meditation and pain

Pain is not wrong

sparks flying up into darkness

Many years ago when I was pregnant with my son, I decided to have a home birth without drugs, assisted by a midwife. My hope was to be as wakeful and present as possible during the birth, and while I knew the pain would be intense, I trusted that my meditation and yoga practices would help me to “go with the flow.”

When labor began I was rested and ready. Knowing that resisting the pain of contractions only made them worse, I relaxed with them, breathing, making sounds without inhibition, letting go as my body’s intelligence took over. Like any animal, I was unthinkingly immersed, instinctively responding to the drama unfolding through me, riding the pain as a natural part of the process.

Then, suddenly, something shifted. When my son’s head started crowning, the pain level shot up. It was no longer something I could breathe into and let surge through me. This much pain has got to mean something is going wrong, I thought. My whole body tightened, and my deep slow breaths turned into the shallow, quick breathing of panic.

Like every aspect of our evolutionary design, the unpleasant sensations we call pain are an intelligent part of our survival equipment: Pain is our body’s call to pay attention, to take care of ourselves. Yet, intense pain, even when it’s part of a seemingly healthy process like birthing, is alarming. When I reacted with fear, I added onto the unpleasant sensations the feeling and belief that something was wrong. Rather than Radical Acceptance, the reaction of my body and mind was to resist and fight the pain.

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While fear of pain is a natural human reaction, it is particularly dominant in our culture where we consider pain as bad, or wrong. Mistrusting our bodies, we use “pain killers,” assuming that whatever removes pain is the right thing to do. In our society’s cultural trance, rather than a natural phenomenon, pain is regarded as the enemy. Pain is the messenger we try to kill, not something we allow and embrace.

At that point of intensity in childbirth, I was fully at war, pitted against the pain. My midwife, used to seeing fear and resistance in response to pain, immediately assured me. “Nothing’s wrong, honey… it’s all completely natural, it’s just painful.” She had to say this several times before I could let it begin to sink in and, in the midst of the burning pain, the explosive pressure, the tearing and exhaustion, remember again to breathe deeply and relax. It was just pain, not wrong, and I could open up and accept it.

Whenever we react to pain with fear and view it as “wrong,” we set in motion a waterfall of reactivity. Fear, itself made up of unpleasant sensations, only compounds the pain—now we not only want to get away from the original pain, but also from the pain of fear. In fact, the fear of pain is often the most unpleasant part of a painful experience. When we assess physical sensations as something to be feared, pain is not just pain. It is something wrong and bad that we must get away from.

Often, this fear of pain proliferates into a web of stories. Yet, when we are habitually immersed in our stories about pain, we prevent ourselves from experiencing it as the changing stream of sensations that it is. Instead, as our muscles contract around it and our stories identify it as the enemy, the pain solidifies into a self-perpetuating, immovable mass. Our resistance can end up creating new layers of symptoms and suffering, since when we abandon our body for our fear-driven stories about pain, we actually trap the pain in our body.

When, instead of Radical Acceptance, our initial response to physical pain is fear and resistance, the ensuing chain of reactivity can be consuming. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat our pain. This same process unfolds when our pain is emotional—we resist the unpleasant sensations of loneliness, sorrow, anger. Whether physical or emotional, when we react to pain with fear, we pull away from an embodied presence and go into the suffering of trance.

Yet, we need to realize that being alive includes feeling pain, sometimes intense pain. And, as the Buddha taught, we suffer only when we cling to or resist experience; when we want life different than it is. As the saying goes: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

When painful sensations arise and we can simply meet them with clarity and presence, we can see that pain is just pain. We can listen to pain’s message and respond appropriately—taking good care. If we are mindful of pain rather than reactive, we do not contract into the experience of a victimized, suffering self. We can meet whatever presents itself with Radical Acceptance, allowing the changing stream of sensations to simply flow through us without making any of it wrong.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

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How to meditate lying on your side

I have a vertebra that tends to slip out of alignment. Regular visits to my chiropractor keep it in place and prevent too much discomfort, but when I’m on retreat my back sometimes gets so painful that I have to lie down to meditate.

When I first had to do this on retreat, the posture that was suggested was the Alexander semi-supine position, where you lie on the back, with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor, and the head raised on a cushion.

This is comfortable, but it’s very hard to stay alert in this position, and I’d tend to fall asleep. Even if I didn’t fall asleep my head would feel fuzzy. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a more traditional — and badly neglected — approach.

Oddly, very few people seem to try meditating lying on their side, even though images of the Buddha doing this are abundant. This may be because the Buddha passed away while meditating on his side, and when people see statues depicting this posture they don’t think “that’s the Buddha meditating on his side” but “that’s the Buddha dying.” So the connection between this posture and meditation tends to get lost.

