice meditators, but the experience wasn’t as unpleasant for them.

The scans showed that during the pain application, experts had stronger activity than novices in the dorsal anterior insula and the anterior mid-cingulate, parts of a brain network sensitive to “saliency.”

“Saliency refers here to the internal or external information that is the most important at any given moment for the organism or person,” Lutz says. “Increased activation of the saliency network made the pain seem more vivid for experts than novices.”

Immediately before the delivery of pain, the experts had less activity in the saliency network and in the amygdala, an anxiety-related area, compared to novices.

“The pain didn’t bother the experts as much as it bothered the novices, in whom the anxiety of anticipation was stronger,” Lutz says.

Finally, experts had faster “neural habituation” to pain and its anticipation than novices. Habituation is a form of learning in which repeated exposure to a stimulus results in a decreased response.

Pain had a lower overall impact on the experts because they had less anxiety related to anticipation and they habituated to the pain more quickly, Lutz says.

The findings help explain how opening to pain, rather than avoiding it, can reduce the anxiety that can worsen the experience of pain.

“The goal would be to change your relationship to the pain, rather than changing the experience itself,” Lutz says.

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Meditation puts pain in its proper place

wildmind meditation news

We sat in the cool, calm and peaceful surroundings of The (Breast Cancer) Haven in Fulham, London. We closed our eyes and listened to Dr. Caroline Hoffman take us through a Mindfulness experience. This form of meditation was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre in the 1970’s and has become hugely popular with all sorts of unlikely participants. We were there to see and hear how it might benefit not only those with breast cancer, but almost everyone. We concentrated on our breathing, trying to be “in the moment”, focusing on the five senses and, all the time, returning our busy minds to the here and now.

Explaining the technique, Dr. Hoffman used the much-quoted – and mostly misquoted – line from James Joyce’s “A Painful Case”. “He (Mr. James Duffy) lived at a little distance from his body …”. I have seen this line used by all those involved in meditation, yoga and all forms of somatics to illustrate why we would benefit from their particular therapy. It might be better to quote from the rest of Mr Joyce’s description “He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense”.

Whether we are to blame for our own high stress levels – trying to pack too much into our lives, aided by constantly developing technology – or whether they are put upon us through illness, there is no doubt that we all need to de-stress ourselves and the Mindfulness technique allows us to quell our “monkey minds”, stop them jumping from past to future and bring them back to our centre.

Last year, I visited Dr. Hoffman at The Haven, when she was in the throes of a large and rigorous study to investigate the impact of MBSR on women with breast cancer (I wrote a blog post about it here).

Earlier this year, Dr. Hoffman’s study was published online by the Journal of Oncology and the results show, for the first time, that the use of Mindfulness offers a “statistically significant improvement in physical and emotional wellbeing”. Since then Mindfulness has been in the news – from The Today Programme’s “Thought for the Day” to a BBC Breakfast’s item on how Mindfulness has helped a woman patient deal with the pain from lupus. She said: “It doesn’t take away the pain but it puts it in its place – down a notch or two”. Brain scans showed obvious changes when she used the technique and it has been clinically proven to thicken the brain’s grey matter and change the brain’s euro pathways – thus increasing cognitive ability, concentration, emotional resilience and enhancing awareness.

Nice has approved Mindfulness for treatment of mental health issues, including obesity and anorexia. Consequently, companies are setting up “Mindfulness meal breaks” where food is not eaten accompanied by a blackberry, iPad or laptop, but slowly, noticing what is being eaten – the flavour, colour, smell and texture. It works, no over-eating occurs because, after 20 minutes, the brain registers a full stomach and stops eating.

Companies like Apple and Google have been offering classes in Mindfulness to their employees for years and, astonishingly (to me, at least) Transport for London’s tube drivers have found enormous help from the technique. Turning up for a two hour session once a week for six weeks at the end of their shift. Tfl pays for this, and you can see why: stress-related absenteeism has dropped by 70 percent.

Next will come the nurses. Mindfulness at Work has just received accreditation from the Royal College of Nursing – which means that nurses, osteopaths and any other health professionals under the RCN can sign up for a 45 minute session each week for four weeks, which will count towards their Continual Professional Development hours.

The cost to the NHS is £25 per person – a very good deal, particularly if it helps nurses to better observe, listen and understand their patients. This is important because stress is always cited as the cause of nursing failure. Imagine how many problems could be prevented if nurses were better able to keep their emotions in check.

Caroline Hopkins from Mindfulness at Work told me of the success she has had with members of a particularly notorious gang in Birmingham. The gang members embraced the technique and, by practicing regularly and keeping “cue” cards in their pockets, their neural pathways are changing from reacting to responding and they are learning to become aware of the effect of their actions on the recipients.

It is compelling stuff and it does make me wonder what would happen to the number of cancer cases if we all learned Mindfulness from a young age. What do you think?

Original article no longer available.

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