Pain ruled my life for over a decade because of a spinal cord injury that caused neurological pain of the worst kind. It is the type of pain that causes suicide, something that I considered on many occasions.
Although I have meditated most of my life I was not able to apply the practice to my pain. Enter insightful mindfulness meditation, and the effects have been profound.
Insightful mindfulness meditation — or Vipassana — is a centuries-old practice. It is an unguided meditation, exactly opposite of guided meditation, which the majority of people who meditate practice. Unguided meditation teaches us to focus on our breath, and when our minds begin to wander, to gently bring it back to the breath, or present-moment awareness.
What it is also teaching us is how to manage our minds and process our thoughts. By noticing our thoughts during meditation, and then returning to the breath, we are strengthening our brains, building neural pathways, which ultimately positively affects our lives, 24/7.
As my insightful mindfulness meditation practice grew and strengthened, I began to realize that during the day I was able to breathe and eliminate the clench and tightness that exacerbated my pain. As the pain event unfurled and became stronger, I was able to live in the present, experiencing the immediate pain.
And how did this differ from past pain episodes? In the past, as the pain event began, the first thing I thought of was past episodes, and that immediately caused my body to clench and my mind to freeze. I was projecting into the future how bad the pain was going to get, which meant that I was suffering past, future and present-moment pain. But now, instead of thinking about the past or future, I breathe my way out of a pain event.
I am now living a phrase that until a few years ago I did not understand: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. I am still in pain. But it does not rule my world. I am alive and happy. Thoughts of suicide are gone from my thinking. I look forward to a long life, one in which my 20-minute daily meditation is critical to my mental and physical health.
My “experience” of pain has changed. I no longer suffer.
As my practice has strengthened I find my baseline pain has diminished. I am living a more mindful life. And even more importantly, I am able to teach what I have learned to others, not only pain sufferers but those who want to curb their stress and really live. Life is intense. But when we learn to breathe our life becomes so much more fulfilling.