Use Mindfulness to Relieve Suffering Without Painkillers

Can you imagine going to the dentist for a root canal and not needing anesthesia? Or being able to bounce back from the loss of a loved one without re-living the suffering day after day? While these may seem like dramatically different scenarios, they have one thing in common-the ability to free yourself from the suffering usually tied to pain. In this article, you'll learn how.

Most of us grow up learning that pain is something to avoid. We have whole industries based on this premise. From painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet, to mood drugs like Xanax, Prozac, and Valium, doctors hand out prescriptions like candy to help us deal with physical or mental-emotional pain.

Let's be clear, these drugs can provide welcome relief when needed. They can be useful in the short term. However, they are poor long-term solutions. Used as solutions, they end up covering up, perpetuating, and exacerbating the cause of your pain rather than addressing, resolving, and healing it.

What if you have an innate ability to transform how you relate to pain that not only releases you from suffering, but also heals the cause of your pain itself? Let's explore two fascinating insights and a technique that empowers you to do this!

Insight #1: Pain is a Messenger

Let's begin by revising a basic premise around pain. What if instead of pain being something to avoid, it's a signal alerting you to pay closer attention? What if the purpose of pain is to acknowledge something and take action on it? What if pain carries important messages?

If this is so, then, instead of distracting yourself from pain or killing it, it's important to acknowledge it, turn toward it, and seek to understand what it is asking you to do.
Now, in the case of physical injuries, this may seem straightforward. For example, if you cut yourself while dicing vegetables, it hurts, and this signals you to clean the wound, apply pressure to stop the bleeding, and use a bandage. With a minor cut, this is probably all that's required.

Yet, you might also make a mental note to slow down and be more mindful when cutting veggies in the future. Maybe you'd been rushing around feeling the stress of too much to do and not enough time. If so, you might also acknowledge your need to prioritize-to let go of what is not so important and focus on what is, so you can take your time and be more mindful about what you're doing.

So, you see, even the pain of a simple cut could contain vital information. If you pay attention, pain can bring insight.

With emotional pain, this is especially true.

For example, let's say you've been a loyal client of a Kung Fu school for years. You've made monthly payments for your son's classes via online BillPay this whole time without fail. One day you get a text from them saying they haven't received your payment for the past two months and they need it TODAY!

You look on your BillPay and see that indeed the checks were sent both months and already cashed! You decide to go in and have a chat with them.

When you arrive at the school, you greet the instructor, who says nothing. After the urgency of the text you received, you expected him to bring up the issue of payment. So, you tell him about the text you received. He replies quickly and defensively, "Well, we have to keep the doors open!"

Immediately you feel hurt, because you've been a loyal customer and paid on time for years. You've even donated equipment and participated in all their fundraisers. You feel disrespected because there is no acknowledgement of your loyalty.

Now, you could just go on with your day, ignoring his comment and continuing to take your son to class. Or you could take the opportunity to look into the situation more deeply.

Maybe you could check in with him and see how things are going? You might learn about the stress he feels and offer emotional support. You could let him know how what he said made you feel. He might not be aware how he was coming across and this might help him with relating to his students and their parents-which would help grow his business.

Now, these may seem like minor moments-a small cut and a few blunt words. Yet, can you see how paying attention to your pain and going into it more deeply rather than avoiding it, even in minor situations, can lead you to insightful action?

How much more important is it to be mindful, pay closer attention, and ask deeper questions with physical and emotional pains that are bigger and more chronic, such as persistent migraines, back spasms, ulcers, insomnia, grudges, and self-sabotage?

Insight #2: Pain is Different from Suffering

Now, that we've seen how important it is to turn toward pain, pay attention, and ask deeper questions, let's move to our second insight-pain is different from suffering. This is important because we normally lump the two together. What happens when we do that?

Suppose you are skiing and break your leg. Immediately, you feel the sharp pain of the break. What does your mind do with that?

If it were me, I'd quickly make a series of mental jumps: wondering how bad it was, how long it would take to recover, how long I'd have to miss work, and how I would pay the bills. As a teacher and trainer of mind-body practices, I use my body all day long-and I can't do what I do without being mobile. With a broken leg, I would quickly imagine I couldn't work and might struggle to pay the bills. These thoughts add a story layer onto the pain that would cause me to suffer.

