Written by: Jerome Stone
In 2018, while warming up for a bicycle race, I had a horrific crash. I sustained a TBI and neck injury. Almost worse than having this accident was that it wasn’t the first time that I had such an injury. In 2008, I was involved in my first bike accident, where I suffered a severe concussion and neck injury.
What Is Pain?
It’s the fifth final sign. It’s something that almost all nurses, at some point during our career, will encounter while caring for our patients. For most of us, pain is something that we have to deal with on a personal level.
“Pain – has an Element of Blank
It cannot recollect
When it begun – or if there were
a time when it was not –
It has no Future – but itself –
Its Infinite contain
Its Past – enlightened to perceive
New Periods – of Pain.”
― Emily Dickinson
Becoming a “Pain Patient”
As an RN with decades of experience, I’ve encountered countless individuals in different levels of pain. At one point I was a case manager for over 3,500 pain patients at a pain clinic. In addition to working with and learning about people in pain, I participated as a member of the research placebo groups in pain studies. Through these studies, I came to learn that I appear to have a high tolerance for pain. This is a good thing, because within a decade of working that job, I became a chronic pain patient.
It wasn’t until I became “a pain patient” that I gained a deep understanding of what it meant to suffer on a daily basis from pain. At times, it was extremely debilitating. And, it wasn’t until I had to deal with these pains on a constant, daily basis,that I was forced to utilize all of the meditation and mindfulness tools that I had learned, to work with this unwelcome guest.
Don’t get lost in your pain,
know that one day your pain will
become your cure. – Rumi
Often times, it’s the fighting against the pain that causes us to suffer from our experience of the pain, rather than just the pain itself. Research has shown that people in pain suffer more when they try to push the it away. Or when they see themselves as victims, and develop an adversarial relationship with their pain. In contrast, when we accept our pain, our suffering can decrease, even to the point of dissipating it to varying degrees.
When I say that I was “forced” to use the tools that I hadlearned, what I mean is that it was either that, or suffer from my pain as a powerless and hapless victim. I had seen so many thousands of people suffer due to pain, with their suffering caused by an unwillingness or inability to accept what was going on, that I knew that there really was no other option than to learn how to deepen my meditation practice as a means to dealing with the pain.
These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them. – Rumi
As a practitioner of mindfulness-meditation for over 30 years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to use my meditation skills. I utilize these tools as a means to deal with stress and unexpected or difficult experiences in my life. Quite honestly, I haven’t always been successful in doing so. At times, I’ve found myself drowning in the sea of suffering, unable to get my bearing or wake up from the bad dream of pain. However, as time has progressed, and as I’ve become more skilled in the practice of mindful meditation, I have found that pain can be an uninvited guest. When given the opportunity, pain can provide me with wisdom and insight into both my aversion to pain, as well as my ability to deal with it.
After the 2018 injury, I began to experience moderate to severe cognitive challenges. I also had chronic and eventually constant severe headaches and neck pain. My initial response, as I had done so many times previously, was to tough it out. I just figured that this was something I had to live with…and live with it I would!
The problem with this approach was that toughing it out didn’t work. The more I tried to disassociate myself from my pain, the worse it became. Finally, it grabbed me by the collar, looked me in the eye, and demanded my attention. My suffering had reached such a level of intrusiveness in my life, that I could no longer try to ignore or just “deal with” the pain. Don’t get me wrong, I applied my skills in meditation and mindfulness to dealing with my pain. Yet, when my skills and experience didn’t work, toughing it out didn’t work, and I began to experience despair and frustration.
Be patient and tough, someday this pain will be useful to you. – Ovid
It was only through the despair and frustration that I realized I needed to apply my mindful and awareness meditation practices all of the time. Many people apply meditation practice when things are tough, BUT they choose areas of life where “meditation doesn’t apply”. It’s like we give ourselves special permission to suffer, or not meditate, in cases where it feels like it would be too challenging or “would never work.” For many of us, we apply mindfulness when our situation is manageable, but completely fold and collapse when the situation seems insurmountable. It’s these very situations where we stand the most to gain by deepening our practice and coming to know our mind.
The heart of meditation resides within one’s ability to remain undistracted and aware of whatever is arising within one’s body or mind. These may be difficult emotions, overwhelmingly wonderful emotions, fatigue, crazy or unwanted thoughts, and pain. Meditation teaches us, slowly over time and with practice, how to engage with whatever we encounter in our life. The practice is in a manner that is aware, mindful, and compassionate.
Basics of Mindfulness
While the topic or instruction of meditative awareness, or mindfulness, is too involved to discuss in this short article, let’s cover a few basic concepts about mindfulness practice.
One of the main purposes of engaging in mindfulness-meditation practice is to slow down our habitual pattern of making matters worse. We tend to dwell on negative experiences, perpetuating negative thought patterns. We think about our thoughts, and react to unpleasant sensations, emotions, and feelings.
Mindfulness-meditation is accomplished by first using our breath as an anchor for our attention. Every time we find ourselves caught up in disturbing emotions, feelings, thoughts, or sensations, we return to the breath – non judgmentaly. Then mindfully watch it as it comes into and flows out of our body. That’s it.
And what’s really important, especially regarding pain, is that we don’t attempt to push out of our awareness. We sit with any difficult emotions, thoughts, feelings, or sensations. That means when pain does arrive, we simply observe it as it is.
How this Applied to My Pain
By this point, you may be thinking, “Yeah, but how do we do that with pain? How do we deal with such an incredibly difficult sensation that can disrupt our lives to the very core?” It’s easy…not! Well, it is easy…kind of. It’s a matter of persisting in the face of…well, pain!
As my pain worsened, and my meditation practice increased, I began to get some “space” from my pain. The pain became less of a threat against my wellbeing, and more just a fact of life. The more that I meditated, the more I realized that this pain wasn’t there to torment me, or to make me feel bad. It was simply a sensation. Like so many other sensations that we experience when we meditate, it can be viewed dispassionately. This allows space to not get caught up in the “woe is me” experience. What I experienced was a sense of, “oh yeah, there it is again…damn, it hurts…okay, that’s what is…”
Really? Yes. Easy? No…but yes. Once I learned how to view my pain less personally, and view it as an invitation to practice and deepen my meditation, it became…well…like an uninvited guest. Or, on better days, like a nagging friend who, despite their nagging, wants the best for me…
About the Author: Jerome Stone is a Registered Nurse with over thirty-five years of experience in a variety of health-care settings, including pain management, ICU, hospice care, and research in neurology, and complementary and alternative medicine. His research includes MS-research and investigations into the effects of compassion on cancer patients and the effects of prayer on people with HIV/AIDS. He is a long-time practitioner of meditation, with an emphasis on the study of cross-cultural contemplative practices. He has also been trained in and teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). He lives in Hilo, Hawai’i, with his wife, Jill and their son, Noah.
He is also the author of the book, Minding the Bedside: Nursing from the Heart of the Awakened Mind, and is a blogger on his site, Minding the Bedside. He is a speaker on the topics of stress management, meditation, situational awareness, and compassion. He can be reached here to discuss bringing these discussions to your workplace or into your personal life.
Edited by: Claire Lang, BSN-RN
One thought on “Pain: My Uninvited Guest, My Meditation Teacher”
Very helpful. Thanks.