Using Mindfulness Practice to Rise Above Pain

Bamboo Fans

Pain. You are one slippery little tadpole, coursing your way through all the nerves in all the body. And you rarely get tired in your ever onward journey. Oh, you might be coaxed by a nice cocktail of medicinal ingredients to not be such a drama queen and instead slink off into the corner for a while, but we know what you want. I ask “Do I own the pain or does the pain own me?” Ah but this is the crux of our deliberations: we oversimplify in our human desires to label things and analyze them into black or white. Pain, anyone with its chronicity knows, is a complex thing. It is the whole pole, that is, it is just apparently a tad of a pole so as not to appear as one big threatening pole. But the more you get used to it you realize it is big. It is profound, and it will have its toll, with a wince here, and under-productive there to an early to bed all too often. As the pain of many years intensifies and cripples and fatigues you you had better start to make peace with pain. This is the prime directive. Once you make peace you enter a missing fluidity which sends you merrily like a river skirting, dodging and descending all those nasty obstacles, on your way to the big sea. But making peace, how?

It’s like any problem at first…you have to know a problem exists, whether within or outside of you. A situation becomes a problem only when one has not taken due course to achieve awareness. If you develop an aware state of mind and bring that to each hour of your day, in a relaxed kind of way, you pick up all kinds of important things. This is also a good way to start on the road to all kinds of independent thinking and spiritual wisdom. Without awareness you are like a pole standing in a field taking everything thrown at you and being senseless unable to know what is happening. It is like an all pervading bubble of influences on your behaviour. It is the matrix of illusions which you have been brought up into. It does your thinking for you. You are not free. You are not pain free. 

There are all types of awareness. Body scan. Emotional state. Situational analysis. Sensitivity to entities from other dimensions. The panoramic of governing a multinational industry. Empathy for specific things about others, including animals. There are so many types. But the common oath they share is that you need simply be fully open to receive and have an empty mind. The third of the trinity is to cultivate a wise and feeling heart, knowing it is physiologically a part of the brain. You need a certain Oneness about this trinity. They need to be integrated for the greatest benefit. It is important to remember this Oneness, this wholeness of all, for it is the achievement, one which never meant to be neglected, and is always seen as the target on the range. So, probably the best way to get started is to look at the three faces of the trinity:

Fully open to receive

An empty mind

A wise heart

Lest you thought I had digressed too far, let me simply point out that achieving Oneness through Awareness is the state of mind you need to resolve your relationship with your pain. Sometimes pain can be alleviated by Oneness, particularly if that pain is born of an emotional scar. A certain dark unhappiness slips into the bloodstream and befuddles the mind. You must be open to receive.

Receptivity is more than just being focused on listening to what someone is saying. Receptivity is like both a scanner and a receiver, for it seeks focused content to add to its openness, not by action but by inaction (see Lao Zhu), and it is imbibing signals from the environment. From there it processes them into personal meaning. Speaking of signals, pain is always sending signals, to the point where the synapses become permanently fatigued in a chronic condition. So we have to pay attention to those signals as they come from within us. They are the pain. They are the obstacles in the river. We must learn to be the river, but first we must see the obstacles.

Let’s say you float really well, so well that you feel yourself lying belly down on a coursing river. You are extremely relaxed, you are one with the water and the journey. Now quickly approaching is a rock with a broken twig poking out of it. What do you do? Swim drastically aside to avoid collision? Cross your arms to prepare for a crash? Or do you become like the water and go where the water goes…which is the path of least resistance. The object is to let the pain flow by you and stream away out of you. The object is to barely come into contact with the rock. You See? The water/the receptive and the rock/the pain have much in common. Though the rock would crush you, you yourself course through your blood like a river. The river is a river. It is also blood and it is openness. The rock is a rock. It is also pain and it is lack of awareness. So let’s just zero-in again.

To manage pain you become aware of your relationship to the pain without self-identifying with the pain. You are mindful of the essence of pain. We do not want to block pain, we want to apply its essence to our ability and strength to deal with it. Think of your body, quite literally, as a river. Feel the character and nature of the river. Now feel your body as a receptacle of pain, trapped inside, moving from one place to the next. Stuck. Inflamed. Distracting. Always present. Worsening upon worsening. Dominating. Indomitable. 

So the idea is to envision your essence not as one which identifies with pain but which self-identifies with a river. Receptive. Aware. Fluid. This is not so much about replacing your skins, as it is about creating the conditions within for a fundamental re-visioning of your relationship to pain. It is a paradigm shift, and it is a way to disentangle from the complex of chronic pain syndrome. It is a challenge, but it is possible because others have done it. And that big process does take some work, so if you’re not here for that, then maybe there’s nothing for you to do but be comfortable with the devil you know. In the meantime, it’s down to business.

Okay it is work. But we want to think of this process as fun. It is a day by day thing. And we are going to be more elevated beings by using our wits to navigate and to own our lives. Yes, I am in this too. I’ve done much learning and have had harsh experiences, but I am never to think I’ve mastered anything. Always be a student. You are a change machine. You are curious, receptive, experimental. This is a journey and we’re in it together, we just wear different floatation devices. On with the fun.

If you are the philosophical type who has a tinge of the spiritual and the poetic I highly recommend reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching. Go get it and read it slowly.

If you prefer something more accessible and to the point, I suggest grabbing a copy of Miracle of Mindfulness by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The book is described as “A Zen master’s method of meditation, concentration, and relaxation.” 

