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Meditation & Pain

(It's better than morphine, apparently)

So here’s the scenario: A researcher wires you to some machines and tells you that she’s going to start burning your skin in 45 seconds, and that you can tell her when the pain reaches an 8 out of 10 and she'll stop. What do you do?

Well, if you’re like most of us, alarm sirens start sounding in your head and some mantra to the effect of “Oh no, oh no, holy *favorite curse*, get me out!” And this continues until, indeed, you start getting burned, tell her to stop, and then you are left breathing heavily, sweating, and ready to watch Netflix in the peace of your own home.

Oh yeah, and then she tells you, “Okay, let’s try that again…” And you have another 45 seconds until D-Day hits again. Fun!

Researchers then hooked up some expert meditators to the same test to see how they experience and rate pain. Here’s what they found:

  • Meditators have lower pain sensitivity (their "8 out of 10" is hotter)

  • They experience much less anxiety before the pain

  • They grow more quickly accustomed to the pain after repeated exposure

  • Overall impact is much lower for meditators

Cool study! So what’s going on here?

Cause / Causality

Researchers are careful about what they say, and here they are only saying that meditators experience these differences, but not exactly why. Some think it’s related to breathing, some to being present, and some to opening to pain instead of trying to get away from it.

The findings help explain how opening to pain, rather than avoiding it, can reduce the anxiety that can worsen the experience of pain.
“The goal would be to change your relationship to the pain, rather than changing the experience itself,” Lutz says.

I really love that language, "change your relationship to the pain," because it sums up so much of what I do as a therapist.

My Hunch

What I’ll say next isn’t scientifically justified yet, but this is my guess:

Average Joe

I wanted to map what this experiment looks like. So I did what any sensible parent of toddlers would do—raided their crayola markers and colored pencils and drew a graph.

Let’s assume that the graph below represents an Average Joe like me running through this test. I hear about the burning that’s coming, start to ramp up my anxiety, probably breathe heavily and begin sweating, etc. I’m not present to what’s happening in the moment (which is actually just me sitting in a sterile room with a nice researcher lady or something).

ALL of my bandwidth is on the future pain, and so my body starts responding ahead of time, as if it’s already being burned. So I have no space left in my experience to actually know what’s going on around me.

If we look at the total anxiety (all the space below the pink line), it’s huge. Way more space below that line means more pain, anxiety, discomfort, etc. All in all, I’ve suffered maybe enough pain for two or three burns instead of just one.

(Sound familiar, anyone?)

Expert Meditator

Now let’s look at the expert meditator graph:

As you can see, he’s fully present to what’s happening, which—for most of the study—is him just sitting in a nice room with a nice researcher lady. And then the burning starts and he feels it fully, notes when it feels like an 8 our of 10, and then returns to what’s going on.

In this way, he feels the pain very similarly to Average Joe, but doesn’t feel it when it’s not happening. As a result, his net pain (all the colored in stuff) is much smaller. And he can actually take more heat before he thinks it’s an 8 out of 10.

So, it’s overall less unpleasant, and he can handle more discomfort before bailing out.

Life Application

Let’s bring this back into your life: Where could you benefit from experiencing something as less unpleasant? Where would you like to stay engaged longer in something hard before bailing?

Here are a few ideas…

  • Your child throws their breakfast across the room again and you fly off the handle.

  • Your significant other wants to “have a talk” AGAIN and you just know it’s going to be pure misery. The rest of the day is spent half in anticipation of the conversation. Yuck.

  • You have that big work presentation later in the day and can’t think about anything else all morning. When you finally conclude, you’re so spent that you can’t really answer the group’s questions and you end up going home early or bingeing on something afterward.

  • You are training for a big race in a month or two but you can’t seem to hit faster times. Workouts seem like a drag and you find yourself “forcing yourself” because of peer pressure or guilt.

If any of these seem pertinent, one of the (many possible) solutions could be to learn to meditate.

You Can’t Learn By Accident

An important thing to note here is that meditation is a skill that includes both insight and experience—a muscle that needs to be informed and then trained.

Practically no one can learn to meditate by accident.

True, we often do meditative things and are in “healthy meditative states” through habits like exercise, reading, driving, sipping morning coffee, etc. But one of the greatest uses of meditation is to shift your experience of experiencing something, often done through noticing who and where this noticing is coming from—to shift your relationship to your own consciousness. (A future post will cover this…)

“I Want the Benefits—But I’m Not an Expert Meditator!”

You’re in luck. They did another study.

This time, the “meditator group” was a group of people with only four, 20-minute meditation training sessions, plus a little practice on their own before the trials.

Even this group, as unpracticed as they were, experienced incredible results.

"Better than Morphine"

Yes, that’s right. This is what they said about that trial with the newbie meditators:

“We found a big effect — about a 40% reduction in pain intensity and a 57% reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25%.”

Okay, baby, now we’re talking! Those are some results to stand by. So how do you get going?

Learn to Meditate

One of the most cogent, humorous, and useful description I have found comes from Sam Harris. The following is a direct quote from his website regarding vipassana, or what we usually call “mindfulness” (please check out his stuff, including his meditation app, for some great theory and practice):

“The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy. True mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice. Thus, the simple instructions given below are analogous to instructions on how to walk a tightrope—which, I assume, go something like this:

  • Find a horizontal cable that can support your weight.

  • Stand on one end.

  • Step forward by placing one foot directly in front of the other.

  • Repeat.

  • Don’t fall.

Clearly, steps 3-5 entail a little practice. Happily, the benefits of training in meditation arrive long before mastery ever does. And falling, from the point of view of vipassana, occurs ceaselessly, every moment that one becomes lost in thought. The problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without knowing that one is thinking.

As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us fall from the wire every second, toppling headlong—whether gliding happily in reverie, or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for breaking this spell, if only for a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.

Meditation Instructions:

  • Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.

  • Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.

  • Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly—either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen.

  • Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)

  • Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the sensation of breathing.

  • As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.

  • The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.

  • Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves—as they arise and pass away.

  • Don’t fall.

Those who are new to the practice generally find it useful to hear instructions of this kind spoken aloud, in the form of a guided meditation. UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center has several that beginners should find helpful." -Sam Harris

If you’re trying this stuff and it’s just “not working,” feel free to reach out to me personally for some one-on-one practice, or check out our events page.


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