Most pains are short-lived and serve as reminders. A little pain quickly teaches us to hammer a nail more carefully. More intense pains are usually associated with severe tissue damage. In some cases, however, pain occurs in the absence of tissue damage. This is because all pain signals travel to the brain to be interpreted. If in the interpretation process something goes awry, traditional pain medications may be of little help.
Rest assured that when a pain originates from the brain, it doesn’t mean you are crazy. What it suggests is that some pathways in the brain have been misconfigured. In some cases, the mind needs help to ignore signals from damaged nerves that no longer serve a useful purpose. The classic example is a pain the mind imagines is coming from an amputated limb.
Thankfully, the brain has an amazing ability to self-repair when given the necessary environment and guidance. Unlike a prescription for pain pills, remodeling the brain takes effort and perseverance to succeed. Is it worth the effort? While these methods don’t work for everyone, for millions, they have been a godsend.
When Jesus walked the earth, he taught the suffering that a higher power is part of the healing process. Regardless of the name you give to your higher power, I believe it remains available to everyone that seeks it. Whether you believe in spiritual healing or prefer the concept of mind remodeling, there is a power available that science has yet to fully explain.
On a recent trip to exchange ideas with fellow physicians at the Uchee Pines Lifestyle Center near Seale, Alabama, I was reminded that both mindfulness and spiritual healing remain alive and provide help for many diseases that resist help from modern medicine.
In Huntsville, the Alabama Institute for Mindfulness provides services for dealing with pains that have no organic explanation. If seeking this type of help, consider attending one of their free drop-in groups at Crestwood Women’s Center for an introduction to meditation and mindfulness. Their next scheduled class begins in October. Times and locations for these drop-in classes may change so give them a call if interested in attending.
The story that follows is from one of the Alabama Institute for Mindfulness’ recent newsletters about mindfulness and meditation. It’s a story that has meaning to me and hopefully will have meaning to you if you happen to be one of many that live with chronic pain.
Nancy Neighbors, MD
Is Meditation the Cure?
I am always amused when I hear someone talk about mindfulness and meditation as if they are “the cure” for what ails you, the magic bullet. Like, if you meditate your stress goes away, your illness goes into remission, chronic pain goes away, and all will be right with the world. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Unfortunately, that is not the case. What I do know though, is that mindfulness practice, which for me includes meditation, can play an extremely important role in how we meet the difficulties we encounter in life, including stress, illness, our own mortality, chronic pain, and distress in relationships.
My journey with mindfulness began when I was diagnosed with a somewhat obscure lung disease that was treated with high doses of prednisone. If you have ever been on prednisone for a prolonged period of time, you know that it can be a highly successful treatment protocol but can also involve a host of side effects. The ones that were most difficult for me were sleep disruption and a sense that my insides were vibrating or shaking ALL the time. Some people call that irritability, and I would definitely agree that I was irritable!
Around the time I was diagnosed, I found Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living”. As the book suggested, I began practicing different forms of meditation and gentle yoga. At first, it did not seem to help, and it was very difficult for me to stick with the practices suggested in the book. But, I was pretty miserable, and the author encouraged the reader to trust the process and keep practicing, so I pressed on. I’m not sure when, but at some point, something shifted for me. The agitation was still there, and my sleep was still disturbed, but I was no longer so distressed by these experiences. I noticed that in the midst of all my mental chaos there were moments of relative calm. Although I still had difficulty with sleep, I now felt equipped to deal with it.
When my lung disease returned after tapering off prednisone, I was already signed up for a 7-day mindfulness course with Jon Kabat-Zinn at Omega Institute in New York. It was there that I was first invited to turn toward the restlessness, agitation, and irritability with curiosity. Could I be with the feelings and sensations in my body and not push them away even be curious about them? What would it be like to “turn toward” these sensations even a little bit? As I began to bring curious awareness to my agitation and irritability, the tight hold they held on me began to ease just the slightest bit. The feelings of agitation and irritability were still there, but I was able to notice them and laugh at a joke, enjoy a beautifully prepared meal, or appreciate a gorgeous sunset.
It was in one of those moments of awareness that I realized how much energy I had been using to try to distract myself or push these unpleasant feelings away. When I stayed with the physical and/or emotional pain that I was experiencing, it didn’t seem as overwhelming as I feared. Again, there was a subtle shift. Much later, I learned about the science behind meditation practice, and that meditation is associated with changes in the brain that may have impacted these “shifts.” When I gently turned toward the pain, I noticed the experience of “my pain” was often different. The agitation, restlessness, irritability, and discomfort were still there but my relationship to them was changing. I wasn’t bracing against and tightening my whole body and began to notice a relaxing or easing of tension. This was something I could build on!
So, yeah I am amused by claims that mindfulness is a “magic bullet.” This journey toward healing and wholeness is and always will be (for me anyway) a daily endeavor. My mindfulness practice did not “fix” me because I was never broken, although I felt/feel like it at times. What I have learned through my practice is a different way of being with all the experiences of my life, the good, the bad, and the very ugly. And while there have been moments that seemed nothing short of miraculous, it is worth noting that I had to find the courage to show up for the not so miraculous moments too. Yep, this “turning toward” stuff is scary, but, you, we, all of us are stronger than we know.