June 29, 2010

Chronic pain? There's hope.

meditation, pain, mbsr, tim parks, teach us to sit stillI've heard plenty about meeting pain with meditation, and there's a whole book about it—or many, but this latest book is one I may read in preparation for old age. Author Tim Parks, inspired by a A Headache in the Pelvis, a book by two Stanford urologists who recommend meditation, decided to give it a try. And—drum roll—it worked; his chronic pelvic pain was significantly alleviated. According to tomorrow's Irish Times:

It took about three months to lower the levels of pain to such an extent they were no longer a problem, he says. By then, [Parks] was really no longer interested in the pain, a remarkable outcome for a man whose life had increasingly been dominated by this mysterious condition which had been so resistant to other treatments.

Parks, who writes of his experience in Teach Us to Sit Still—A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing, tells the Times “that the roads to health and to death were one: to recover my health, fully, I must accept death as I had accepted the pain sitting cross-legged in the meditation room.”

Cross-legged? Not something you'd expect someone with chronic pelvic pain to manage, but he did, and developed a little insight, too.

Pain is inevitable, we hear, but suffering is not. Tough to hear when you're in pain, though. I tried meditating years ago when I had a toothache and I failed miserably—at first. The pain began on a Friday night, when these things usually begin, and my dentist was out of town, leaving me with little recourse. After sitting for a while (on the third or fourth try), I actually began to find the pain interesting, more interesting than painful, anyway. And just as I began to marvel at the persistence of the pain and its power, it disappeared. I was almost disappointed; I was only just getting a sense of how elusive and mysterious the sensation actually was. And then I felt great relief—it was gone! After a short while, though, I began to worry it might come back, and then, of course, it did, as these things do. And so my mind played the same neurotic game with itself in the long hours that followed: pain, interest, relief, pain. It began to occur to me that sitting to rid myself of pain, however understandable, wasn't working for me. It also occurred to me, as I'd heard from a Buddhist friend, that it was my preference for one state over another that caused the most anxiety, and even fed the pain. I was going to need to have a higher aim than a pain-free weekend for this to make any sense, or for there to be any lasting, existential relief. As Jon Kabat-Zinn once said in a Tricycle interview (part of the special section I link to below), "Meditation doesn’t 'work' or 'not work'; it’s about being with things as they are."

The rest is history—I developed a growing interest in Buddhism, and to this day, although I wouldn't wish it on myself again or on anyone else—I'm grateful for that toothache.

(My dentist finally returned my call on Sunday, and told me to take four Advil, and that worked. I realized I'd been more adventurous and determined than intelligent that weekend (I hadn't even thought of aspirin, it felt hopeless), but I like to think that it was all good karma: I might never have found practice otherwise.)

Since that time I've had the chance to talk to people far more practiced at this than I. In 2002, we ran a special section called "Pain Without Suffering," and since everyone's still suffering, it's as relevant now as it was back then. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Darlene Cohen, Ezra Bayda and Gavin Harrison all contribute. Since we don't usually plan on pain, pretend you're reading it just because it's interesting—and it is—and you'll benefit from it when the inevitable comes to pass.

And, something else: It's one thing to "be with pain," and it's quite another to have a remarkable sense of humor about it. Zen priest and pain counselor Darlene Cohen, whose rheumatoid arthritis gave her plenty of experience with physical pain, teaches us that not taking ourselves too seriously is also an excellent strategy. You can read a brief Q&A with her here.

Of course, this is something you have to be interested in trying. And if you can think of someone else who might benefit, keep in mind there's no sense in trying to get someone to "just sit" when they're in pain and don't want to. You may end up in pain yourself if you do. Besides, as Tim Parks observes, “The people who went to retreats because they felt ready usually got something out of it. The people pushed there by friends or out of merest curiosity or New Age enthusiasm didn’t.”

Parks, in any event, won't be recommending sitting to his mother, who "believes yoga is 'of the devil.'"

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James Shaheen's picture


I've never experienced the pain you're in. It's why I would never suggest that someone else try something that they're not inclined to try, or to continue to do something that is not working.

It's easy to suggest a course of action for someone else and it can also be meaningless. What Tim Parks is doing is one option and not for everyone. It's something he tried when he had run out of options, not something he began with.

Intractable pain brings with it a great degree of suffering and only the person who suffers from it can make a decision about how best to deal with it; it's for the rest of us to be supportive of that decision. I've seen the suffering HIV causes and I won't pretend to have an answer for it. At this point we'd just have to learn from you.

All best,


Bill Esterhaus's picture

May all beings be free from suffering as swiftly as possible

Tim Little's picture

I don't mean to dismiss anyone's health condition, but I don't think the point is relief of pain per se, but to relieve ourselves of the suffering associated with the painful sensation (again the difference between pain and suffering). If we can accept the painful sensation as simply what is happening right now -- and then take whatever painkillers are appropriate if that's what is needed -- our relationship to the sensation will shift, and we may find ourselves suffering less.

It's also worth remembering that our "sitting" practice shouldn't be limited to that particular posture. If you can't sit for very long, but are more comfortable standing, walking, or lying down, then do that. Practice should challenege our self-imposed limits, but it definitely shouldn't be torture.

David Bruce's picture

Chris, I am sorry that you suffer so. Tim Park's story was funny though. Why is it that toothaches start on Friday evenings? I had the same thing happen, but the pain from the toothache was nothing compared to the pain from the tooth extraction that occurred later. That pain is second only to when I broke my arm eight years ago. I tried meditating with it, and it did seem to come and go, but only briefly. I think for severe pain, meditation is more practical for some people. Perhaps the path that one person to deal with pain and alleviate suffering through meditation isn't the right path for all people.

Chris's picture

I have had chronic persistent pain from a condition known as HIV related neuropathy, it can be quite difficult to even sit or have to even think of sitting for even a moment. I am now on one of the strongest synthetic narcotic pain relievers on the market (Fentanyl) which I just started because my other high level pain reliever was not working anymore. I have tried over and over and over for the past 3 1/2 years to sit and meditate to help relieve the pain, I have tried being with it, noticing it and letting it go, and even embracing it, but still no relief. Maybe I just have some really bad Karma in my past and it may take a hundred years to rid myself of it, I do not think I have the stamina to sit for more than 30 minutes at a time, which by the way I do twice a day, and in those thirty minutes I'm either sweating profusely or so distracted by the pain that I don't even remember what I was doing. I think all this talk about being with the pain, sitting with the pain, accepting the pain, is all alot of nonsense, and I say this not out of anger, but out of concern for others who may be experiencing the same things I am, I just found out yesterday that I have epilepsy along with the neuropathy and hep c and of course the HIV/AIDS for the last 18 years. The virus is eating away my central nervous system, so tell me now do you think that I can just SIT with this? I think not, so please don't get peoples hopes up just to buy that book! I think that unless you have really lived the worst day of your life in other peoples shoes, you should not give people false hope for their relief of pain!