The Buddha didn’t lie down this way only when he was dying. He lay down like this often when he was meditating. In fact this is how he advised monks to go to sleep, so that they could be mindful right up to the last moment. So this is a meditation posture in which the Buddha happened to die, not a special posture for Buddhas to die in!

Actually the Parinirvana (death) statues and the meditation statues are different. In death, the Buddha’s hand is no longer supporting his head. In the image above you can see that the Buddha is clearly alive!

This is actually quite a comfortable posture to meditate in. I’ve used this when I’ve been sick, or when I’ve wanted to meditate at the end of the day and have felt physically exhausted. Here are some basic pointers:

  • Lie on your right side.
  • You’ll need to have some cushioning under the whole body. You can lie on a mattress or a couple of zabutons (meditation mats) laid end-to-end or even a folded blanket or two.
  • The left arm rests on top of the body.
  • The right elbow rests on the floor, with the hand supporting the head.
  • The knees should be slightly bent. Bend the upper knee a little more than the lower knee so that there isn’t undue pressure between your ankles and between your knees.
  • You’ll need to have a cushion under your right armpit or upper chest, to take some of your body’s weight.
  • The pressure of your hand on your head may cause discomfort, so you’ll probably need to move your hand from time to time. Be aware of the intension to move, and be mindful of the movements themselves.
  • If you have neck problems this posture is not recommended, but for most back problems it should be fine.
  • Someone on Facebook said that she found this a good way to meditate during her pregnancy, and that she’d meditated lying on her side for six months. But (see the comments below) it’s probably a good idea for pregnant women to lie on the left, rather than the right, side.

In this position you’re far less likely to fall asleep compared to when you lie on your back, and it’s easier to maintain a sense of mental clarity.

Is this a posture you’re tried out? Have any advice? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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Pain relief: meditation better than drugs, study finds

When Subhana Barzaghi was a midwife she taught breathing and meditation techniques to relieve the pain caused by contractions.

“Most of us have a habitual reaction to pain – an aversion that we react against,” Subhana, who is now a meditation teacher at North Sydney’s Bluegum Sangha, explains.

“Meditation teaches us to observe rather than get caught up in the strong sensations we are experiencing. We learn to stop labeling and therefore stop reacting. In this way, instead of tightening up against it and resisting, which causes further tension, we start to soften into it. As we do this, the pain can begin to soften and subside.”

Recently, the 5000 year old intuitive teachings of meditation …

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Scans ‘show mindfulness meditation brain boost’

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The theory that meditation can reduce stress, depression and even chronic pain is one that has been gaining in momentum in recent years.

So the BBC’s David Sillito has been learning the art of mindfulness meditation in order to find out for himself.

After getting to grips with the activity, he joined some other devotees for an MRI scan to find out what impact the practice can have on brain activity.

Click to read the original article and watch the video»

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Inside the Pentagon’s alt-medicine Mecca, where the generals meditate

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Katie Drummond, Wired: The Samueli Institute gets $7.6 million a year from places like the Pentagon to investigate alternative therapies from yoga to acupuncture to water with a memory. But does any of it really work? And can Samueli, a convicted fraudster, really be trusted?

The general is surprisingly good at meditation. It’s not just the impeccable posture — that might be expected of a man long used to standing at attention. It’s his hands, which rest idly on his knees, and his combat boots, which remain planted firmly on the floor. Over the next several minutes, Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Surgeon General of the Army, will keep his eyes closed and his face perfectly relaxed.

Few in this hotel conference room, where three dozen have assembled to mark the 10th anniversary of the Samueli Institute, a research organization specializing in alternative therapies, are able to match Schoomaker’s stillness.

Even as our first speaker implores that we “close [our] eyes … feel the chair, feel the air, feel the breath going in and out,” this motley crew of professors, bejeweled clairvoyants, military personnel and Einsteinian-haired futurists tap their toes, shuffle papers and ogle paper plates of fruit and croissants.

>This might be the Pentagon’s best chance at making alt-medicine work — or at least figuring out if it even stands a chance.

“Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you imagine you’re going, you’re actually only doing it right now, in this moment.” Our meditation guru for the day, Dr. Wayne Jonas, is not only a retired Army medical officer and former director of the holistic branch of the National Institute of Health. He’s also the leader of the organization we’ve met to celebrate.

Schoomaker is here because he has a health crisis on his hands. And he’s betting on guys like Jonas to help cope…

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Researchers link meditation and pain-reduction

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Studies have shown that meditation can help ease pain — one study published this year in the The Journal of Neuroscience found that meditators slashed their pain levels by 57%. Scientists, however, haven’t been sure how the mindfulness practice worked exactly to provide relief — until now.

