When pain or distress arises in our bodies, our conditioned reaction is to pin it down and solidify it with concepts. We say “my knee,” “my back,” “my illness,” and the floodgates of apprehension are opened. We predict a dire future for ourselves, fear the intensification of the pain, and at times dissolve into helplessness and despair. Our concepts serve both to make the pain more rigid and to undermine our capacity to respond to it skillfully. We are caught in the tension of wanting to divorce ourselves from a distressed body while the intensity of pain keeps drawing us back into our body.
Meditation offers a very different way of responding to pain in our bodies. Instead of employing strategies to avoid it, we learn to investigate what is actually being experienced within our bodies calmly and curiously. We can bring a compassionate, accepting attention directly to the core of pain. This is the first step towards healing and releasing the agitation and dread that often intensify pain.
Turning our attention directly toward the distress or pain, we discover that the pain we had previously perceived as a solid mass of discomfort is in truth very different. Sensations are changing from moment to moment. And there are different textures within those sensations—tightness, heat, pressure, burning, stinging, aching… As we ask, “What is this?” the label “pain” becomes increasingly meaningless.
Within all pain and distress we discover there are two levels of experience. One is the simple actuality of the sensation, feeling, or pain, and the other is our story of fear that surrounds it. Letting go of the story, we are increasingly able to connect with the simple truth of the pain. We discover that it may be possible to find calm and peace even in the midst of distress.
Pain in our body, particularly chronic and acute pain, has an inevitable emotional impact that can be equally debilitating. Blame, fear, self-condemnation, despair, anxiety, and terror can arise in the wake of physical illness and root themselves in our bodies, further hindering our capacity to heal and find ease. Our emotional reactions of fear and resistance often lodge themselves in our bodies alongside the pain, to the point where they are almost indistinguishable. Learning to notice the distinction between pain and our reaction to it, we begin to see that although the pain in our bodies may not be optional, some of the pain of our reactions is optional.
The natural desire to avoid pain is translated in our minds and hearts into turbulence and anxiety, and our sense of inner balance is swept away in the avalanche of those feelings. Even when we are fortunate in that our body recovers, without mindfulness the emotions associated with illness or pain linger much longer in our bodies and minds. We may begin to live in a fearful way, treating every unpleasant sensation as a messenger of doom, assuming it signals a return of the pain or illness. The damage we do to ourselves in ignoring the impact of our emotional reactions compounds our tendency to feel anxious and afraid.
There is a great art in learning to be present with pain, just as it is, in the moment when it arises. But with mindfulness, we can learn to make peace with pain. We can learn to be present one moment at a time and so liberate ourselves from the dread of what the next moment may bring. We can learn the kindness of acceptance rather than the harshness of denial.