Studies show that when you add stories of suffering onto physical pain, it makes the pain feel worse. (For example, Dr. Maaike de Boer has shown how telling yourself "catastrophizing" stories about pain increases perception of pain intensity.) Suffering causes pain to intensify and linger.

Attaching to stories about your own suffering may even slow or prevent healing by creating unnecessary tension in your body and blocking your receptivity to the healing messages available in pain.

So, there are two aspects to a painful experience: you have raw physical sensations of pain, then you interpret what your pain means. In other words, there is the pain itself, then there are mental-emotional reactions you layer onto the pain. This interpretive layer could include a wide range of distress such as worry, anger, blame, self-pity, guilt, and so on. It could include beliefs and attitudes toward pain that you have learned such as "Suck it up." "Don't cry." "I deserve to suffer." Or, "Don't show weakness."

Insight #2 says that secondary reactions to the primary pain sensations are the cause of suffering. The raw sensations of pain are unpleasant and uncomfortable, but tolerable and instructive, if you can separate them from unhelpful secondary reactions. This applies to physical pains from injuries and illness, as well as to emotional pains from events such as job loss, loss of a loved one, or divorce.

The Secret to Suffering-Free Pain

A growing body of research has applied meditative mindfulness to pain with astonishing results. (For example, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's MBSR approach.) The secret is the separation of the raw sensation from the interpretation of the sensation.
Let's look at how this works.

Separating Pain from Suffering

The next time you experience pain, whether physical or mental-emotional, try this experiment:

1. First, acknowledge the pain and locate it, rather than turning away from it. Focus inward and turn your attention to where the pain is centered. Even if the pain is emotional, you may find it resides somewhere in your body, perhaps in your gut, solar plexus, or your heart.

2. Mindfully notice the details of the raw sensation: Does it have a size, shape, color, texture, sound, smell, or taste?

See if you can set aside your secondary reactions to the pain, your story about it, such as, "This is the worst pain ever." "What if it never goes away?" "What if I have cancer?" "What's going to happen to me?" and so on... and just focus into the raw sensation. Notice that when you focus into the raw sensation, it is just a sensation, and you can handle it. It's just a sensation like any other sensation. As you pay attention to the raw sensation of pain, you'll begin to notice subtle shifts in how it feels.

If you notice thoughts, stories, fears, judgments, or other secondary responses, let them go, and return your attention to the raw sensation of the pain. See if it's possible to relax into the sensation, rather than fighting it. Relaxing eases pain, fear and resistance increases it.

3. Breathe around the area, then into it. As you breathe in, imagine your breath gently surrounds the painful area, bringing a sense of spacious ease there and, as you breathe out, imagine you release any pain in the surrounding area in your out-breath. Once you are comfortable with breathing around the pain, see if you can draw your in-breath right into the center of the painful sensation. Imagine your breath brings a sense of spacious ease that infuses and disperses the intensity of the painful sensation. Then imagine releasing the pain out of your body in your out-breath.

Continue breathing in this way and notice any shifts in the sensation.

4. Ask your pain if it has a message for you. Ask it, "What are you trying to tell me?" Notice any words, feelings, images, or actions that come to mind. How does this pain connect to what is happening in your life at the moment? Adopt a curious attention and see what you notice.

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It's a good idea to practice this process with minor physical pains and emotional hurts first to grow your skill. For example, try it the next time you stub your toe, cut your finger, or feel emotionally slighted. You can try it right now with any lingering physical pains or unresolved emotional hurts from the past. As you grow your skill, you can apply it to bigger pains and suffering as needed.

Also, keep in mind you are not a failure if you momentarily find certain pains too intense to handle. Sometimes you may need painkillers for acute trauma. These can be good short-term aides. They can take the edge off, while you use the above process to support deeper healing.

If you practice this mindful approach, you can learn to handle all kinds of pain without suffering. You can acknowledge pain, attend to its messages, take appropriate action, and let it go when pain's purpose is accomplished.