New research has uncovered the brain mechanisms that affect our experience of pain. Mindfulness practice — the ability to observe your thoughts and feelings from an objective distance — may help ease pain, in part, by increasing activity in key brain regions linked to processing sensory information, such as the posterior insula, according to the journal Cerebral Cortex.

“During the state of mindfulness, meditators seem to be in contact with the present moment experience as it is — without reappraising or evaluating it — which seems to reduce suffering,” said lead study author Tim Gard, of Massachusetts General Hospital, in an e-mail.

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Rewiring the brain to ease pain

Melinda Beck: How you think about pain can have a major impact on how it feels.

That’s the intriguing conclusion neuroscientists are reaching as scanning technologies let them see how the brain processes pain.

That’s also the principle behind many mind-body approaches to chronic pain that are proving surprisingly effective in clinical trials.

Some are as old as meditation, hypnosis and tai chi, while others are far more high tech. In studies at Stanford University’s Neuroscience and Pain Lab, subjects can watch their own brains react to pain in real-time and learn to control their response—much like building up a muscle …

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How to have compassion

Compassion is essentially the wish that beings not suffer – from subtle physical and emotional discomfort to agony and anguish – combined with feelings of sympathetic concern.

You could have compassion for an individual (a friend in the hospital, a co-worker passed over for a promotion), groups of people (victims of crime, those displaced by a hurricane, refugee children), animals (your pet, livestock heading for the slaughterhouse), and yourself.

Compassion is not pity, agreement, or a waiving of your rights. You can have compassion for people who’ve wronged you while also insisting that they treat you better.

Compassion by itself opens your heart and nourishes people you care about. Those who receive your compassion are more likely to be patient, forgiving, and compassionate with you. Compassion reflects the wisdom that everything is related to everything else, and it naturally draws you into feeling more connected with all things.

Additionally, compassion can incline you to helpful action. For example, one study showed that motor circuits in the brain lit up when people were feeling compassionate, as if they were getting ready to do something about the suffering they were sensing.

How do we cultivate compassion?

Compassion is natural; you don’t have to force it; just open to the difficulty, the struggle, the stress, the impact of events, the sorrow and strain in the other person; open your heart, let yourself be moved, and let compassion flow through you.

Feel what compassion’s like in your body – in your chest, throat, and face. Sense the way it softens your thoughts, gentles your reactions. Know it so you can find your way back again.

Moments of compassion come in the flow of life – maybe a friend tells you about a loss, or you can see the hurt behind someone’s angry face, or a hungry child looks out at you from the pages of a newspaper.

Also, you can deliberately call in compassion a minute (or more), perhaps each day; here are a few suggestions:

  • Relax and tune into your body.
  • Remember the feeling of being with someone who cares about you.
  • Bring to mind someone it is easy to feel compassion for.
  • Perhaps put your compassion into words, softly heard in the back of your mind, such as: “May you not suffer . . . may this hard time pass . . . may things be alright for you.”
  • Expand your circle of compassion to include others; consider a benefactor (someone who has been kind to you), friend, neutral person, difficult person (a challenge, certainly), and yourself (sometimes the hardest person of all).
  • Going further, extend compassion to all the beings in your family . . . neighborhood . . . city . . . state . . . country . . . world. All beings, known or unknown, liked or disliked. Humans, animals, plants, even microbes. Beings great or small, in the air, on the ground, under water. Including all, omitting none.

Going through your day, open to compassion from time to time for people you don’t know: someone in a deli, a stranger on a bus, crowds moving down the sidewalk.

Let compassion settle into the background of your mind and body. As what you come from, woven into your gaze, words, and actions.

Omitting none.

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You can think your way out of pain

Mark Fenske: Between the heavy mallet and the paving stone, my misplaced finger didn’t stand a chance. But it wasn’t the sight of the bloody, smashed-apart fingernail or split-open fingertip that first made clear my mistake. It was the pain. That searing, body-tensing, tears-in-the-eyes pain.

The basic function of pain is to interrupt whatever else is going on and draw our attention to the fact that something is wrong, that the body is facing or has already suffered some kind of damage. Sensory nerves, called nociceptors (i.e. danger receptors) detect elements capable of body-tissue damage, such as pressure or extreme heat. The nerves’…

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Pleasure and pain: the worldly winds

Vidyamala talks about the worldly winds of pleasure and pain as part of the Triratna Buddhist Community’s International Urban Retreat, where for one week (8 – 15 October, 2011) people around the world at Triratna centers intensify their practice while staying their your home situation. The Urban Retreat is about learning to make Buddhist practice real and effective in daily life.

You can see more Triratna videos at from Vimeo.com.

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