There is a story I would like to tell in order to answer the question in the title, it is a 2500 years old story. The protagonists are the Buddha and his assistant Ananda. After the Buddha realised enlightenment, he travelled all around India with his disciples to teach. He walked from place to place and frequently slept rough. Of course, all of this had an impact on his body in terms of pain and discomforts. One day, whilst Ananda was giving him a massage to ease off some pain he was experiencing he said, “You know Ananda, the only time I don’t hurt on every part of my body is when I’m in the deepest meditation.”
What is this story telling us? First that enlightenment is not guarantee of a pain-free life and second that meditation seems to be able to control the level of pain. Let’s see how.
In the context of pain we can take into consideration 2 types of meditation. When we feel some pain we can practice with tuning out which means focusing on something else rather than pain or we can tune in by making pain the object of meditation. Tuning out is like trying to find some distraction which will make us forget about the pain. Like, imagine, when you are having a headache and whilst being engaged with watching a good movie you sort of forget about the headache. You get distracted by something else which is not the pain and you just not notice the pain that much. You don’t really deal with the pain but you find a way to get distracted and thus away from it. When you tune in you definitely have a more mindful approach, you pay attention to the pain, you give pain some space to be. You are somehow welcoming your pain into your space of awareness. You are not judging it, you are not trying to change it or trying to push it away. This awareness and this acceptance will trigger some changes, guaranteed. The pain might become a little bit softer, it might move somewhere else or it might even dissolve. The start of a different relationship with pain can change your experience of pain.
Let’s attempt to take it a step forward now.
When we feel some pain, instinctively we want it to go away immediately. Our mind starts a commentary process which is nourished by frustration, anger, annoyance and so on. This mental spin does not help dealing with pain, it is like tuning out, the focus is not on the object we want to deal with (pain) but with something external and alien to the pain itself (mental commentary). Getting out of this useless mental activity and bringing our awareness to the pain itself will ignite a new experience of how we can deal with pain. We forget about our habitual response to pain and we welcome a new approach which deals with the matter directly without going through the thousand and one considerations of the mind. Pain now does not have to be something we are so scared of, we are starting to get to know it with awareness and accepting it as being an element of our human condition. Nothing that we can really avoid for all our life. Mindfulness aims at empowering this attitude of acceptance which helps us to gain a better perspective on the reality of a situation. It will not guarantee us a pain-free experience of life but, however, it will attempt to change it by facing it and dealing with it directly. We try to forget about the mind with all its stories about “good”, “bad”, “why”, “how” and so on and we try just to have a more focus attitude towards the real problem.
As mentioned already, meditation definitely cannot guarantee a pain-free life. Nevertheless, it can help us with changing our perspective of pain and it can definitely help the process of healing as we are going to explore now.
Meditation helps the body and the mind to deeply relax and what we do instead when we feel pain is to tense our muscles. That is a natural response of our body to kind of protect the injured or painful part. However excessive tension can result in preventing the natural healing process of the part itself. In fact, with tension we will have a reduced blood flow to the interested area which will slow down the process of self-healing. By relaxing, we allow the flow of blood to happen more quickly and consequently the healing will also happen more quickly. Meditation, as already mentioned, is the greatest of all the healthy tool for relaxation and definitely a good one to support our bodies with the healing process.
There are many surveys and researches which looked at how meditation and mindfulness can reduce pain. Below are some of the many links which tell a bit more about these studies.
In conclusion I believe that meditation and mindfulness can play a big part when it comes to deal with physical pain. First by changing our attitude towards pain and accepting it as part of our human condition. That does not mean that we need to leave in pain but we can start dealing with it differently and more efficiently. We can start dealing just with the pain rather than with our mind telling all sort of things on how things should be instead. Second, by helping us in the healing process by relaxing and giving our body the opportunity to help itself as efficiently as it can.
One last thing to bear in mind and very important, you don’t have to stop taking medicines or stop other kind of treatments. Meditation and mindfulness can be an additional aid to help with pain and healing and not a substitute for doctors prescriptions.