June 4, 2017
Let’s explore pain and how you might develop a different relationship to it.
The idea is that by changing your perspective — your thoughts and attitudes about pain — you can change how you experience it.
Sounds crazy, I know. Pain is pain.
But is it?
Pain is literally comprised of a variety of sensations.
It is formally defined as an unpleasant sensation that can range from mild, localized discomfort to agony.
Pain has physical, intellectual and emotional components.
The physical part of pain is the result of nerve stimulation. The intellectual part is our thoughts about it. The emotional part is the combined result of our thoughts about the physical sensations and the sensations themselves.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Years ago, I made a discovery while meditating. I found that when I was experiencing discomfort, instead of labeling it pain, if I referred to it as sensations, I experienced a shift.
I had been playing with the idea of bringing curiosity to things I resisted, so it occurred to me to try it with a headache while meditating.
We all know the trite (but true) idea that whatever you resist, persists. When I’m in resistance to anything, my body tenses up and my breathing becomes shallow. As soon as those two things happen, my discomfort is ratcheted up, whether I’m aware of it or not.
So instead of falling into my usual pattern of putting off meditation until the headache went away, I decided to go ahead and meditate in spite of it. I had nothing to lose and figured that if I could replace some of my resistance with curiosity, I might actually reduce the discomfort.
So I breathed all the way out and softened my body. I leaned into the sensations that were happening in my head behind my eyes. I took my time to explore them, periodically checking in to make sure I was breathing out fully and keeping my body soft.
Almost immediately I noticed the sensations weren’t as constant or rigid as I previously thought. They shifted a bit from one place in my head to another, increasing and decreasing in pressure from side to side. And when that happened the texture of the sensations seemed to change as well. I noticed that they were denser in some areas than others. At times, what felt warm or hot a moment earlier felt a bit cooler. I tried to visualize the color of the sensations and they seemed to shift between dark black to light grey.
I moved from resisting and hating something to feeling weirdly fascinated by how different the sensations were when I was actually observing them, rather than thinking about them.
I started playing around with applying the same principle to a simple and low-risk challenge. Instead of waiting for a headache, I waited for an itch. Normally, when I have an itch I have the idea and the feeling that I must scratch it. (Periodically I get hives so I know what I’m talking about!) I know you know that feeling!
I was meditating and my nose started itching. Instead of calling it an itch I called it a sensation, leaned into it rather than resisting it 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. For me, the key is to do whatever I do mindfully. Scratch or don’t scratch, it doesn’t matter.
If you decide to play with this challenge, as soon as you notice an itch, turn toward the sensations and notice their texture, density, and color, and notice your thoughts and any feelings that show up.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter if you scratch it or not. Whatever you do, just do it mindfully. Make it a conscious choice rather than an automatic reaction.
I just had an itch above my right eye and automatically started to raise my hand to scratch it. I stopped, breathed out, softened, and just observed it until I decided to come back to writing, and now the sensation is gone.
Whatever the pain or discomfort, see what happens when you call it a sensation and bring some curiosity into the mix.