Meditation, not medication


Meditation

The calm of Meelup Beach, near Dunsborough WA
The calm of Meelup Beach, near Dunsborough WA
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.

MINDFULNESS

Practising the Presence
Practising the Presence
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.

The past is another country


Happy memories
Happy memories

The past, I find, can be extremely seductive. Someone somewhere in my extended family has a photo of my brother and I aged about 10 and 7 respectively sitting on a large Clydesdale horse. The photo reminds me, of course, of the hours Barry and I spent playing on that huge horse. The horse was too high to climb on, so we would lead him over to a strainer-post, and climb onto the large post. From there, we would try to mount the steed. Success came only after two or three attempts, because by the time we climbed up, the horse had plodded off, and would have to be rounded up again.

Being the elder, Barry would always ride up front and “steer’ the horse. This involved patting it on the side of the head, talking to it, and occasionally pulling the appropriate ear. The horse took it all patiently, just kept plodding on. I begged and begged to be allowed to sit up front. Eventually Barry had an idea. “I will steer the horse under the branch,” he said, “and I will grab the branch. Like he always does, the horse will keep plodding on and take you under me and I will drop on behind.”

My brother reached up and hung from the branch. I squashed down as the horse plodded on. But I couldn’t squash down small enough. In fact, the tree lifted Barry off the horse only a couple of inches. Barry was committed; the horse likewise was committed to keep walking. I tumbled off the back of the horse – quite a fall when you’re 7 years old and the horse is at least 17 hands tall! I looked up and Barry was still hanging from the tree. The horse was still ambling away. In the end, Barry too had to drop down, so we were both on the ground, and I had missed my chance to sit in the front! Despite my disappointment, it was so funny – especially as Barry got his come-uppance by being stranded 20 feet up in the air.

I’m glad we have that photo. It keeps the memory alive. I was lucky. I had a happy childhood – even as brother number four – and it’s pleasant to reminisce. But it’s also a distraction. Once I think of that photo, I start thinking of many associated happy times with Barry, with the horse, with the family. I’m in another world apart from the present.

At first glance, the past looks like a good place to escape when you are in great pain. And it can be. But the past is also a dangerous place. It can become, on one hand, an addictive escape that prevents us ever facing up to the real challenges of the present moment, until they escalate totally out of control.

On the other hand, the past has pleasant memories, but it is full of unexpected pot-holes. Just as we recall a pleasant event from our childhood, the memory sparks off another memory of being bullied, or being embarrassed, or of committing some act that even now catches us with an intensity of guilt.

While there are past experiences that do need attending to in order for healing to take place in the present, most of the incidents in our past are past, and should stay there. Bringing them back into the present just adds one more level of pain to those we already put up with. We can do without that.

Living in the present doesn’t mean forgetting the past; it means being mindful of the journeys we take there. Living in the present means we keep good hold of the coordinates of this present moment, so that when we visit the past we do it with awareness – both that nostalgia can be pleasant, but also that it is past, and has no direct connection with this present minute, this present day.

The same goes for the future. I can imagine wonderful things happening to me sometime soon. I can look forward to my daughter’s wedding. I can imagine the satisfaction I will have teaching a course next month. I can dream about being a famous author. But I must do so with awareness, mindful that the future, like the past, is full of dangers. We can worry about finances, especially when we are off work. We can project our disappointment if we cannot meet the travel plans we have made because of pain.

When we visit the land of future, the danger is that we will stir up unnecessary anxiety, just as when we visit the past, we trip over unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame.

Of course we must plan. But we plan with awareness that we are in the present. The future will never arrive. The present moment is the only moment which we can experience.

Jesus of Nazareth expressed it with realism, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Indeed. The present may be full of trouble and pain, and we need to live it. But we do not need to make the present moment harder than it is by letting our imaginary journeys into past or future add to the sum of pain we experience now.