Meditative Approaches to Physical Pain
A path through pain.
Pain is a tricky thing. When acute, it alerts us that something has happened, urging—or demanding us to pay attention. When pain turns into a chronic condition, a constant nagging that completely alters our experience of life, we often have to shift the way we pay attention to it.
Fourteen years ago, I was vacuuming my car, and a slight twist sent a searing pain into my lower back. I was knocked flat and could barely move without agonizing pain. Structurally, there was nothing terribly wrong, my back wasn’t broken, nothing was showing up on the various scans and tests the doctors performed. My physical therapist taught me to build my core strength to support my structure in a way that didn’t cause pain. I still do those exercises today, and am grateful that I have tools for when I feel my back is weak and might be on the verge of ‘going out.’
For many who experience chronic pain, they don’t get tools that help them. Diagnoses are far and few between and hope becomes a scarce commodity. Sarah Anne Shockley had to create her own way of coping with debilitating pain when known therapies were not effective in treating her neuralgia that was a result of thoracic outlet syndrome. In her book The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for living with and Moving Beyond Chronic pain, Shockley offers a “positive, constructive approach to living with chronic pain and relieving the incredible stress, fear, and emotional distress that comes with that.”
One way to make chronic pain more manageable involves knowing you are not alone in your experience. Guilt about not being able to do the activities you used to love, shame about having to ask for help and anger or blame about being in your current situation are all common emotions that can get in the way of finding relief. The compounding stress of being constantly in pain combined with exhaustion and loneliness are a trifecta that only serve to take you deeper into your pain.
Shockley realized she needed to gain a new perspective on her pain. She wondered, “what possibilities for healing might open up if I began to relate to (my pain) as part of an interconnected system, me, the whole me, and began to tune in to the ways it was communicating?” She realized she need to quiet down and listen to her pain. What she found was that changing the way she related to her pain ultimately changed her experience of it. She calls these methods her “meditative approaches to physical pain”:
- Releasing breath. When we are in pain, it’s common to hold our breath. We try to create a barrier between us and the pain with our breath. Shockley suggests a practice she calls “releasing breath” which involves first noticing how you are breathing, allowing your breath “to be a little freer and calmer”, and then notice how your pain level is affected by letting your breath move more freely through your body.
- Loving the places that hurt. Ignoring your pain and battling against it are both generally not helpful - nor may they be possible. Shockley decided that instead she “would offer it softness, understanding, compassion and inclusion.” She suggests first checking in with your pain, noticing the shape and contour of it. Next, breath into your heart and feel the capacity for peace there. Using the energy from your heart, send loving kindness to your pain, “thank your body for its efforts to heal.” Practice being judgement free about your pain-even, or especially- when it feels difficult. Finally, she suggests that you “soothe the pain as if it is a child who has never had a kind word or a soft caress.” Become aware if you are resisting being kind to your pain.
- Imagining pain’s form. Using the principles of art therapy, Shockley found that “images, symbols, and metaphors that emerged were very revealing and helpful.” She suggests that what emerges could offer insight into your pain. She suggests starting by working with paints. Sit quietly and settle for a few breaths and then consider your history with your pain. Imagine the form of your “pain story” and begin to paint from your pain. Again, being non-judgmental about what comes out is important, “especially if it’s dark and messy.”
Having compassion for yourself and your pain, which of course is part of yourself, is a crucial part of your journey to healing. Being willing and able to accept what is, or is not, will free you from a great deal of stress, and if you let yourself appreciate the small, precious gifts of your life as it is right now, you may find that peace is a more powerful presence in your life, and with that comes healing.