- Mindfulness and pain
- Shoshin (初心) Beginner’s Mindset
- "Why me?"
- Is Pain Itself The Real Problem?
- Mindfulness Takes Practice
Mindfulness and pain
In part one of the miniseries on pain, we looked at the origins and physiology of pain. We have seen that pain, as uncomfortable as it may be, has a raison d'être (and a pretty good one), and we have seen that knowledge can open the door to a new way of looking at our pain. In the second part we learned more about how to deal with pain and got to know a few ways in which we can come to terms with our "unloved house guest". In this third and final part, we look at how mindfulness-based techniques can help us deal with our pain.
As a thinker of my thoughts and above all as a responsible decision-maker about which thoughts I give how much attention and thus “nourishment”, I am of central importance for my own pain perception. And that's good news! Because no matter how powerless I may be at the mercy of the intensity of pain - my inner attitude, the way with which I encounter difficulties, problems, pains, but also the beautiful things in life, I can massively shape by going through life mindfully.
Shoshin (初心) Beginner’s Mindset
The word Shoshin in Zen Buddhism means “beginner’s mind.” The concept of Shoshin is simply the idea of letting go of your preconceptions. It’s all about being completely open when studying a subject.
What does that mean? Basically, mindfulness means nothing more than to be in the here & now as best you can and to be influenced as little as possible by the past or the future. In Zen one also speaks of the beginner's mind. When you encounter a situation as if it were the first time - only then can you have a truly open mind. An expert mind only sees a small part of the whole picture and believes it can deduce the truth from it.
When you already have experience with something, you tend to reduce the breathtaking complexity of the information and contexts flowing in from the outside to a minimum that is appropriate for the respective situation. Those with previous experience make use of the experience they’ve had in similar situations. For everyday use, (e.g. at work) this is incredibly practical. However, it’s important to note that it can also block the view of new perspectives. So when our usual mechanisms in dealing with problems like pain no longer help us, it may be time to go back to the start and try to perceive our situation with a beginner's mind.
When in the worst pain, do you find yourself asking the question “why me?” In essence, it’s about experiencing the difference between the pain itself, (i.e. the signal or sensory input), and the thoughts about it. The thoughts that we are the cause of our pain, are not only useless in the vast majority of cases, but also contribute more to our suffering. Thoughts such as “why this pain again”, “when will it ever stop”, “why do I of all people have to struggle with this terrible migraine” can develop a dynamic of their own regardless of the pain that caused it. To be able to intervene here, to pause and to be able to clearly separate one from the other, even if only for a few moments a day, can make a huge difference that can hardly be overestimated. Mindfulness is the ideal tool for this.
In principle, working with pain does not differ from working with other feelings or emotions. Pain can seem like a special case at first because it has such a huge impact on us. But you can also take advantage of this: Pain is an excellent "mental object" to practice your concentration on - it is always present and gets its attention all by itself, even without us having to remember it.
Is Pain Itself The Real Problem?
Pain really is in the mind, but not the way you think. What matters is the way we look at our pain. Can we perceive it as if it were the first time without taking our long-term relationship with it into consideration? Can we approach this calmly, with curiosity, openness and compassion? If we succeed, something amazing becomes clear, namely how paradoxical thoughts like "this pain is unbearable" actually are on closer inspection. The reason is because in the moment it takes to think this thought, you’ve already endured the pain. What is actually unbearable is not the pain itself, but the thought of having to continue to endure the pain in the future or the desire to not to have to endure it in the future.
The exciting realization: At the moment, the pain is not the real problem. It stays, but: pain is not always suffering. A large part of the suffering is not caused by the pain itself, but by the thoughts that revolve around it. So can we manage to mentally detach ourselves from the past and future
and, at least for a few moments, to be completely in the here and now? And we're not talking about hours, let alone days. In most cases not even by minutes. But that doesn't matter, because by regularly "perforating" your normal perception with this new (actually "truer") view of
things, you gradually make this new view part of yourself - and gradually return to yours true nature.
Mindfulness Takes Practice
If all of this seems a bit unapproachable to you: don't worry! Mindfulness is a vast topic in itself and before all of this can be realized in such a way that it actually helps you in everyday life, it may take some time. Mindfulness has to be worked on like a muscle - after all, it's about nothing less than breaking up mental processes that have been burned into them over a long period of time, often a lifetime. So if you still want to give it a try, don't be discouraged if you initially feel that you are not getting anywhere. It also doesn't hurt to get help getting started, e.g. through meditation courses or, after all, it is 2020, in the form of an app.