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 in to 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 was surprised to realize that the sensations weren’t as constant or rigid as I had 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.
At the risk of sounding insane, I went from resisting and hating something to feeling weirdly fascinated by how different the sensations were when I wasn’t resisting them.
So here’s a simple and low-risk challenge. You don’t need to wait until you’re meditating or have a headache. Pay attention next time you have an itch. Normally, when you have an itch you probably have the feeling you must scratch it. (Periodically I get hives so I know what I’m talking about!) I know you know that feeling!
Allow yourself to get curious about the sensations that make up an itch. Instead of calling it an itch call it a sensation, lean into it, and explore. Breathe all the way out and soften your body.
When I’m meditating sometimes an itch will disappear almost as soon as it arrives. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets more intense until I decide to scratch. For me, the key is to do whatever I do mindfully.
If you decide to play with this challenge, turn toward the itch and notice the sensations, thoughts, and feelings you’re having.
And don’t worry, it doesn’t really 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. I’d love to hear your comments. Do you like the idea? Think it’s crazy? Want to try it out for yourself? Please take a moment to share what you discover.