Pain vs. Suffering

This past weekend I got in a skiing accident and experienced the most pain I’ve felt in a while. It was an opportunity to put meditation to the test.

Why’s that?

It turns out that a large portion of our suffering results from our emotional reaction to pain rather than the physiological pain stimulus itself. In other words, your expectations of the pain continuing and your past mental replay of the pain determine much of your perceived agony. That explains in part why meditation was shown to increase pain tolerance by 57% after only 4 x 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation training.[1]

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” - Haruki Murakami

As I lay there the stretcher getting hauled off the mountain, I found that the more I could focus on my breath to the exclusion of any thoughts about the pain I was in, the better I felt. By observing my mind closely, I realized that much of my suffering was a result of just thinking about how much pain I was in, rather than the raw sensory data itself. 

And with some more meditation, my experience likely would’ve been dramatically improved. When neuroscience researcher Richard Davidson and his colleagues put experienced meditators (>10,000 hours of practice) under an fMRI and told them they’d receive a shock, they found that their brains had limited pre-pain anticipation or post-pain reaction to the shock when compared to non-meditators. Although the pain was equally intense for experts meditators as novice meditators, the experts weren’t nearly as bothered by it. Furthermore, the experts became habituated to the pain more quickly, meaning that it impacted them less as their exposure to the pain increased.[2]

Pain is something we simply cannot avoid in life, but it seems that we can, in fact, train our minds to suffer less in the face of the same amount of pain. What this tells us is that by changing our relationship with certain states of mind (i.e. how we react to them) we can change our experience. Meditation can help us separate reality from unhelpful mental constructs that create unnecessary suffering.

You can train your mind such that your relationship with pain changes. Here’s how: 

Next time you meditate, sit as still as possible until inevitably some discomfort arises (either an itch or a dull pain) as a result of your posture. Make this discomfort your new object of meditation and closely observe your mind in order to see what’s actually taking place. Become very curious as to how the pain presents itself physiologically. You might recognize how much of your suffering comes from thoughts about the pain, versus the sensory information being sent to your brain.

Of course, this takes practice, but by bringing an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment, you’ll find that the irritation becomes less unpleasant. This will help the next time you find yourself in pain, either chronic or newfound, an inevitable part of life.

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[1] Zeidan, Fadel, et al. "Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation." Journal of Neuroscience 31.14 (2011): 5540-5548.

[2] Lutz, Antoine, et al. “Altered anterior insula activation during anticipation and experience of painful stimuli in expert meditators.” Neuroimage 64 (2013): 538-546.

Liam McClintockComment