The first thing is to learn to distinguish between primary and secondary suffering.
Primary suffering is any unpleasant physical sensations you may experience as a consequence of illness, injury, fatigue etc.
You may not be able to do anything about this level of suffering and the task is to accept it and make peace with it as best you can.
Secondary suffering is the human anguish we all experience as a reaction to primary suffering: feelings like anger, fear, depression, anxiety and despair that we instinctively pile on top of any unpleasant sensation or event in a dense web of reactivity.
With mindfulness, or awareness, we can learn to modify and reduce these experiences of secondary suffering. This can greatly improve our quality of life, even if the primary suffering remains unchanged, or even worsens.
Tips To Help You Deal With Pain
The tips that follow are aimed at helping you to accept your primary suffering and reduce your secondary suffering.
See if you can stay in the present moment as much as you can. Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered off into the future or the past, gently bring it back. This doesn’t mean you can’t think about the past or future, but try not to get too caught up with these thoughts.
Investigate the process you call ‘pain’. You will notice it is in fact a mass of sensations, not a thing. Get to know it as actual, felt experience, rather than getting too caught up with thoughts about it. Notice how it is always changing from one sensation to another, no matter how dense and solid it may feel.
Move towards the pain. See if you can soften around any resistance you may feel towards it. This is counter-intuitive but if you try to ignore it or push it away, it will just scream louder. Use the breath to help with this (see meditation that follows).
Kindness and gentleness are crucial. Treat pain as you’d treat an injured loved one. See if you can find a tender attitude of heart.
Once you have gently acknowledged the pain you can then broaden out your field of awareness to look for any pleasure that is also going on in the moment. Notice experiences such as sun on the skin, being with a loved one, noticing flowers by the bed etc. There will always be something pleasurable in your experience, no matter how subtle. Let the pain be just one of several things you are aware of in the moment.
With this honest, tender attitude to all the shades of physical, emotional and mental experiences in the present moment you can then choose how you respond to things. This is the point of creativity – how we respond/act in this moment sets up conditions for the next moment. You can always insert a moment of choice no matter how far down the line you’ve gone into distress and anguish.
Any moment can be an opportunity for learning if we come back to the actual sensations of the present moment rather than getting lost in thoughts and reactions. See if you can let both pain and pleasure be held within this broad perspective: neither contracting tightly against pain nor clinging tightly to pleasure. Allow all sensations to come into being and pass away moment by moment.
Three Skills Useful In Managing Pain
To summarize, essentially you are learning three skills:
1. Moving towards the pain with a kindly, gentle attitude experiencing it as moment-by-moment changing sensations.
2. Then broadening out awareness of the moment to include and embrace pleasurable dimensions as well.
3. On the basis of this broad, rich and more spacious experience of the moment making choices about how you respond to what you encounter. Learning to ‘respond’ rather than ‘react’. This can enrich your experience of life enormously, even when living with pain/illness.
From “One moment at a time” by Vidyamala