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Guide: Pain (Physical & Emotional)

A Guide to Meditation for Physical and Emotional Pain

(Note: This guide assumes pain is a distraction or worse in meditation, or getting rid of pain is one reason for meditating. If you are looking for information on using pain to aid meditation, see "Pain for Meditation.")

Physical pain and disease during meditation: Regarding physical pain that occurs only, or primarily, during meditation, you should consider many factors. First, if new pain occurs during meditation, consider whether it is severe or mild. If it is severe, and especially if it is new, call 911 or your doctor or visit a hospital emergency room.

If it is new and moderate, see if it diminishes after your meditation session. If it does not, seek a doctor’s advice. In general, meditation practices are, in most cases, gentle and gradual and should not cause pain. Therefore, ask yourself whether you are using a new physical position or movement for practicing meditation and, if so, whether the pain stops if you stop using that position or movement. Positions and movements that work for some people may not work for you, as your body will be different in some ways from others’.

Management of pain or the symptoms of disease: If you are trying to manage pain or the symptoms of disease using meditation, guidance for from an expert often can be helpful, whether from a doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor, yoga master, or other expert on pain or disease management. In general, if you are working on your own, be cautious in how you stretch or exercise your body to manage pain, or how much you exert yourself to manage a disease.

Generally, you should not “push” through pain and the symptoms of disease. In other words, do not force an exercise, movement, or meditation if pain or the symptoms of disease become worse. Complete new physical activities slowly, a little bit at a time, increasing them only gradually over a period of days and weeks. In other words, try just a little bit of a new stretching or strengthening technique or other movement on the first day, a little more on the second, etc. to see whether the pain or symptoms of disease increase or decrease.

Balance of the body for pain: In general, when managing pain or disease, balance is very important. For every focus, movement, stretch, or exercise on one side of the body, you should try to complete an equivalent on the other side of the body, even if that side seems not to need it. In fact, many therapists suggest that when using a new exercise, you should first do it on the good side, and only then do it on the bad side. In this way, one maintains more equality in the body’s muscles, flexibility, awareness, or restful calm.

Again, meditation alone is not enough to take care of your body in some situations. If you are dealing with a moderate or severe injury or disease, seek the advice of a health expert such as a doctor, physical therapist, or highly-trained and certified hatha yoga instructor.

Chronic pain and disease: Using meditation to explore and better manage chronic pain and disease is possible. One option is to seek advice from more than one type of health expert: for example, not just a physician, but also a physical therapist; or not just a physical therapist, but also a chiropractor, certified yoga instructor, and/or acupuncturist.

Another option is to try different types of meditation. One method, especially when tension is involved, is to focus on the pain or area of ill feeling (rather than trying to ignore it), and in doing so, let your body relax around it, and then into it. This kind of relaxing of tension may actually help get rid of the pain itself, if tension is the main problem.

“Deferred” pain: Some people experience “deferred” pain–meaning one part of the body is the source of the pain, but the pain is expressing itself in another part of the body, instead. For deferred pain, you may work in meditation to focus backward, muscle by muscle–or internally, area by area–to find the main source of the pain or feeling of ill health.

Another method for deferred pain is to relax different parts of the body around the pain until you discover what seems to be the original source of the pain. Meditative massage also helps.

Using a meditative focus on pain: One method of focusing on pain is to imagine a rush or relaxation flooding the specific point of the pain, or of the entire area or part of the body. Another is to feel your heartbeat in the midst of, or surrounding, pain or other symptoms of ill health, or to bring one’s heartbeat and awareness to that area of the body. Doing this can bring more blood to the area, which in turn creates more oxygenation of the area, and thus better healing.

Yet another technique is to imagine a ball or cylinder of energy around the affected area, and meditate upon that area by focusing a feeling of healing, relaxation, or peacefulness into the ball or cylinder.

Some people also use color systems to heal. For example, you might imagine a healing green light–the stronger, the better–suffusing you area of pain. You also can develop, in meditation, a feeling of physical peace and healing, and then direct that feeling at the point of pain. You can simply imagine that the two are one, or imagine a flow of the positive feeling toward the painful area.

As in physical therapy, if you experience new or different pain in meditation, you may need to stop that particular movement or exercise until your body is ready. After a time–this can be as little as a few minutes or as much as months–you may try the same activity again to see if there is little or no pain. If there is not, then you may proceed with the activity gently at first, and then gradually with greater vigor each following day.

