I have been teaching meditation to groups on and off for 30 years. I am always astounded by the depth of response that people make. Meditation usually feels good, and people often love the sense of freedom that meditation opens up for them.
I divide meditation into three levels: progressive muscle relaxation, meditation (guided imagery) and contemplation (openness to encounter). These labels are very artificial. Other people use these labels differently. But I find my labels of the three levels helpful enough. In any case, as you go on in your practice of meditation, you will find the three levels melting together.
For those of us with chronic pain, however, it is helpful to see three ways in which meditation helps our pain.
Firstly, the muscle relaxation reduces pain. Whether our main area of pain is caused by muscle tension or not, we all increase our pain by the way we hold ourselves to compensate for the pain, or we put some muscles to extra work for which they are not ideally fitted. As we relax muscle groups in this form of meditation, other muscles around them also relax. On some days, we will find our whole body very deeply relaxed, on other days, not so much. But even limited relaxation reduces pain.
Secondly, the guided imagery assists our mind-body system in locating and managing our pain. Our brains have a map of the whole of our body, and significant interchange takes place between this map and where our pain is. The part of my brain where my thoracic spine is represented sends and receives messages from the spine. Using imagery about the specific area of pain opens up healing possibilities for the brain.
At the third level, in contemplation, the relaxed mind-body opens itself to the possibility of encounter with something other than itself. This ‘something other’ may be a spiritual reality, or it may be the ‘collective unconscious’ where we meet at a deep level with the whole human race, or it may be a construct of our minds. We will describe and understand this encounter according to our beliefs. But the ability to open ourselves to a spiritual power much greater than our own increases healing possibilities, including the relief of pain.
The other powerful aspect of meditation is the way meditation cultivates ‘mindfulness’, or a sense of the presence of God. Meditation does not focus on the nature of God, so much as on the reality of presence. For the 17th century Carmelite friar, Brother Lawrence, cultivating the presence of God at all times, even in the dreariest drudgery of the monastery kitchen, was the secret of his happy life.
Being totally in the present moment removes from us the nostalgia for the past and anxiety for the future. In meditation, we are reminded that we are as we are at this moment. This moment is the only moment we have to live. We cannot live in the past. We cannot bring forward the future to live it now. We are alive in the present.
Much of the sting of our pain can be taken away if we limit it to the present. We are experts at remembering how painful our bodies were. We are superb at looking into the future with fear at how much pain we will have to bear. But if we practice mindfulness, we have to live only with the pain we have right now.
The best way to learn meditation is in a group. Churches, Buddhist and community centres often offer classes in meditation. Before you join, you need to find out enough about them that you feel comfortable with them. You will be entrusting yourself to the leader at a time when you are surprisingly vulnerable.
Also check out whether they will make allowances for your health difficulties. While there may well be a level of physical challenge in meditating, it should not be so rigid that you do not have the opportunity to learn.
In the next three posts I will teach you (1) how to relax your muscles and reduce pain, (2) how to meditate and use guided imagery and non-imagery to banish pain, and (3) an exercise in ‘contemplation’ in which you will be invited to allow a power greater than yourself to take away some of your pain.