In recent columns, we explored the evolutionary development and potential of the human brain and how new approaches can use this knowledge to better manage our emotions and chronic pain.
The first key to mastering chronic pain and enhance wellbeing is to recognize how our thoughts, emotions and behaviour (including healthy eating, exercise and sleep) influence our experience of pain. By adopting and practicing more adaptive approaches, we can increase our comfort, improve our function and again enjoy more of the activities we value most in our lives.
Mindfulness is one of the practices shown that with practice improve chronic pain and the suffering associated with it.
Mindfulness helps us to centre our minds, increase our awareness and calm the nervous system that modulates how we experience pain and other sensations. The practice of mindfulness teaches us a less reactive approach to the rest of our lives. We become open to accept and experience every aspect of our lives, our selves and our sensations, without clinging, aversion or judgment.
We begin meditation by spending 15 or 20 minutes each day just sitting in a quiet place in a comfortable position. We turn our attention to the natural flow and sensations of the breath without trying to control it in any way. This becomes a safe and calming anchor that we can return to at any time.
We can then turn our attention to a second anchor for our attention — the soundscape. These are the sounds as they arise in our immediate environment. We simply attend to the arising and disappearance of different sounds as they come and go from our awareness. We don’t have to label or identify each sound. We simply remain aware of them as they arise, change and disappear.
We can centre our awareness on a third anchor — the different physical sensations in the body, perhaps the pressure at points of contact, warmth, coolness, vibrations, pulsations, tingling and even pain. We can move awareness to different areas of the body, and if a sensation such as pain in one part of the body is difficult to manage, we can shift our attention elsewhere to the part of the body that is most comfortable or back to the anchor of the breath — or we can move our attention back to one of the first two anchors — the breath or sound.
With practice, we are able to maintain awareness and attention to every sensation without reacting to it, without aversion, clinging, judgment or identification. With time, we recognize that everything within our awareness is ever changing, nothing is constant — no sensation (not even pain), no mood, no emotion and no thought.
We are able to attend to each thought as it arises without getting carried away in a train of thoughts or a story in the remembered past or imagined future. We can note thoughts as they arise, without judgment or identification and let them go. We can do the same with the transient feelings and emotions that arise without getting caught up and carried away with them. We experience moods, feelings and emotions but we are not our moods, feelings or emotions. We can see them as transient, temporary conditions like a mist, a fog or a shower. They pass through us or we pass through them.
We can be mindful when walking, attending to the sensations of each step, the sounds and pressures on the feet and the movement of the legs. This becomes a mindful anchor from which what we hear, see, feel and think arises in our open and accepting awareness.
Mindfulness can be practiced while eating, attending to the taste and texture of each bite of food; swimming, attending to the sensations of buoyancy, flowing water on the surface of the skin and rich sounds of moving water and air; and even driving. Mindfulness only begins with meditation. When you apply the healthy attitudes of non-reactive acceptance, gratitude and compassion to everything in your life throughout each day, you will discover a deeper level of peace, happiness and meaning.
Mindfulness when diligently practiced can bring serenity to your mind and body throughout each day – an open, accepting and nonreactive approach to your life. It can foster in you greater compassion for others and yourself.
So mindfulness is not something that we practice in a quiet place for a few minutes every day. It is an approach and a perspective that will transform our minds and help us manage difficult emotions and experiences throughout each day and over the course of our lives.
In upcoming columns, we’ll explore other new approaches to chronic pain.
Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at davidicuswong.wordpress.com. If you or someone you know suffers from chronic pain, check Pain BC’s website https://www.liveplanbe.ca