It’s becoming more and more evident that chronic pain is a psychogenic syndrome, meaning it has a psychological origin or cause rather than a physical one. This implies that there is some relationship between how we approach life and chronic pain. Therefore, by changing our approach, we can theoretically experience less pain. I believe the practice of mindfulness provides an excellent container through which we can learn to view life differently because mindfulness is by definition a special mode of perception. I have been successfully applying mindfulness practices and experiencing significant chronic pain relief myself, but how does it work?
First, let’s consider a basic problem with our ordinary mental perspective that was identified by Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha (awakened one), over 2,000 years ago. Basically, we have evolved with maladaptive responses to situations characterized by impermanence and ever-changing conditions.
- Grasp what is good.
- Reject what is bad.
- Ignore just about everything else.
More specifically, our ordinary mind is constantly assessing situations (and people) and labeling them as good, bad, or neutral. This is a basic survival mechanism. The problem is we unconsciously and habitually respond to our own assessments by trying to hold on to what seems desirable, defend against what we don’t like, and ignoring what’s left. To some degree, this is necessary. For most of us, though, it has gotten a little out of hand, generating pain on many levels.
This is especially problematic when we consider the nature of our fluctuating world. It’s impossible to hold on to or avoid anything forever. Life always gets us, one way or another. Therefore, our basic approach to life simply doesn’t work. We can’t go around labeling, grasping and avoiding everything and expect to have good results. Furthermore, the unacknowledged consequence of approaching life like this (as documented by numerous research studies) is chronic tension and stress. For a lot of us, this also results in chronic pain. At the very least, we may feel dissatisfied and disconnected most of the time.
Since our current approach to life is problematic, the most obvious and viable solution is to change our tactics and learn to view life from a more adaptive perspective. That means looking at life differently, even with all its changing conditions, and discovering fresh new ways to bypass our usual tendencies to grasp, reject, and ignore. It entails learning how to flow with a changing universe, instead of fighting against it; meeting it with a kind of radical acceptance, while paying more attention to what’s happening all around us. But how do we do that?
The method I propose is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a completely different way of looking at things and responding to life. It’s a learnable skill that helps us understand ourselves and see our world in a whole new light. Through mindfulness, we can discover new ways to appreciate who and what we are through insight and increased self-awareness. This helps combat low self-esteem and the concurrent perfectionistic tendencies that often arise in people who suffer from chronic pain.
Mindful awareness also helps us identify our habitual responses to the world and see for ourselves how maladaptive they are. Moreover, through the practice of mindfulness, we can connect with the present moment and begin to include all the internal and external phenomena we generally ignore, leaving us with a more expansive sense of self and our world. This, in and of itself, is highly effective in reducing chronic pain.
If you like, you can read more about where I’m at in this process here.
The only real way to develop mindfulness is by practicing it, both formally during designated practice sessions and informally as we walk through daily life. The primary practice is to experience life directly, without preference or prejudice. We simply watch our body, mind, emotions, and experiences in a calm, detached, non-judgmental way that’s both welcoming and accepting. We do this with great curiosity and kind regard, allowing experiences to pass through us without rejecting them or becoming attached. Essentially, mindfulness practice is a complete reversal of the maladaptive approach that creates so much tension and pain.
The specific purpose for practicing mindfulness is to increase awareness and gain insight into our emotions, mental habits, response patterns, unconscious beliefs, neurotic tendencies, defense mechanisms, and maladaptive behaviors—all the stuff that’s creating chronic tension and pain in the first place, thus preventing us from living a life of joy and ease.
The goal of mindfulness practice is always pure awareness. Yes, mindfulness practice can produce other desirable side effects, like deep relaxation, feelings of expansiveness or bliss, and even relief from chronic pain, but awareness is the mechanism of change and therefore the true, primary objective. As Bhante Gunaratana puts it, we’re aiming for an awareness so intense, concentrated, and finely tuned, we will be able to pierce the inner workings of reality itself.
The end results of mindfulness practice are numerous. To mention a few examples, we will:
- Know ourselves with increased clarity and precision.
- Be more in touch with our various mental states and how they constantly change.
- Learn how to observe our passing moods with greater objectivity.
- Gain more control over our own mind and the quality of our thoughts.
- Learn how to disentangle ourselves from our thought processes.
- Know how to disengage from thinking.
- Allow our deeper mind an opportunity to provide solutions.
- Experience life more fully, just as it is, with all its ups and downs.
- Reach new levels of authenticity by learning how to be who we are without covering up the truth.
- Wake up to all the ways we act out unconsciously and selfishly.
- Enjoy increased energy and greater focus.
- Dredge up old wounds, buried emotions, and traumatic memories. Yes, this is often an important part of the healing process too. That’s why it’s imperative to check in with ourselves. Do we need help?
And, because we’ve gone through these processes, lightened up a bit, and learned how to accept ourselves just as we are, we will likely experience chronic pain relief as well. Relief begins with unraveling all the mental habits that cause tension in the first place, while changing our perspective on life and becoming more accepting of who we in every moment.