Can meditation be employed to reduce or manage pain? And from another angle: how can you continue meditation if pain intrudes upon your practice?
As far back as the 1960s Dr Ainslie Meares in Melbourne described many case histories of great pain reduction using his simple-style meditation practice (Relief without Drugs, 1967). And in fact from the 1930s onward reports have appeared in medical and scientific journals of studies of meditation practitioners, often Indian yogis in those earlier days, who appeared able to be more-or-less unperturbed by painful stimuli.
So the answer to the first question above would appear to be YES. The Mayo Clinic, one of the most reputable sources of medical information in the USA, includes PAIN when stating ” … some research suggest that meditation may help people manage symptoms of conditions such as: … ” The other conditions listed are anxiety disorders, asthma, cancer, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems.
In one of our classes this week two members spoke up about suffering pain, one right now in the class, and the other more generally in her recent experience. The one with head pain from a recent injury found that his pain reduced a lot after the first exercise, a walking mindfulness practice. Then it reduced more when we did an imagery meditation, not particularly directed at pain. Finally we had a discussion about targeting your meditation practice at pain and he was still better at the end of the class. He may well have half practised what we were talking about while listening to me and engaging in the discussion.
The other person found the description of a specific pain-directed meditation approach very encouraging for dealing with kinds of pain that do strike her often in her life. The really bad experience she remembers is pain from cancer surgery not that long ago.
And the point that emerged for me, that I have seen many times in clinical experience over three decades, is that a range of types of meditation can help enormously to reduce or manage pain. Meditation based on body awareness and relaxation or ‘letting go’ can be effective. Mindfulness across all of the senses can help. Mindfulness with breathing awareness at the centre can work. And so too can creative imagery, either directed to the pain or independent of the pain.
But what if you are trying to meditate in one of your usually preferred ways, and pain keeps intruding and causing distress? You feel you cannot get into your meditation. Without describing in detail what I might try to show someone in a consultation or class, a few comments here can put the approach in some context.
Since trying to relax and get away from the pain is not working, try something else. Try the reverse. Try an approach that involves giving the pain experience your full attention. Since that is kind of happening anyway, even though you don’t want it, can you find a way of GOING WITH IT? Going with the fact that the pain keeps intruding to the centre of your awareness. The techniques and practices I might try with someone are based on that idea. Become MORE aware of the pain experience, but do it in a new way, with some tools, tips and a format for the practice.
There is no knowing where it will lead, either for the person with the pain or the one guiding them. Despite having seen many, many people greatly reduce (or disappear altogether) their pain, I have no way of knowing if it will happen in any new encounter. People are so different, and likewise their symptoms and how they relate to them.
Even if someone is not successful in reducing the pain much, oftentimes they report that they can relate to it rather differently after getting the hang of meditation-in-the-face-of-pain. It might still be there, but it somehow does not “hurt” like it did before. Or does not make them feel worn down, or despairing, or fearful like before. For many people and many pain scenarios though, meditation really does have the capacity to reduce, lighten, soothe or eliminate it in surprising, even astonishing ways.