I just spent an hour or so crafting an email to a young woman looking for some support that I was connected with through a mutual friend. A young woman who lives with chronic pain and has tried using mindfulness as a tool to work with better managing her pain levels, with little success.
Knowing how best to respond to these sort of inquiries has been a challenge for me in the past. In my view, trying to take up meditation for the first time while in the midst of great difficulty (physical or otherwise) is just extremely difficult, if not near impossible. But I wound up finding an angle to share from that I feel pretty good about. Here is the email in its entirety, in hopes that it may offer benefit to other fellow folks who live with chronic pain as well.
My apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Thanks for writing and feeling comfortable to share with me a bit about what you’re going through and your experience with mindfulness in relation to living with chronic pain.
I myself have a nerve condition called CRPS, which I developed when I was in my late 20’s (I’m now 40-years-old). I was on meds for a number of years which, as you said, took the edge off. I also walked with a cane for a few years as a result of my pain and challenges in moving. I’ve been off my meds now for a few years and only use my cane once in a great while, on my high pain days. I’m on disability for my condition but I am able to work very part time.
What you shared in regards to when your mind quiets it then floods with emotion/grief makes so much sense, I can totally understand that based on my own experience back in the beginning of my journey with living with chronic pain. Meditation is not a one-size fits all approach – and especially when it comes to living with chronic pain, I think it’s important to be aware that meditation can bring up more discomfort in our mind than it helps to alleviate in the body.
I can share from my own experience a couple of things that have been incredibly helpful – and I’ll share too that both of these things took me a long while to really “get” and truly understand in a way that I was able to benefit from them and experience a reduction in my physical pain levels.
1. Mind/Body Connection. As a mindfulness practitioner since my early 20’s, I was grateful to have some background in the practices of mindfulness and sitting meditation before the onset of my illness and pain AND it also took me a long while to really see how closely and intrinsically linked the mind & body are. After my injury (which is what led to my nerve condition) as time went on, I saw more and more clearly that the more I generated stories of thought about how bad the pain was, how awful it was that I’d be in this pain forever, how I’d never be able to do X Y Z again, and so on, the more these thoughts and stories amped up my physical pain. As soon as I started thinking about how bad the pain was and started running with that story, my pain was immediately worse. So a big game changer for me with my pain levels had to do with making friends with my body and with my pain when it kicked up – prior to making friends with my body, I treated it like an enemy with which to battle and fight against. I would literally say (internally) to my body: I hate you, I hate this, NO! And this fight mode increased my pain, every time. So I learned to start making friends with my body and my pain – when I was unable to do something I wanted to do, when I was bed ridden with pain, I would say to myself: It’s okay body, I’m here for you, I’m going to take good care of you. And this befriending process changed my experience with pain almost right away, because I wasn’t adding to the fury of it by tensing up and hating and fighting against my own body. I would also put my hands on the high pain area and send it kindness through light touch, helping to care for my body. And as hard as it oftentimes was, I would smile to my body when my pain was unbearable. These friendly approaches to my body were very helpful and an important part of learning how to better manage my pain.
2. The Art of Resting. Gosh this one took me a hella long time to embody. Friends who have known me for a long time will often ask me what changed in regards to my condition, as they saw how bad it used to be for me, walking with a pain and being incredibly limited in movement with high pain levels and now I’m at the point where no one would know I’m someone who lives with chronic pain and physical limitations. And the answer I give them is this: the greatest thing that has helped my condition is that I’ve learned the vital importance and power of the art of resting. It used to be that I fought against resting tooth and nail – No! I shouldn’t be resting, I should be doing something more important & productive!! Resting means I’m lazy and selfish and and and!!! Despite what my body was telling me very clearly, I would rally against resting, trying to push through with the no pain no gain sort of approach (which is just death and destruction to those of us living with chronic pain). And early on, even when I was laying down (because I had no choice but to lay down because my pain was so bad) I certainly wasn’t resting – my body was laying down but my mind was super spinning and fighting and hating the fact that I was in pain and laying down in the middle of the day. So for me, I learned that the art of resting involves resting both body & mind. It became absolutely necessary for me to learn how to rest without feeling guilty about it; without feeling like I should be doing something else. It took me a lot of practice – and it was worth every bit of the challenges I had learning how to do it. For me still currently, I regard resting/napping as my super hero power. I am able to do quite a bit with my time these days and it’s largely because I diligently manage and balance my time every single day in between activity and rest. I put a great deal of importance on the art of resting in my life. And I regard resting not as selfish but actually as one of the most altruistic acts I can do. Self-care directly translates to my ability to help care for others. When I’m miserable, so is my husband, so are my friends when they’re around me. Resting is what gives me ongoing strength and fuel to keep doing the things I am still able to do, even though what I can do is in some ways very different than what my pre-injury self could do.
Additionally, I will share the importance of finding/appreciating/investing in activities we are still able to do. Cultivating joy is so important – so trying to activate energy in the direction of the things we can still do vs. what we can no longer do was really important for me. I have had many different kinds of gratitude practices I’d done over the years too and have gotten so much benefit from strengthening my gratitude muscle – I have a daily and active practice of connecting with gratitude and it deeply enriches my life and my relationship with myself and the world around me. Perhaps something fun for you to do is something I’ve done in the past where I had a gratitude buddy to share with once a week or once every 2-weeks – so we checked in with each other and each shared our recent gratitudes, with maybe a little commentary about why we were grateful for the things we mentioned.
I’m a big proponent of starting small to work big, as I like to call it. Starting with small small super doable steps sets us up for success when it comes to bringing on board anything new in the way of change work/growth work. And I would encourage this approach with meditation too, if that is something you are interested in cultivating in your life. Please don’t feel like you have to sit for some long hellish amount of time in order to do it right or that you have to sit in some particular position. If you do want to start a meditation practice, I would suggest you start with 2-minutes. And be in a position that is comfortable for you, or as comfortable as you can get. It might be laying down. It might be sitting on your couch. Set a timer for 2-min and see if during that 2-min you can offer yourself kindness and practice to enjoy your in-breath and out-breath for just a breath or two. If silence is too much for 2-min, put on some ambient music you enjoy and have that accompany you for the 2-min, to help your mind settle. If the 2-min feels doable, continue sitting (or laying) for 2-min maybe 3-5 days a week and then feel things out for yourself – maybe you feel ready to increase to 4 or 5-min after a couple of weeks, and maybe not. The point is to start with a really doable amount of time in sitting meditation and not to set goals that are near impossible to stick with – consistency is more important than the length of time you sit for. There are some meditation apps I’ve heard great things about too that might be helpful – Insight Timer is one of them. Smiling Mind and Stop, Breathe & Think are others I’ve heard good things about. These are also all free, or have free options involved with them. 10% Happier might also be worth looking into (which is an app and podcast). Having guided meditations (and keeping them short) can be helpful.
I hope some of this was helpful. Please know I’m happy to chat more with you and I’m here if you simply want to connect with another sister living with chronic pain, which can be helpful in and of itself, as those without direct experience with chronic pain, while often well-intentioned, can only understand so much and I’ve found that friends/family can say things that really show how little they get it (and how could they?!).