Living Well with Chronic Pain
S&H: Tell me about your experience with chronic pain.
Vidyamala Burch: In 1976, when I was 16 years old, I had my first spinal injury from lifting a friend out of a swimming pool, which sounds innocuous enough but the accident revealed an underlying spinal weakness, and I went on to have two major back surgeries in 1977. Then in 1983, I was a passenger in a car accident and fractured another vertebra. I was really in a bad way at this stage. I was in constant pain. I had a degenerative spinal condition and was left with partial paraplegia.
What is it like to live with chronic pain?
Living with pain is like standing in water with a strong undertow always threatening to drag you under. Or like white noise grating on your nervous system. It can literally rob you of everything good in your life.
Also, pain is a neural habit. Your nervous system becomes sensitized to it and you become “better” at experiencing it, so rather than pain lessening over time, you feel it more. Little wonder those of us living with pain can become locked into our bodies and frightened to move.
You make a distinction between primary and secondary suffering. What’s the difference?
Primary suffering is the basic unpleasant sensations of physical hurt. Secondary suffering is the extra suffering that arises from our resistance and resentment due to the physical hurt. Pain and resistance equal more suffering.
Most of the distress we experience when living with chronic pain comes from the secondary suffering. The good news is that we can lessen, or even overcome this, through being mindful of, aware of, and kind to our suffering.
Mindfulness trains us to turn toward our experience and tease apart the different strands of suffering. We become aware of it, soften our resistance to it, and then we are just left with primary pain in each moment.
Crucially, with awareness you can learn to experience pain not as a static thing, but as a flow of changing sensations. You experience directly how no two moments are the same. This is very different to being locked into battle with a fixed monster called pain.
How did you discover that mindfulness helps alleviate some of the suffering?
In 1985, I was 25 and in hospital in crisis with my back. One night I had to sit upright for 24 hours after an operation, after months of lying flat on my back. I literally thought I was going to go mad with pain, and that I wouldn’t make it through to the morning. Then a voice said to me, “You don’t have to get through the whole night, you only have to experience it one moment at a time.”
It was a pivotal moment, I became confident and relaxed. My life was changed, and I have spent the last 30 years trying to understand more deeply what it means to take life one moment at a time in the knowledge that the present moment is all that really exists.
Also, at that time in hospital, I was taught meditation by a very wise and kind chaplain. A hunger was awakened to train my mind and heart in the knowledge that they were healthy and strong even if my body was broken. From this, I discovered Buddhism in 1987, and lived in a meditation retreat center for five years.
You have this sort of radiating, beatific energy. Is that really available to all of us?
It is available to all of us! If you’d met me 30 years ago, you would have met a very shy and frightened young woman with almost no self-confidence. By temperament, I am quite optimistic and very determined, but the pain nearly did break me.
Gradually, through practicing meditation almost daily for 30 years, I have become a very different sort of woman. It has been gradual, like grains of sand on a set of scales. Eventually the scales tip and positivity and confidence become the norm. It feels nothing short of miraculous to me.
I have written my books and created the Mindfulness for Pain Management program at Breathworks, so that others can pick them up quicker than I did. I often think back to the terrified and lonely young woman I was in my hospital bed, and I hope nobody else has to travel down the same long and lonely path of pain that I have.
A Simple Meditation for Pain
Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Notice how your back is moving with the breath, as well as your chest and belly, and allow your whole body to be soothed and massaged. Each time you notice you’re holding your breath against pain, allow it to soften again.
Your mind may eventually become calm—or it may not. Your mind may become filled again with feelings of catastrophizing and ruminations on the past and future. If this happens, be kind to yourself and gently return your attention back to your breath, again, and again, and again.
After a few minutes, or longer if you prefer, open your eyes and gently bring your awareness back to your surroundings. See if you can take breath awareness with you as you reengage with the activities of your day.
Adapted from Vidyamala Burch’s latest book, You Are Not Your Pain: Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-Being—An Eight-Week Program.