How You Can Ease Your Pain with Meditation

You could burn and not feel a thing

Meditation has been an integral part of my life for a while. It has given me all that one could wish for — happiness, peace, and calmness.

But every time I think that there’s nothing more I could get, it shows up with yet another benefit.

A few months ago, I bruised my knee against the wall while trying a handstand. The blood flowed out as I struggled to find an explanation for the wound. (I couldn’t tell my sister I failed while doing a handstand!)

But no matter what was going through my mind, I remember one thing as clear as day — I wasn’t feeling any pain.

While my mother was frightened to see so much blood and the depth of the wound, I couldn’t be calmer — this level of even-mindedness astonished me and I’m sure it came from my meditation practice.

But you don’t have to believe me. I’m just a 21-year old kid who bruised his knee and felt nothing.

Believe Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963. Quảng Đức was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese Roman Catholic government led by Ngô Đình Diệm.

In this photo, Duc is burning himself and not feeling anything. This photo spread like wildfire around the world.

In fact, John F. Kennedy said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of the monk’s death.

This lighted a fire in the bellies of neuroscientists. They wanted to study the impact of meditation on Duc’s brain and physiology.

A growing body of literature indicates that basic breathing techniques and meditation can alter cortical structures with very little training. I talk about this in detail in my book.

Yet, most people think meditation is just about sitting in silence. They think it’s only about relaxation. But little do they know that with just 10 minutes of training, they can literally grow the size of the brain.

Even the Bhagavad Gita says, “Even a little practice of this inward religion will free one from dire fears and colossal sufferings.”

Now that we know meditation has serious applications to pain relief, let’s see what’s happening behind the scenes.

Pain Is an Illusion

Most pain is illusionary. I say this because pain exists only in the mind. And that pain arises because of undue exaggeration in our minds.

In western philosophy and medicine, pain is the result of underlying stress (of any kind) that can only be alleviated by drugs. But a deeper understanding of eastern philosophy tells us that our cures are incomplete and ineffective in some cases.

Since pain often depends on our perception and not what’s actually happening, changing our perception can reduce feelings of pain drastically.

And what better way of doing that than meditation.

One of the best explanations of how our perception affects the kind of pain we experience is the ‘Placebo Effect’.

This effect is often enough to reduce symptoms without giving real medicine. Let’s say you come to me with a stomach ache and ask for help. I tell you that I have such a strong medicine that has cured stomach ache by 50% within 6 seconds.

I go on explaining the merits of this drug while I mix it in water and give it to you. Being sure that you’ve finally found the solution, you drink it and start to feel better.

You perhaps pay me something and go home happily. Your stomach ache is gone and everything is fine.

Except for one thing — All I ever mixed in the water was salt.

Meaning, your expectation that the pain would ease after having this ‘magical’ medicine was enough that you didn’t need the medicine at all.

That’s the power of the mind. This is why many drugs are repeatedly tested for placebo to make sure of their effectiveness.

This tactic of manipulating one’s anticipation is also found amongst meditators when they experience pain.

Suffering Relief

I should’ve called the article ‘Suffering Relief’. Why? Let’s understand.

Pain is an unpleasant physical sensation of varying intensity. Suffering, however, is the mental reaction to the pain.

Some kinds of pain can be cured by medicine. But chronic pains, which come and go regularly, can only be tackled by reducing suffering — since the pain isn’t going anywhere.

Drugs taken for pain relief often cause dull awareness and prolonged consumption of medicines often have side-effects, making them a secondary choice for most people.

Another way of looking at suffering is to define it as the difference between what we are experiencing and what we want to experience. This difference, created by the mind going into the past or the future, is what’s the root cause of our problems.

And the cure is also simple. You guessed it, meditation.

Simple meditation practices like focusing on the breath can stop the mind from drifting into fantasies of the past or the future. This bridges the psychological gap between where you are and where you want to be, thus reducing suffering.

In his 1985 study, Jon Kabat-Zinn trained 90 chronic pain patients in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

Results indicated significant reductions of present-moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, mood disturbance, and psychological symptomatology, including anxiety and depression. Additionally, pain-related drug utilization was reduced.

According to a study from Wake Forest Baptist University, meditation can reduce pain by 40 percent. Yet, pain relievers like morphine only reduce pain by 25 percent.

The reason behind it is that meditation reduces activity in the primary somatosensory cortex responsible for creating the sensation and the intensity of the painful stimulus.

To put it into simpler words, you understand how to observe life instead of being affected by it. You see the events happening around you in a nonjudgmental manner. By doing this, you detach yourself from the exaggerated feelings of pain.

When someone shouts at you, they’ve already hurt you at that moment. The reason some people can’t handle others shouting at them is they think about it again and again.

Every time they relive the moment they think about how bad they felt. This is what increases the pain in reality.

All that meditation teaches us is to not suffer or at least not suffer more than once.

The Cure for Pain Is in the Pain

I’m not saying you stop taking the medications that your doctor gives you.

Rather, I advocate that the eastern and western teachings come together to exist in harmony.

Through meditation, we know that the anticipation and associated negativity is what gives pain its power.

Through the attention of the self, non-judgmental analysis, and detachment, pain can be greatly reduced without any need for pain relievers.

This way, we can depend less on medicines, have fewer side effects, and live a longer life.

Struggling to meditate? Get your free 7 Day email course — Meditation 101: How to Start Meditating

Written on January 16, 2021