Meditation and the management of pain

Vidyamala Burch


Nobody likes to suffer. When we experience pain, we don’t like it. When we haven’t cultivated skills in mental and emotional training, we automatically add mental, emotional, and physical reactions of “not wanting” onto the sensations of pain, creating an experience of resistance. We then have painful sensations + resistance = increased suffering. Our reactions to the unpleasant experience of pain mean that our overall suffering intensifies.

Meditation—both mindfulness and compassion approaches—is the training ground for the mind and heart. Awareness has a crucial role to play in reducing this automatic reaction. The basic sensations of pain may be unavoidable for individuals living with health problems that cause physical pain, but the reaction is optional. It is possible to train the mind with meditation so that pain is experienced on the level of unpleasant physical sensation alone, free from additional mental and emotional suffering.

I know this from first-hand experience. My whole adult life has been engaged with the mystery of living with chronic pain after spinal injuries in my teens. Alongside this has been a deep longing for inner peace based on intuitions that it is possible to experience the human condition in ways that transcend struggle. It has been a grueling and intense life journey that has taken me to great depths and heights of experience. It has also been profoundly satisfying, even if it is not a life journey I would ever have chosen.

In this chapter I will explore the underlying physiology of physical pain and the different ways it manifests; the immense burden pain places on both individuals and society; and how meditation and mind/heart training can help to manage reactions to pain and thus transform quality of life; and I will offer an overview of the research into meditation for pain. Finally I will introduce the specific approach I have developed at Breathworks with mindfulness-based pain management (MBPM) and the Buddhist roots that underlie the Breathworks Program.

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