In this post I present the entire map of how mindfulness meditation practice can help us in our quest to resolve chronic pain. We will look at several aspects of the journey: the basic problem, the mindfulness solution, the method used, the essence of the practice, the primary purpose of practice, the envisioned goal, and the expected results.
It’s becoming evident that chronic pain is often a psychogenic condition. That means it has a psychological cause rather than a physical one. This implies that there is some relationship between how we approach life and the development of chronic pain. Therefore, by changing our approach to life, we can theoretically experience less pain. In my life, this has been proven to be true.
I have been successfully applying mindfulness practice in my own struggles with chronic pain for quite some time and experiencing significant relief, so let’s take a look at how it all works.
First, let’s consider a basic problem with our ordinary mental perspective. This issue was identified by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), over 2,000 years ago. In a nutshell, we have evolved with specific responses to ever-changing life situations. Our mind is constantly assessing situations (and people) in order to determine if they are good, bad, or neutral. This is a basic survival mechanism.
The problem is we unconsciously and habitually respond to our own assessments by…
- Grasping what we think is good.
- Rejecting what consider bad.
- Ignoring just about everything else.
This way of approaching life is especially problematic when we consider the nature of our fluctuating world. It’s impossible to hold on to or avoid anything forever. Life circumstances are always changing. That’s just the way it is. That’s why one unacknowledged consequence of approaching life like this (as documented by numerous research studies) is chronic tension and stress. For a lot of us, this also leads to chronic pain. At the very least, we tend to feel dissatisfied and disconnected most of the time.
Since our current approach to life is admittedly problematic, the most obvious and viable solution is to change our tactics and embrace a more adaptive approach to life. That means looking at life differently, even with all its changing conditions, and discovering practical ways to bypass our usual tendencies to grasp, reject, and ignore. It entails learning how to flow with a changing universe, instead of fighting against it; meeting it with a kind of radical acceptance, while paying more attention to what’s happening all around us. But how do we do that?
The method I have embraced is mindfulness. Mindfulness entails a different way of looking at things and responding to life. It’s a learnable skill that helps us understand ourselves and see our world in a whole new light. Through mindfulness, we can discover new ways to appreciate who and what we are, especially as insight and self-awareness increase. This helps to combat low self-esteem and the concurrent perfectionistic tendencies that often exist in people who suffer from chronic pain.
Mindful awareness also helps us identify our habitual responses to the world and see for ourselves how maladaptive they are. Moreover, through the practice of mindfulness, we learn to connect with the present moment and include all the internal and external phenomena we generally ignore. This provides a more expansive sense of self and our world. This, in and of itself, is highly effective in reducing chronic pain.
If you like, you can read more about where I’m at in this process here.
The only way to develop mindfulness is by practicing it, both formally during designated practice sessions and informally as we walk through daily life. The primary practice is to experience life directly, without preference or prejudice. We simply experience everything that arises in our body, mind, emotions, and environment in a calm, detached, non-judgmental way that’s both welcoming and accepting. We do this with great curiosity and kind regard, allowing experiences to pass through us without rejecting them or becoming attached. Essentially, mindfulness practice is a complete reversal of the maladaptive approach to life most of us have acquired, which is a primary source of tension and pain.
We practice mindfulness to increase awareness and gain insight into our emotions, mental habits, response patterns, unconscious beliefs, neurotic tendencies, defense mechanisms, and maladaptive behaviors—all the stuff that’s creating chronic tension and pain in the first place, and therefore preventing us from living a life of joy and ease.
The goal of mindfulness practice is always pure awareness. Yes, mindfulness practice can produce other desirable side effects, like deep relaxation, feelings of expansiveness or bliss, and even relief from chronic pain, but awareness is the mechanism of change and therefore the primary objective. As Bhante Gunaratana puts it, we’re aiming for an awareness so intense, concentrated, and finely tuned, we will be able to pierce the inner workings of reality itself.
The end results of mindfulness practice are numerous. To mention a few examples, we will:
- Know ourselves with increased clarity and precision.
- Be more in touch with our various mental states and how they constantly change.
- Learn how to observe our passing moods with greater objectivity.
- Gain more control over our own mind and the quality of our thoughts.
- Learn how to disentangle ourselves from our thought processes.
- Know how to disengage from thinking.
- Allow our intuitive mind an opportunity to provide solutions.
- Experience life more fully, just as it is, with all its ups and downs.
- Reach new levels of authenticity by learning how to be who we are without covering up the truth.
- Wake up to all the ways we act out unconsciously and selfishly.
- Enjoy increased energy and greater focus.
- Dredge up old wounds, buried emotions, and traumatic memories. Yes, this is often an important part of the healing process too. That’s why it’s important to check in with ourselves. Do we need help dealing with everything that’s coming up?
And, because we’ve gone through these processes, lightened up a bit, and learned how to accept ourselves just as we are, we will likely experience chronic pain relief as well. Relief begins with unraveling all the mental habits that cause tension in the first place, while changing our perspective on life and becoming more accepting of who we in every moment.