These two books alone have much to get us focused on learning awareness. This state of mind can be as simple as, let’s say, you are getting mad at yourself because you always forget where you put your gloves, or car keys, or purse. Something. It seems always elusive, like someone else has moved it or hidden it. But no, you neglected to pay attention. When you rush in to your home and toss the keys take a second to say and point with your intention “I put my keys there.” Do that a few times. Keep doing it. And, if you have to, always put your keys in the same place. Personally, I always keep mine in my pocket because then it’s easy and there are no excuses and you’re ready for any emergency. Or when you park at the mall in a sea of cars, when you leave your car, stop and turn around and note a landmark and say “I am parked there.” This is basic daily stuff but it trains your mind and is very stress reducing.

Mindfulness is all about being aware of your thinking and actions from moment to moment. It’s tricky and takes practice, but it really pays off. It’s about developing a state of relaxed attentiveness. 

Mindfulness is also about learning to receive. It is a state of emptiness. This does not mean one’s mind is an inactive blank slate. It is rather a state of sitting in stillness. This is characterized as relaxed attentiveness. Through your breathing practice and your calm space you sit in peace, relaxed but attentive. You have moved into a meditative reverie. There are good practices for this in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Archery, particularly in the beneficial breathing exercise called the doctrine of the Great Breath. I like to share good sources with you because it’s good to get deeply involved with this and these people have helped me and have written about this very well. So do give them a good read.

When we deal with daily pain, and I mean daily, we can begin to be mindful of what is taking place to reduce or increase the pain within. Yes, there are lists of things which contribute to pain— genetics, diet, emotional trauma, loneliness, illnesses, accidents and so forth, but it’s the same old bitch as a friend once said. And yes, we can spend years in counseling going over every little detail and dissatisfaction, or make monthly trips to the doctor to solve our problems, but what are WE doing, what CAN we be doing every day, every day, this ain’t church.

OK, take your arm and with one broad swipe clear off the table. Right now get out a good sized piece of blank paper and a writing instrument you are comfortable with. In the middle of that paper draw a horizontal rectangular box and write SOURCES in it. Now think freely, reflectively, where is my pain. Try to go there in your body visually. Take a minute. What does it feel like? Do you really know it? Maybe it’s one big rock, maybe a few, or a myriad of stones strewn about. Draw an arrow from that box outward and note the character of your pain. Now think about what makes your pain WORSE, write that a few centimeters from SOURCES. Jot down what you know makes it worse…walking, alcohol, a nagging spouse, the weather…and circle that group. Next draw another line out…BETTER…write down all those things which help relieve pain…rest, socializing, less acidic diet…and circle that. Sit back and review these groups. It becomes simple. If you’ve presented enough detail and know yourself to be honest about all this then you can see, become aware of, the fact that you reduce one and increase the other. Now this seems obvious enough, but knowing myself and others who deal with chronic pain, it is surprising how we don’t always get the simplicity of what we have to do, and stick with it. No, we want to fight it like we fight our pain. It has become a conflict and we fight it all the way. Oops.

When we begin filling up that paper with our observations we are also practicing awareness for we demonstrate that our attention is directly on the thing we are bringing awareness to. If there is resistance to letting this exercise evolve on the paper and in one’s mind it is because it may be unfamiliar because we have not truly been here before. It feels unknown, and we are often resistant at first when we face the unknown. And like anything, once you’ve crossed that chasm a few times you realize that it was never there, it was just you who saw a chasm. So the trick is to let your self be childlike again, because it is so open and full of potential and having fun. Just step out. Ah.

Musical interlude

This moment just consider music and push everything else away, push even your breath away and relax to Stephen Halpern’s Music for Sound Healing CD. These are sounds that help relax in an attentive way and induce healing. You can also mull over the river and the rock . These sounds are vibrations which prepare your mind for relaxation and meditation. Additionally, Mary Bassano in Healing with Music and Color, speaks of music as the art form which has the most pronounced effect on our psychic centers and on the autonomic nervous system. She writes:

“[Music] also may affect the parasympathetic or automatic nervous system either directly or indirectly. The entire universe is undoubtedly vibrating to certain frequencies, and we are influenced by them according to our own nerve responses.

Undoubtedly, all physical ailments have their own rate of vibrations, too, and if this could be measured, then tones with a sympathetic vibration could be applied with beneficial results.”

She provides a number of examples of musical pieces, mostly by classical composers, which relate to the body’s chakras and their associated colours. These can be helpful in your reverie and your attempts to move from experiencing the stress inherent in your focus on pain to a relaxed state of flow where you become more fluid and less attached to the rocks in your stream.

Just be sure you have created the suitable calm, uninterrupted environment where the lights are dim and you are positioned comfortably without the chance of falling asleep. To get scientific, you want to achieve an alpha-wave state and hold it for suitable time. What is a suitable time? It depends on the organic nature of the person-hood who presents to the state. Some people need a luxurious melting of the cheese. Some like a dash of Tabasco sauce and jump back to action. Some eat something so bland that only a Scotsman could taste any flavour. Disclaimer: my background is 95% Scottish. You become very aware of a sense of coming full circle so as to have a sense of completion. Whether that is 10, 15 20 or thirty minutes it doesn’t matter., because one just knows when there is a sense of completeness to the engagement, and it ends naturally, as if it knew it’s own ending before you did. Music please.

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