In the last lesson we described how to practice "relaxed focusing", a very useful type of meditation for pain relief. In this lesson we will describe how to apply the skills you acquire from meditation practice.First, simply practicing daily meditation has a beneficial effect on pain. This is because it promotes relaxation and stress relief, both of which counteract the Emotional component of pain -- the fight or flight defensive reaction. Meditation also helps create an immediate awareness of our thoughts and emotions as they arise, which keeps them in perspective. We learn to become aware of our thoughts and emotions as temporary phenomena that come and go -- they are not us. This helps take the sting out of negative thoughts and emotions. Because we learn not to identify with them, we are much less likely to be swept away by them. Rather than blindly react with anger to a distressing event, we see that we have a choice, and thus we feel more in control of the situation. We can use the anger as a positive energizing force to do something constructive, for example eliminating negative influences in our life, rather than doing something destructive, such as reacting in a blind rage. Second, we can use our relaxation and meditation training when we feel pain coming on. At the first sign of pain, say a migraine attack or back spasm, try to relax and bring yourself back to a meditative state. The more you practice relaxation and meditation training, the easier it is to do this. Pain naturally causes us to fight and struggle, or try to escape. This is itself unpleasant, and it also causes physiological effects that make pain worse, particularly headache and backache. Our fight or flight defensive reaction creates changes in hormones, blood flow, and muscle tension that make headache and backache much worse. If we can relax and stop struggling, fighting, or trying to escape, we can break this "spiral of agony" and defuse the pain. You must experience for yourself that trying to fight the pain or to escape from it makes the pain worse. You can also experience that the pain changes when you stop fighting or trying to escape.There are other techniques we can use to reduce the impact of severe pain. The most important thing is to stop struggling against the pain, and stop trying to escape from it. One of the best ways to stop fighting or trying to escape is to turn your attention TOWARD the feeling of pain in your body, and to stay with it. This works particularly well with headache, backache, gastrointestinal pain, and other types of pain that are especially made worse by the emotional component. The natural reflex is to turn your attention away from the pain -- to avoid it, to bury it. Meditation helps here, because you learn to focus your attention where you want it. When you learn to turn your attention toward the pain, to examine the sensation of the pain, and to examine the emotion associated with the sensation, you will experience a most extraordinary thing. The pain will change in quality, move around, or abate entirely. Most people continue the fight -- they never stop struggling with the pain, so they never see what happens when they stop fighting. A variation of the above technique is to try to locate the pain precisely, and to determine its size, shape, and quality. For example, when your back hurts, try to describe exactly where the pain is in your back. Imagine a picture of your back and try to localize it exactly on the picture. How spread out is it? What kind of pain is it?  Is it burning, crushing, dull, or prickly? Pay attention and make sure you are right, particularly about location and extent. This forces you to bring your awareness to the pain. A related technique is to use imagery. For example, if you have a headache, you might imagine a window opening in your head and the pain leaving through the window. Or you might imagine cool water flowing over the pain. This also forces you to bring your attention to the pain. If you do any of these exercises while remaining relaxed it will counteract the emotional component of pain -- the tendency to fight or escape. In many cases the results are dramatic. Some people find they cannot localize the pain at all, because when they pay attention to it, the pain moves away. They find themselves chasing the pain around, and it eventually dissolves. Sometimes the pain is too intense to relax and keep your attention focused on it. The natural attempt to fight or escape is too strong. When this happens you can still use a modified version of the above techniques. To understand how this works, investigate what you are doing when you are fighting or escaping. When you are fighting, you are using force to try to change "what is" -- the way things are in the here and now. When you are trying to escape you are trying to change "what is" by removing yourself from the situation. Fighting and escaping both involve trying to change "what is". You can counteract this by remaining in the here and now, and paying attention to "what is". Since the pain is too intense to pay attention to it, you can pay attention to the feeling in your body of trying to fight or escape. Feel the tension in your muscles, feel your heart pounding, and pay attention to the feeling of energy in your body. Stay with these feelings and don't try to change any of them because that would just be more fighting or escaping. In many cases this simple technique will reduce the pain enough so that you can then turn your attention to the pain itself. You can do an experiment to test these techniques and see how well they work for you. Try subjecting yourself to a controlled pain, say by submerging your hand into a bucket of ice and water. After a while this will hurt, and when it becomes too bad you can take your hand out. You could also squeeze your finger in a pair of pliers. See how much pain you can endure by applying the above techniques. Be careful, though -- it is very easy to frostbite your hand or create other damage because with practice the techniques work very well for most people. When you are applying these techniques, remember that you are not trying to fight with the pain or escape from it, you are simply being there with it. Fighting, struggling, and escaping don't work, they simply make the pain worse. This may seem very strange when you are in the worst pain of your life, and I am asking you to do something that seems like stepping off a cliff. This requires great courage and faith. The paradoxical solution is to stop trying to change the pain. Soften your tummy and keep breathing, relax as much as possible, and simply feel the pain. Never resist pain -- surrender to it. Go to the center of it. Let it sink in, as water sinks into sand. ================================================= Variations on Meditation The purpose of meditation for pain relief is to learn to relax and to focus attention. In the last newsletter we described "relaxed focusing", in which you relax, focus on the feeling of air as it enters and leaves your nostrils, and at the same count your exhalations. Some people find it difficult to do this. They get distracted and lose count, and then they get frustrated. This is counterproductive, since the most important thing is to relax. If you find this happening to you, you might try some variations on relaxed focusing. The easiest thing to do is to relax and not worry about focusing your attention on the feeling of air entering and leaving your nostrils. Then simply count every breath, counting "one" for the first inhale, "two" for the first exhale, "three" for the next inhale, "four' for the next exhale and so on up to "ten". If you lose count, just start over from "one". If this is still too difficult, then you should try mantra meditation as described in the featured link of our last newsletter. With practice, counting the breath will become easier. When you can meditate for your entire session without losing count, you might try something more difficult, such as counting only each inhale. Count "one" for the first inhale, "two" for the second inhale and so on up to ten. Or you might try just counting the exhale, counting "one" for the first exhale, "two" for the second, and so on. When you are proficient at this and you rarely lose count, then you might add focusing your attention on the feeling of air as it enters and leaves your nostrils. This is called "following the breath".  Continue your practice until you can do this and very rarely lose count. Very advanced meditation practitioners simply relax and watch their thoughts without getting distracted. This is extremely difficult, and we don't recommend trying it since it is not necessary for pain relief and it can easily turn into mere daydreaming. The most important thing is to practice meditation daily, whatever form you prefer. You will gain immense mental and physical benefits from it, and you will be much better at countering stress and pain.

Using Meditation for Pain Relief / Variations

© 2016 by Dr. Ken Pfeiffer