Emotional pain and starting to deal with it: First, you should note that medication can help mild, brief, or intermittent emotional pain. However, for moderate, intense, or long-lasting emotional pain, the least that you need to do is daily exercise, daily communication of one’s feelings, and often, a better diet, vitamin and/or mineral supplements, and/or more intake of water.

Second, daily “communication” means daily private writing or tape recording of your feelings, seeing a counselor at least once a week, or a combination of them. Exercise, diet, supplements, and more water can be determined by professional help through online searches, well-reviewed books and articles, and/or medical and therapeutic advice from professional counselors or therapists.

Third, are some of your emotions out of control? One technique to start dealing with emotional pain is to name each emotion, in writing or out loud.  Naming is one way to start taking control. Naming makes each emotion become an object apart from your awareness, rather than just an uncontrolled experience. If you have a series of mixed emotions (which often is the case), give the entire mix a label (e.g., "Thinking of X"), and then start naming the different emotions or parts of it, one by one. What is the structure of the mix: structural, all at once, like an ocean wave, like a storm with different parts, or what? The more you can separate and name the parts and see the structure, the greater your control over it.

If, at any time, you can turn to a simpler meditation method of clearing the emotion or the thought–or replacing it with a more intense, deeper meditation experience of joy, love, strength, peace, or consciousness throughout your mind, your body, or an imagined sphere or oval space around your body–then that is even better. However, if you need to take slower steps, use naming and labeling, and get to know the emotion intimately, piece by piece. This intimate knowing gradually will take away the power of the emotions in a majority of situations so that you gain control over them and are more free to clear them away, replace them, or let them fade away into nothing.

Emotional pain, meditation, and self-therapy: You also may use meditation, in conjunction with these above improvements. Note that if you do not use the above improvements, meditation may be of little or no help. However, for mild or intermittent emotional pain–or in conjunction with the changes above–several meditation techniques are available.

To ease emotional turmoil or pain, your meditation should start by focusing on how, when, or where the emotion happens. In this way, you may learn to recognize the beginning of the negative emotion and sometimes decrease its intensity or at least be better prepared for dealing with it.

The most important technique for meditation and emotional pain usually is to dive into the heart of it. Doing so seems counterintuitive if you are suffering difficult emotions: why would you want to experience the pain even more? However, usually, looking at the emotion, feeling it, and focusing on the heart of it is a standard way psychologists use to begin breaking its hold on you and diminishing or getting rid of it. And it works through meditation, too.

Once in the middle of the emotion, your next step is to become increasingly aware of the difference between the thought and the physical feeling that results. Emotions are a combination of thought–often a memory, though sometimes a key word or phrase–and a negative physical feeling. Increasing one’s awareness of the two components can enable your to intercede early in the process of the developing emotion, stunting or slowing it. Once you have recognized the emotion’s separate parts, either you can focus on the thought or focus on the physical feeling, whichever is easier. You should then hold it in your awareness, dive into it, stay with it, let it wash over and through you, until some of its power diminishes. Repeat this often. Usually the emotion will gradually lose some of its intensity and power over you, and you can then take it apart further and meditate on the other parts of it.

However, if, after a few sessions, you find the emotion is becoming much worse or out of control, then you may need to change something physical in your activities, life, or environment. Regular moderate to strenuous exercise often helps or even is necessary.

Drinking much more water and cutting back on sugar or excessive use of other foods (alcohol, caffeine, et al.) may also help. Often, the most important change is to remove yourself from the physical and/or social environment or its triggers that cause the negative emotion to occur.

Meditation and emotional pain, outside therapy: If none of these methods help sufficiently, then you should seek therapy. A trained therapist can help you diagnose both the cause of the emotion and a path to a cure.

Self therapy may be an option if you regularly (usually daily, at first) write about or record your emotional problems. You can do this and choose not to share it with anyone else, or you may want to do both this and talking with a therapist, and share your writing or recording with your therapist.

If this still is insufficient, you may need to talk with a medical doctor about what physical causes may be contributing to your emotional problems. Talk over your entire problem and what you have tried to use as cures with your doctor.

If you are experiencing mild to moderate depression (see), especially what is sometimes called “winter depression,” then taking Vitamin D or using a sun lamp may also help. The human body is unable to make its own Vitamin D without exposure to direct sunlight, and Vitamin D appears necessary for many people for avoiding depression.

Through all this, meditation can be a helpful supplemental aid. If you use it in connection with other therapies and procedures, you may see faster results.



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Text © 2017-2020 by Richard Jewell

Images © 1994-2018 by Gabriel R. Jewell

First edition: 1 Sept. 2018. Second edition: 1 Sept. 2019. Free Use Policy

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