Meditation for Pain Relief

If you are experiencing some type of physical pain, you may want to consider taking advantage of the benefits of meditation for pain relief.

The Dalai Lama often reminds his students that the goal of the path of meditation is to fully awaken to our true nature and to become enlightened. To become enlightened, he has pointed out, we must perfect compassion, and to perfect compassion, we must encounter suffering. Taking this teaching to heart, a natural next reflection is that if this is really true, then what is the real meaning of pain or suffering in our lives and in our world?

Pain, suffering, loss, and dissatisfaction invite us onto a path of soul searching, self-reflection, and transformation. If instead of turning away or dulling our experience, we embrace and investigate it and allow it to open our hearts and minds to a deeper compassion and insight, there is great liberating potential in this. There are the sufferings of pain in the body manifesting as injury, disease, hunger, immobility, and dying. There are also the sufferings of mental anguish and disease of mind experienced as anxiety and fear, loneliness, confusion, or dissatisfaction that lead many people to look for skills to cope with, if not to master, their discomfort. There is also the suffering of the heart that has closed to itself out of guilt, blame, unworthiness, or shame, and has shut off from the world out of anger, jealousy, or fear.

All of these conditions are painful and unsatisfactory. If our level of awareness is low, it takes more pain to get our attention. If we learn to pay attention to our minds, bodies, and relationships, the warning signs of pain will become apparent and can be dealt with when they are just whispers rather than screams.

Once recognized, our suffering may lead us to search for methods to heal the wounds in our bodies and minds, our hearts or spirits. Some methods distract us or take our attention elsewhere, effectively blocking our awareness of pain and often allowing conditions to worsen and further deteriorate.

Other methods enable us to better understand the changing nature of our pain and to live more comfortably with the conditions in our bodies and in our lives that we associate with our suffering. Still other strategies are truly effective means of eradicating the causes of our suffering and putting an end to our mental and physical disease.

Traditionally, meditation for pain relief is very common. Different meditation techniques have been used effectively to cope with or master pain. Though concentrative techniques can be effective at masking the pain, the emphasis of applying meditation to working with pain is that of directly investigating and understanding it.

Upon careful examination of the field of sensations that we label "pain," we find that it is not a thing or unchanging entity. Rather pain is a nonentity, a dynamic field of sensations and feelings that changes with each moment and with each state of mind. The courage to face and understand our own suffering is the first step to working effectively with our own pain. It is also the first step in learning to open our hearts and minds enabling us to empathize and compassionately relate to the sufferings of others. By understanding our own wish to be free from our suffering, we begin to develop greater compassion, wishing that others might be free as well.

Over the years, we've worked with thousands of people in pain. Our unit at the hospital functioned as an unofficial pain clinic. Time after time we've worked with people in intractable pain due to injury, cancer, nerve damage, or fatal illness. From these people we've learned that the greatest suffering does not come from the torn or rotting flesh, or the tumor or the bedsores, but from their mental interpretation and response to the situation.

Fear, helplessness, frustration, anger, guilt, and blame are clearly effective methods of intensifying the pain, constricting the body and mind to isolate, contract, and cut off that part of oneself from healing.

Those who wish to use mediation for pain relief must take the first step toward mastering pain by learning to open to pain, to investigate it and allow it to change, flow, and float freely in their bodies. Though this openness does not mean that the pain will go away, it does create a mental and emotional space in which pain is no longer related to as the enemy or as an emergency. With this openness we are able to accept, nurture, and love the part of us that is in pain. If we then bring the same quality of openness and reflection to our thoughts and emotional feelings, we will learn to recognize both the patterns of mind that intensify our suffering and the patterns of rnind that bring greater harmony. In this way we become more responsible for optimizing our own self-healing potentials.

A further quantum leap in working with pain and suffering comes when we begin to use our own experience of pain as a means to open the heart in a caring and compassionate way to others. At this stage our self-centered fixation on our own suffering is transformed into a genuinely selfless outpouring of love, compassion, and caring that is mentally or even physically offered to others.

As we write this, the image of a man dying with AIDS comes to mind. He was a very spiritual man whose doctor had referred him to Joel to learn medŽitation in order to better work with his extreme discomfort and to better face his impending death. At one of his visits, he described to Joel how during his sleepless hours throughout the day and night he would practice the heartfelt extension of love and compassion to others: the dying child down the hall, patients in all the hospitals in the vicinity, his family, and all others who were suffering as he was. Though isolated from most human contact, he found that reaching out to others in a sincere way somehow put hisown pain in perspective, and his suffering diminished.

Approached with the right state of mind, meditation for pain relief can be an effective means for working with physical and mental pain and for coming to a deeper sense of our own wholeness.

[Adapted from the book "The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration, and Meditation" by Joel & Michelle Levey]

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