Ask a Philosophical Counselor: Can Meditation Help with Pain?
How might meditation help with pain. I was advised to try to meditate by just paying heightened attention to the pain, but it did not really help. It seemed to make it worse.
(Cathy asked this question in my currently ongoing 8-week meditation course at Natural Balance Massage and Wellness Center, in Brooklyn, NY.)
Good question, and sorry you weren't given more specific guidance. Yes, meditation may help with pain, in at least a few ways. Let me sketch some, and hopefully at least one or two might help in your case, though everyone is different, and so are pains.
By all means, if the pain is so severe that it could put you in a state of shock, or lead to other negative conditions, such as being unable to function, focus, and so on, then meditation alone would be inadvisable, and medical attention would be much more pressing. However, assuming your pain is not dangerous or unhealthy, that you've received appropriate medical attention, and that the pain is thus manageable in some sense, here are some ways meditation might help.
First, certain deep breathing meditation exercises might have a mildly tranquilizing effect, which may ease the pain. Simply breathing long, slow, deep, full, conscious breaths, in and out, without straining, tends to have a mildly tranquilizing effect. This is a basic yogic breathing technique called 3-part breath, because it utilizes the lower, middle, and upper lungs. This technique often lowers heart rate, calms the nerves, and may slow brain waves and reduce heightened blood pressure. It can be used not only to help manage pain, but to destress in almost any circumstance, and nobody need know you're doing it. There are variations on this technique that are often experienced as being more powerful in their impact.
Second, there is an insight that is central to the ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy that might help sort things out connected with the pain, what they called the "dichotomy of control", but which we can simply understand as the distinction between what we can and cannot control. Sometimes all it takes is clarity about where the difference lies between these two. So, if there is nothing you can do about, say, a certain aspect of your pain, then learning how to accept it would be a wiser strategy than resisting it, which resistance would be futile, and only add to the stress of the pain. On the other hand, if there is part of the pain experience that you can control, then it would be wise to narrow your focus and efforts to that. So, take some time to explore whether your pain is a singular entity beyond your control, or if it has parts some of which might be able to be controlled to some extent.
Third, often it is how we frame or conceptualize our sensations that determines a significant element of their pleasant or unpleasant character. In other words, our framing of strong sensations itself could be contributing to their unpleasant qualities. For example, when I'm training for a marathon, pounding my feet into asphalt 20-40 miles a week, often I experience a sort of diffuse aching in the lower half of my body, a pain in my hips or thighs, knees or feet, sometimes here, sometimes there. Because I'm training for a marathon, however, I am not so worried about these pains, and so I just view them as mildly annoying sensations. Having that way of looking at them, I suspect, plays a role in the fact that they tend to come and go, rather than just linger. However, if I knew I was exposed to someone who had flesh-eating bacteria, the pains in my hips and thighs would suddenly be quite alarming, and I suspect I would experience them much more stressfully. Or, if I have a pain in my tooth, the mere fact that I suspect I'll need dental treatment adds to my stress about the tooth, and then every moment that I feel that pain will trigger a metaphorical red light in my be-on-alert system, which will seem to magnify the pain. As a professor who loves to teach, I frequently go to work despite feeling and being quite ill, because it doesn't necessarily interfere with my ability to teach, but once I begin teaching after a few minutes I completely forget about any symptoms until long after class ends. I once took a black belt test with a broken wrist in a small cast, because in my dojo, black belt tests were only held twice a year, I had trained well for this one just before breaking my wrist, and I didn't want to have to wait another six months. Again, I didn't feel any pain until some time after the test. For this reason, sometimes becoming absorbed in something that will completely take your mind off the pain actually works to render the pain temporarily absent from consciousness, which is the opposite of meditating on your pain.
Fourth, however, sometimes meditating on the pain can help. The advice you were given was incomplete in itself, but as part of more complete advice it could help diminish part of the pain. The idea is this: closely examine the pain, and see if part of it involves your own stress about the painful sensations, your own fear about what they mean, about what dangerous condition they might reveal, about what medical procedure and son they might lead to, as well as your own strong aversion to the pain, your desire to end it, to avoid it, to run away from it, to make it go away, and so on. If you can step outside that complex, by dispassionately and clearly observing all the elements that go into it, then you stand a good chance of being able to disentangle all those elements from each other, drop all the ones under your control, which are all your psychological and emotional reactions to the pain sensations themselves, then hopefully all that will be left will be clusters of raw sensations that are painful. In fact, the one big throbbing pain or ache or whatever it is stands a chance of dissolving somewhat from being experienced as this one big solid thing into being experienced as a cluster of flickering sensations, each of which by itself is possibly more endurable when experienced as such than they all together seem when framed as one big pain. Many people report that when they are able to do this, the actual pain itself becomes much more bearable.
Fifth, I mentioned above serious distraction, as when I teach or engage in sparring, forgetting the pain. Some forms of meditation can engross and captivate attention so well that they have a similar effect. For example, intensely chanting a mantra, engaging in a powerful visualization exercise, or in an intense breathing exercise, or any combination of these, can have that effect. But so can any engrossing activity.
Sixth, if you are adept at meditation, you might well be able to enter into trances or trance-like states, at which point it is as if some sort of body-consciousness switch is simply turned to the off position. Of course, if you are in pain now, and you are not already adept at meditation, something it takes time to cultivate, then this is a tip just for the future, but knowing this is itself a reason to begin to cultivate a serious meditation practice.
Seventh, and finally, any combination of the above might help, and the combined effects ought to be magnified proportionately. Understanding what you can and cannot control, isolating and reducing your own reactions, breathing deeply tranquilizing breaths, framing the pain in terms that are not alarming, and so on, together promises to be an effective strategy for reducing those aspects of pain that may be reduced. After I had knee surgery, I couldn't manage to get the pharmacy to deliver my pain medication for about four hours, by which time the pain probably would have put the average person into a state of shock. Using my own cocktail of the above techniques enabled me to endure what most people would like;y experience as unbearable. I knew I could not will the pain away, that part of it was my own aversion, that it was not as if my leg was just crushed and I would bleed to death, that this was normal post-sugary pain, and so on, and the breathing and mantra and so on became my lifeline until the medication arrived.
Again, practice makes perfect, which is why having a repertoire of meditative and related philosophical skills is worth cultivating. These skills carry over into other unpleasant aspects of existence, far beyond the domain of actual pain, into the much more ubiquitous domains of social, economic, psychological, existential, and philosophical or spiritual confusion, dissatisfaction, stress, and tension.
I hope this clarifies matters.