By Gareth Walker
There is a great deal of pain in life and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain. ~ R. D. Laing
It is becoming widely accepted now that mindfulness is a powerful tool for coping with stress and anxiety. It has helped me in this way more than I could have ever possibly imagined but, for me at least, there is another, less publicised aspect to mindfulness, that is hugely beneficial to me: mindfulness has transformed the way that I am able to tolerate physical pain.
There is a symptom of my MS called Trigeminal Neuralgia. Whichever way you look at it, it’s decidedly unpleasant. The symptom is essentially an agonising pain in my face caused by damage to my trigeminal nerve. It’s usually deep in my ear, but sometimes in my cheek or in the top of my head. When I say agonising, I really do mean that. In the past I’ve been asked to rate the pain as a 1 to 10. It’s a 10. Easily. The pain makes it very difficult to do pretty much anything, even sleep is difficult. I am very lucky in that the pain is intermittent. It usually comes around every few weeks and lasts a day or so when it is here. Even within that, it is intermittent: the pain comes every couple of minutes and lasts for up to 5 seconds at a time. There are some people who have to cope with trigeminal neuralgia as a constant in their life; they have my fullest sympathy.
For a long time, I struggled terribly with this symptom. Sometimes I have a little twinge in the face which is not related to a full-blown attack. When this would happen, my mind would go into storytelling mode. I would start to tell myself about the things that I wouldn’t be able to do today or tomorrow. Even worse would be the story about how I was only 35 years old and how this symptom was bound to get worse in the years to come. How on earth would I be able to live with this kind of pain if it was a constant in my life? Countless times, I lived stories of horrific, imagined futures. This can only have had a negative impact on my general wellbeing and my quality of life.
Thankfully, at around the time that this symptom became a significant feature in my life, I had also begun the journey of meditation. I had read “Wherever You Go, There You are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and this inspirational book served as my introduction to mindfulness. It all made so much sense to me, so I started meditating. The changes took hold of me slowly but surely. In due course, I was able to relate the lessons taught to me by meditation to my episodes of pain.
Mindfulness has helped enormously in terms of the narratives spun by the mind. By meditating on a daily basis, I have become so much better at recognising when compulsive thinking arises. When I notice my mind beginning to weave those familiar stories, I gently bring it back to the present moment. When the trigeminal neuralgia is at its most active, I need to do this over and over again, countless times. It sounds simple, and it is, but I wasn’t able to do this before I started meditating.
The pain actually comes in two parts. Firstly there is the physical pain itself. It’s excruciating; it hurts like hell, and life is very difficult when it is here. The second part of the pain is the suffering: all the thoughts about the pain that I add on top.
The first part of the pain is completely unavoidable; it’s here, and I have to live with it. The second part of the pain is avoidable. I have the power to bring myself back from negative trains of thought. It is a difficult skill to master, but I have found that the most beneficial tool to get better at this skill is meditation.
This was talked about by the Buddha thousands of years ago; It is all summed up in this text:
When touched with a feeling of pain,
the ordinary uninstructed person
and laments, beats his breast,
So he feels two pains,
physical and mental.
Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and,
were to shoot him with another one,
so that he would feel
the pains of two arrows.
And while I’m not a religious man, that sums it up pretty nicely.
What’s more, I believe that mindfulness can help with the physical aspects of the pain as well as the emotional ones.
When the pain attack is beginning to get into full swing, what I usually do is meditate as soon as I get the opportunity. I make the pain the subject of my meditation, and I’ll hone in on the body area that’s generating the painful sensations. I try to give every last ounce of attention to the particular part of my face for the duration of the meditation. When the pain comes, I embrace it and treat it like an old friend. By doing so, it feels as though its power is diminished.
Mostly, the pain arrives without warning and I will respond by wincing or exclaiming loudly. My body starts to fill with hormones, as if it’s getting jacked up, ready for a fight. By the end of a 10hr attack, I am physically drained.
When I’m meditating though, and really paying attention, I can sometimes pick up the tiniest inkling that the pain is coming. Then I can really lean into the pain, rather than just yelping and reacting to it. This seems to lessen its impact on me; my body doesn’t seem to get nearly as heightened as it does normally. This heightened awareness of the pain can reach into the rest of my day too. It’s like I get used to seeing the ‘shape’ of the pain, so I become better at recognising it, better at tolerating it.
The nature of this pain makes it really difficult to hold in awareness sometimes. But when I can, I am in no doubt that I can deter my body from dumping stress hormones into my bloodstream, making the whole episode a little easier on me.
The reason that I am writing this blog today is because the pain is coming. It’s been quite a while since the last attack and I have been lucky. But it’s coming now without a doubt. It’s time to go home and meditate…