A Mindful Approach to Pain

I write this article having returned yesterday from a nine-day retreat, most of which I spent in varying degrees of pain. I injured my shoulder at the start of the third full day, I think by trapping a nerve in it, and then got a significant burn which blistered, seemingly from the combination of a hot water bottle and pain relief gel (be aware that the two don’t seem to mix well!). Being in a retreat context gave me the ideal opportunity to work with what I was experiencing in a mindful way. There were several sessions of meditation each day, periods of prolonged silence and there was very little “doing” of activities. I also didn’t have the distractions of modern technology.

When I first felt the injury strongly there was a learning process I had to go through to establish what movements hurt and what my limitations were. I had actually just started a shower and already had shampoo in my hair. I quickly realised that I couldn’t tilt my head backwards to wash it out so had to be totally in the present moment to find a way to do it that didn’t cause further pain. The whole of the rest of the shower proceeded in much the same way, feeling what movements I couldn’t make and finding alternatives. Getting dressed was just as painstaking and the whole process of getting myself ready for the day took an hour! By the end I felt really quite exhausted and emotional, it had taken so much effort to do something that would normally seem so easy and it had caused a lot of discomfort. But I don’t think I had any thoughts about anything else the whole time; there is nothing like pain to bring embodied attention!

It wasn’t long before I realised that almost every head movement caused pain and I couldn’t lift my left arm without it hurting. A lot of mindful awareness was required to constantly recollect that I needed to keep my head still and not lift that arm at all. Another very bizarre nuance of this situation was that I also noticed during a prolonged group conversation that each time my mind got hijacked for even a moment by a random thought, I felt pain. My knowledge of neuroscience is unfortunately not comprehensive enough to understand how this would even be possible but that was most definitely what I was observing. So, my attention to keeping my mind in the present moment then had to heighten even further.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Pain is a natural part of the experience of life. Suffering is one of many possible responses to pain”. Although I was in pain, I don’t really feel I suffered. I was gentle and kind to myself, figured out my limitations during this time and made the best I could out of what was possible within them. This meant sacrificing my daily hour of walking in the beautiful surroundings in that area, asking others to help me with tasks I’d usually do independently and being with the slight feelings of guilt that people were stepping in to take on the jobs I’d signed up to do for several days. Making these sacrifices went against the grain of my natural patterns and childhood conditioning but was, I believe, necessary for my healing which happened gradually over a few days.

One conversation with someone about the injury triggered a thought that it might not recover in time to drive home at the end of the retreat but I very quickly acknowledged that was several days away and I’d cross that bridge when it came to it if a contingency plan was necessary then. I didn’t really think about that any further, I guessed at the start that it would probably only last a few days and I felt it getting slower better each morning.

I was pleasantly surprised with how relaxed and calm I felt about the whole situation generally and attribute this mostly to mindfully being with the pain, knowing it was likely to only be temporary and not thinking ahead to what problems it might cause me later. There is a lot more that could be said about mindfulness and pain, especially pain of a more chronic nature, but this is already fairly lengthy so I will save that for another time.

If you are interested in learning mindfulness, I facilitate an 8-week Mindfulness for Wellbeing Course in Exeter and also offer introductory taster sessions.

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