Meditation and Physical Pain

There are several factors that make an intense physical pain hard to bear. This includes: the sheer intensity of the pain, the anticipation of the pain, an the anxiety caused by the unpredictability of the pain.

How can meditation practice address the different aspects of physical pain? Two approaches will be considered: taking a step back from the pain and watching it with open presence; and filling one’s mind with love and compassion.

Open presence

Studies in the field of neuroscience show that the so-called 'open presence' meditation is effective in reducing the unpleasant aspect of the pain. In this very vast and clear state of mind, it is acknowledged that the pain that is going to occur will be a disturbance, but not such an important one on a relative level. This helps retain a greater sense of inner calm and peace as the pain is about to come. When the pain actually does come, it is still experienced to its fullest, but the open presence blunts the sense of identification with the pain.

The expression open presence has generally been used rather loosely to describe various meditation types.  You can find an introduction to this type of practice in the beginner-friendly Stability and Clarity course.  It is a continuation for a month long Meditation Practice Foundations program. Practice each day with a short 10-minute meditation:  “You will learn methods for approaching all kinds of situations, even the most difficult ones.”

Love and compassion

Cultivating constructive, wholesome states of mind such as boundless, altruistic love and compassion is another strategy that can be used to deal with intense physical pain. As neuroscientific research indicates, filling one's mind with love and compassion for others reduces the unpleasant aspect of the pain.

Several Imagine Clarity courses cover mindfulness and compassion in detail, with reflections and meditation guidance made available. Please find more info in the article At the Heart of the Healing and Hope.

As beginning meditators, we can be easily overwhelmed when facing intense pain. Nevertheless, both open presence and love and compassion can be efficient strategies and help reduce its negative effects on the mind. You may stay weeks or months with the same set of practices, and you may also return to a specific meditation course after a while and find nuances and insights as your practice and inner resources evolve.

Here you will find a video summary from Matthieu Ricard focused on the above topics; role of meditation in dealing with physical pain.

Matthieu Ricard contributes to the research on the effect of meditation on the brain at various universities in the USA and Europe and is the co-author of several scientific publications.

Photo: Matthieu Ricard

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