I had my first “topic request” for a post. (Please pass on more requests in the comments section, or as an @ request on the Twitter feed.) A friend asked me to write more about my reaction to pain mentioned in the previous post. She described my reaction of “Oh, I’m in pain…it will pass” as being potentially very alien to people.

I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration and methodology from mindfulness meditation, so a lot of what I’m about to say is my interpretation of wise things I’ve been told. I learned a lot of this from Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) meditations I’ve attended. One of the people who leads discussion after the meditation is Jonathan Foust. He actually has a 30 minute (or so) podcast about “Working with Pain” on his website. If you’ve got the time, it’s a wonderful talk. There’s also a guided meditation mp3 on the same page.

I could talk about a lot of pain theory and techniques, but instead I think I’ll describe one of my first IMCW meditation experiences. This was the experience that made me really “get” mindfulness meditation, and totally convinced me how wonderful it is. It was also a – pardon the pun – insightful experience.

Jonathan was leading a meditation/talk on pain. The meditation involved doing what’s called a “body scan.” After settling into a comfortable seated position, I took a few deep breaths. The idea for mindfulness meditation is not to try to “induce a particular state of being,” but simply be with what is happening for you right now, in this moment.

In a body scan, you start with a particular place in your body – usually either your head or your feet – and focus on trying to fully experience what’s going on in that part of your body. Usually Jonathan starts with the crown of the head and the scalp…your face…your neck…your throat…your right shoulder…your left shoulder…the upper arm…the lower arm to your wrists…your hands…you get the idea. Jonathan usually leads you through the body, and then gives less guidance as the meditation goes on.

I realized several things during the meditation. One was realizing how much pain I’m in all the time. As I focused on each particular area, at first it seemed as though there was no sensation. It was as though I’d numbed everything out. Then there was a kind of release, as my body acknowledged that the pain was there.

The funny thing about focusing on pain is that it’s really not as terrible as you think it’s going to be. I had a moment of thinking, “This is pain. I am in pain. But this pain cannot hurt me, that integral part of me that is beyond my body.” I don’t know if that sounds very Pollyana-ish, but for me it is a very freeing thought.

I also noticed that the pain doesn’t stay constant. One moment I’d be focusing on pain in my shoulder, and I’d notice how it burned a little bit. Then, it would go away, only to be replaced by pain in my shin. The shin pain might be tingling or stabbing or sharp or dull. As I focused on it, it would generally recede and move to another part of my body. Sometimes, it would return to my shoulder. I thought to my pain, “But how are you hurting again? You didn’t hurt, and now you’ve started again. Is this pain even real? I feel it, but it’s not constant.”

Here’s an insight from Jonathan Foust and personal experience. Try to do a meditation where you focus on what stays the same in your body. Tip: everything changes.

Something Jonathan mentioned in the talk after the meditation was that “other people feel this, too.” And it’s really true. I looked around the room, and there were people with canes. A woman talked about her chronic (and life-threatening) illness, and a very similar experience during the meditation. I realized that just because I have fibromyalgia does not mean that I have a monopoly on pain. And really, everyone feels pain. The little kid who skins his knee. The person who grieves for their dead lover. The person who greives for the lover who cheated on them. Pain is part of the human experience – but it doesn’t have to control you or dictate who you are.

As I left the meditation, I realized something else. I wasn’t in pain anymore, even though I’d been in near-agony at times during the meditation. It was as though my body just needed me to stop and listen for awhile. Once I stopped running from the pain and numbing it out, the pain just…released. My body unclenched. To put it another way, I let go of the negative energy.

That’s not to say that meditation always helps stop my pain. Remember that whole “not trying to induce a particular state?” That applies to meditation-for-pain-relief. Even if the meditation doesn’t stop my pain, I still think it’s a valuable pursuit.