Did you know research shows that Buddhist-style meditation — also known as mindfulness meditation — can help people cope with pain, anxiety, and a number of other physical and mental health problems? And while in most cases the training takes weeks, not days, it offers even a subtle lifestyle change that promotes a much healthier outlook on life in general.
One study showed a reduction in pain ratings that was substantially greater than those seen in similar studies involving placebo pills, hypnosis and even morphine and other pain killing drugs, after just 80 minutes of training.
The type of meditation used in the study is known as “focused attention.” Like other forms of mindfulness meditation, it entails learning how to observe what’s going on in one’s mind and body without judging, and while maintaining focus on one’s breathing or the mental repetition of a positive affirmation or prayer. Brain scans conducted during the pain experiments showed that this technique appeared to cause a number of changes in how the participants’ brains responded to pain.
The researchers looked, for instance, at a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex, which contains a kind of map of the body. Before meditation training, the area corresponding to the right calf was quite active when the heat was applied to the volunteers. But there was little activity in this region when they were meditating, which suggests that meditation reduces pain by reducing the actual sensation.
Areas of the brain responsible for maintaining focus and processing emotions were also more active during meditation, and the activity was highest in the volunteers who reported the greatest reductions in pain. The conventional wisdom has been that meditation relieves pain not by diminishing sensation but by helping people consciously control their perception of pain. The brain scans make it clear that both processes take place: Mediation changes the nature of pain before its perceived and also allows people to better handle it.
Here is a short mindfulness meditation exercise to try out.
Block out at least 30 minutes of time and turn off your cell phone. Lie down in a comfortable place, such as your bed or a cushy mat on the floor.
Before you start, mentally scan your body and notice the parts in contact with the bed or floor mat, like where your hips or head are situated. Tune those spots in an imagine softening in those areas and anywhere else you may be holding tension – such as the jaws, neck and shoulders, or even gripping in the calves.
Set Your Intention
Agree to let go of the past and future. Don’t listen to the sounds around you. Let everything fade into the background but the body. Agree to meet what you find in the body with friendliness and having no judgment that the pain in your body is your enemy. Not easy to do but with practice this gets easier.
Begin Scanning Your Body Mentally
Imagine you’re taking a tour of your body — looking to see what’s there just today. Don’t visualize or move your body parts; simply notice and experience them, one by one. Do this in a very detailed way. For example, start with the left foot. Feel how the heel makes contact with the mat. Can you tell if your toes are colder than the rest of your foot? If you have a blanket over you or a sock on, notice the weight and texture of the fabric.
Once you scan over a body part, allow that part to fade from awareness. Let it go and then move up to the next body part: the ankle, the calf, the knee, the thigh. Then cross over the lower torso, travel down the right leg and start again at the right foot, and repeat, traveling up the body, part by part, until you reach the head.
Connect It All Together
After you scan the head, mentally visualize that your entire body is connected. Feel the head connected to the neck, the neck connected to the torso, the torso connected to the arms, and so on. Finally feel the skin around the whole body and notice the sensations on your skin — temperature, texture.
In the end, you are lying in the awareness of your wholeness in that moment and not thinking what is wrong or right with your body or the state of its health, just a sense of physical wholeness.
We recommend the Blum Center for Health’s “Meditation for the Busy Mind” drop in classes. Join them in Rye Brook for a half hour of guided meditation to help move beyond the pain. $10/class, $40/5 classes.