10 Days of Silence: Meditation, Pain, & How You Can Become the Most Emotionally Healthy Person You Know Part 2: The How & Where In part one I discussed the ideas of impermanence, craving and aversion, and how these can create suffering. Now let’s talk about how those ideas translate into dealing with chronic pain. Meditation & Chronic Pain One of the first things I work on with every single client is changing the way we respond to our pain. For example, last year I worked with a client suffering with severe back pain. In fact, she could barely get out of bed. Nearly every time she got out of bed her back pain would flare up, she would panic and get back to bed as quickly as possible. Her day would be ruined. The pain came and her mood was immediately affected. No more positive feelings for the rest of the day. Maybe tomorrow the pain won’t be as bad, she thought, and only then, if the pain wasn’t as bad, would she allow herself to feel good. It’s a cycle that is intimately familiar to most of us. Our outlook on life is entirely dependent on our level of pain. This is exactly where we get caught. If we develop an extreme aversion to our pain, then we are solidifying the attachment so strongly that there is nothing that can change our mood other than a decrease in the pain itself. “The only way I can feel less sad, defeated, and frustrated is when I am in less pain than I am now.” We’re putting all of our eggs in one basket. And that is one dangerous basket when it is a basket full of chronic pain (forgive the terrible analogy). To change this, we go about a process that Alan Gordon calls “outcome independence.” This is a great way of saying that even if our pain is at a 10 out of 10, we opt not to care and instead practice not developing an aversion to our pain! This is one of the most useful ways to reduce pain in our lives, but it’s hard to practice not caring about a pain when it is so intense. This is where meditation comes in. If we remain purely in an observational state when we have even the smallest of feelings (good or bad), then we are building our skill of outcome independence and experientially understanding impermanence. Learn to meditate: So, let’s learn how to decrease our attachment to pain (and to all other feelings, while we’re at it). Once you finish reading this, find a place where you can sit completely still in a comfortable position (couch, floor, chair, etc. – doesn’t matter). Just for a few minutes (5 to start). Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, and then draw your attention to your body. As you’re sitting still with your eyes closed, what sensations do you notice on your body? Maybe some itching? Maybe the fabric you’re wearing is soft and feels nice? Maybe there’s pain? Sweat? Dryness? Tingling? Whatever it is – just notice it. Don’t scratch the itch. Don’t dwell on the softness of the fabric. Don’t move to avoid the slight discomfort that might come from sitting still. Just observe it and move on to noticing a different sensation somewhere else on the body. Observe without judgment. No craving. No aversion. Simply observe. Your brain will try and wander away from thinking about your body, and in order to combat that, constantly be moving your attention around your body. Move from the top of your head to the tips of toes, and then back up. Each time you move up or down it should take a few minutes. Move slowly and notice the sensation in each and every part of your body. If you don’t notice a sensation in a particular part, that’s okay – move on to the next part. The important thing is to merely observe a sensation and move to another part of the body. Do not judge the sensation. Do not move your body to try and avoid or increase the sensation. Just observe it and move on. If you’re doing this – congrats! You’re meditating like a pro! In fact, this is the same type of meditation that Gautama Siddhartha (know him? You might recognize him by his other name: the BUDDHA) used to attain enlightenment. So do this often enough, and you too can become enlightened! But for now – let’s just focus on how this can get you out of pain. Here’s an excerpt from a previous post I wrote about regarding how to put this into practice in everyday moments, not just when you’re meditating: Next time you have an itch that you are consciously aware of – don’t scratch it. That’s right – don’t scratch it at all. Notice it, and then move on with whatever you’re doing. Don’t judge it – don’t think about it again, just observe it and move on. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s possible. Do this every single time an itch shows up. Itches go away on their own (try it – they always do), but we’re unconsciously used to responding to an itch with a negative reaction: “Let me scratch this immediately so the unpleasant feeling goes away as soon as possible.” Okay, I know nobody consciously thinks like that, but that is exactly what is happening in your unconscious every time you scratch an itch. Instead, we want to rewire your unconscious brain so that it says: “I notice that I have an itch, but I am 100% positive that it will not last because all sensations (both positive and negative) go away, so I won’t spend my time, energy, and feelings on responding to that itch.” Your craving to eliminate pain or your aversion to doing an activity that will cause pain is what is keeping your chronic pain alive today. A strong attachment has been created, and now the pain doesn’t want to go away because you care too much about it. If we keep practicing this, then we increase our ability to notice a sensation (such as pain) and not have any reaction to it. Often times this is enough for people to eliminate their pain entirely! Learning to recognize that the pain is present (whether it be physical or emotional – but that’s high-level emotional health) but that it does not have to affect our mood is difficult, but it can be done. No, I do not think someone can learn this overnight or even with a few weeks of practice – this takes months and years of practice. That said, I have seen clients with a strong meditation practice eliminate their pain very quickly (within 6 weeks – after years and years of pain!). The Retreat So now you have an understanding of how to meditate, and have an intellectual understanding of impermanence and why it’s useful to practice it. Great! You’ve made the first step! However, an intellectual understanding can only take you so far. I could write for pages and pages about how beautiful a sunset can be, but until you actually see one, you will not understand what it is like to expérience a sunset. Meditation is the exact same way. And the best way to actually experience impermanence is to dive headfirst into a meditation retreat. So, for those of you that started off reading this and thinking “Wow a 10-day meditation retreat sounds like an awesome challenge!” then go do it. Sign up for it at dhamma.org and challenge yourself to do it. Now get ready for your mind to be blown. The retreat, in all of its glory, is 100% free. You can donate at the end if you are able to, but there is no pressure. People believe so strongly in the benefits of this meditation and these retreats, that they are completely free! For those of you that still think I’m crazy, but now have an understanding of the value of meditation, then I have done my job. Begin practicing your new understanding of how to meditate. Do this everyday, even if just for a few minutes. A few minutes of meditation a day is a great start. 3-5 minutes a day is all you need. Then, read this article again in 6 months, and maybe the aversion to the retreat will be less strong. Read it again in a year, and you may find yourself actually considering the retreat. How do I know this? Because that’s the exact same process I went through. After hearing about the retreat it took me two years before I felt comfortable enough to sign up. And that’s okay – I would not have been ready for it right away. So take your time and consider what this retreat could mean to you. Finally, I want to be clear about one thing: the benefit of spending 10 days in silence stretches far beyond learning how to meditate. When spending that much time with yourself, your brain sends you messages and memories that you may not have been aware of previously. For me, some painful memories of childhood (some things I’m not terribly proud of doing) kept replaying in my head. I quickly realized that I still have not forgiven myself for these things. In that way I continue to punish myself by thinking that something that happened in the past defines me now. But if I fully understand and grasp impermanence, then I must recognize that I am quite literally an entirely different person (down to the cellular level) than I was before. And on the deepest level, it gives me peace to know that while I have made mistakes in the past, I have 100% agency over not repeating those mistakes because I am a new person. I am proud to say that through this process I moved closer to the full forgiveness of myself, and am able to live more presently and focused on this moment. It’s a difficult task, and one that I will continually practice, but it’s the most rewarding thing I can do with my life. Cheers everybody - to Impermanence!