It’s all about dropping your resistance.
February 26, 2023
Changing your relationship with pain probably sounds absurd when your migraine, toothache, or broken foot is pounding so hard you want to throw up.
Pain is pain.
But is it?
Resistance, even resisting your resistance, is part of the problem.
You’ve probably heard the truism, ‘whatever you resist, persists.’ Resistance is when all your energy goes into trying to get rid of whatever is making you miserable, whatever it is that you don’t want fo have.
It’s a natural reaction — we’re all hardwired to resist and run screaming from what we don’t want and to move toward and try to hold on to what we do want.
It’s natural, but it doesn’t help.
Many years ago, I was a newly divorced mom with a stressful new job and a move from a house to a condo with my five-year-old son. For almost a year before the divorce, I experienced migraine headaches. After the divorce, no big surprise given all the life changes, they increased in quantity and intensity.
There was absolutely nothing I resisted more than those agonizing headaches. But, simultaneously, I started paying attention to what happened at the first hint that a migraine was coming on.
My body tensed up, and my breathing became shallow. Maybe I thought it would go away if I didn’t breathe or move. But the reverse always happened. The pain ratcheted up as soon as I had those two reactions, tensing and shallow breathing.
One morning I decided to try something new. Until then, I had furiously resisted doing anything about the headaches except try to catch them early enough that a couple of extra strength Excedrin would reduce the agony.
As a meditator, I had been playing around with the idea of bringing curiosity to things I resisted. So I decided to try it with the migraines.
My new theory was that if I could replace some of my resistance with curiosity, I might reduce the discomfort.
I figured I had nothing to lose.
What happens when you replace resistance with curiosity?
Head pounding, I sat in my meditation chair for the experiment. I breathed all the way out and softened my body, leaning into the sensations happening in my head behind my eyes. I took my time exploring them, periodically checking in to ensure I breathed out fully and kept my body soft and relaxed.
Almost immediately, I noticed the sensations weren’t as constant or rigid as I had thought.
They shifted a bit from one place in my head to another, behind one eye to the other, increasing and decreasing in pressure from side to side, back and forth.
When that happened, the texture of the sensations seemed to change as well. They were denser in some areas than others. Sometimes I pictured the hardness of a rubber tire, and at other times, I felt the roughness of sandpaper.
What felt warm or hot a moment earlier felt a bit cooler. I tried to visualize the color of the sensations. They seemed to shift from dark black to light grey.
If I remained curious, rather than resistant, I felt weirdly fascinated by how different the sensations were when I was observing and experiencing them, rather than thinking about getting rid of them.
At times it felt as though I was observing someone else.
After about thirty minutes, the sensations subsided and left me with a dull remnant of having had a migraine. That was the last migraine I experienced. I have had mild headaches over the years, but no more migraines.
A variety of conditions cause migraines, so I’m not suggesting everyone should be able to get rid of them with meditation or non-resistance. The migraines I experienced resulted from stress, not a physical or genetic condition. But if you’ve had them, if there was a way to reduce the discomfort by even 25%, it could be worth trying.
Thinking outside the box.
The idea is that by changing your perspective — your thoughts and attitudes about pain — you can, to some degree, change how you experience it.
Here’s the thing. We usually think of pain as an unpleasant sensation ranging from mild, localized physical discomfort to agony. However, physical pain is not just an expression of physical discomfort.
Yes, physical pain is the result of nerve stimulation and we experience it in our bodies. But there’s also an intellectual and emotional component that comes from our thoughts about the painful sensations.
The trick that seemed to make a big difference was changing how I labeled the discomfort. Instead of calling it ‘pain’ — which implied something torturous or unbearable–I referred to it as ‘sensations.’
Using the term sensations changed my relationship with the pain–I stopped resisting it and became interested in exploring it.
I discovered that almost every unpleasant experience, whether physical or emotional, was reduced when I viewed it with curiosity rather than resistance.
After that experience, I thought I might be able to apply what I’d learned to my life off the meditation cushion.
Don’t wait until you’re black and blue and bloody to try it.
I started playing around with applying the same principle to a straightforward, low-risk challenge. Instead of waiting for a headache, I waited for an itch.
Usually, when I have an itch, I have the idea and the feeling that I must scratch it. I’ve had hives, so I know about itching!
The next time I noticed an itch, instead of calling it an itch, I called it a sensation. I leaned into it rather than resisting or scratching it and explored how it felt. I breathed all the way out and softened my body.
The itch disappeared almost as soon as it arrived. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes it gets more intense until I decide to scratch. Sometimes I wait it out.
The goal is to be mindful of it whatever you do. Scratch it or don’t scratch it; it doesn’t matter. See if when you bring curiosity to the mix, your experience transforms from unpleasant to interesting.
Play is the operative word if you decide to explore this challenge. As soon as you notice an itch, turn toward the sensations, experience their texture, density, and color, and pay attention to your thoughts and any feelings.
Thanks so much for reading to the end. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear if experimenting with curious mindfulness sounds like something you’ll try.