Can mindfulness help? Won’t being more mindful of pain, simply increase awareness of it and make the suffering worse? As it turns out, mindfulness is a very effective strategy in treating chronic pain… even if it seems counter-intuitive.
Sitting in meditation posture for long periods of time can be painful. At a recent meditation retreat, one fellow participant noted during a particularly gruelling sitting meditation that no matter how many times she shifted position to get more comfortable, the pain was still there! Even though our habitual reaction is to fix the pain by shifting position, this isn’t actually effective at reducing discomfort. The pain just comes back. It wasn’t until she just sat with the pain, without shifting, and let it be there that the experience of suffering lessened.
How often do we do this in daily life dealing with chronic pain? We all have our own strategies for dealing with pain; most are unconscious strategies and most are unsuccessful. We habitually do things to lessen our pain, such as avoiding work, exercise or social outings because pain is too great, frequently complaining to others about our pain, eating for comfort and distraction from pain, drinking, misusing drugs. But do these strategies work? In reality, these ways of reacting to pain don’t actually help us and often increase our suffering.
On the flip side, over-working ourselves to distract our minds from pain or denying that there’s a problem may also end up increasing our suffering in the long run if we’re not giving our bodies the required care.What do all these strategies have in common? They are all ways of trying to avoid feeling pain.
Contrary to what we may be conditioned to think, we can actually reduce our suffering when we face the pain with a friendlier attitude. Develop a welcoming attitude to pain?! Yes! Because as much as we may try, we often can’t control chronic pain. Chronic pain is going to be there whether we fight against it or not. In fact, pain feels worse when we fight against it!
“Suffering = Pain x Resistance”
The more we resist pain by trying to avoid our experience of it, the more we increase our suffering. At least with a less aversive attitude, we can reduce the suffering that goes along with the pain. And with a more accepting attitude, it’s easier to get on with life, easier to listen to what our bodies need, easier to take care of ourselves.