August 28, 2009

A Method for Managing Pain

There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain. — Aeschylus

My head felt as though the headache wanted to split it open.

And all I could do was sit with it.

I don’t get headaches very often. Almost never, in fact. But we’ve had a virus going through the family this week, and today it hit me full-on. So I left the office early, went home, changed into comfortable clothes, and laid down to ride it out.

Right Focus is the Key

I’m a believer in bringing all one’s focus to bear when faced with a problem or challenge. Mind you, that’s not the same as struggling. The quality of focus of which I’m speaking is one that begins not with a struggle, but with acceptance. Specifically, it begins with acceptance of the state or condition as it is, without wishing it to be anything else.

It’s counter-intuitive, I suppose, this idea of allowing a pain or discomfort simply to be what it is without wanting to get rid of it. I’ve had a lot of experience with physical pain the past six years, however, and I learned a lot about acceptance from it.

I discovered there were two ways to deal with pain. One was is to disassociate the mind from it by shifting my mind into another state. The other technique allowed me to sit in the center of the pain itself and be at peace with it.

Truth be told, I found the latter method far more effective in the long run. The problem with disassociation was that I always had to return to the pain. The advantage to centering focus was that I discovered a new freedom in the pain, and I believed I healed faster as a result.

So when the headache struck me today, I knew what to do.

Find the Center of the Pain

I located the center of the pain itself, imagining my breath moving into and out of it smoothly and naturally. I focused on the headache’s epicenter, if you will, and in my mind’s eye sat down inside it.

I lost track of time.

At some point I became aware that my conscious mind had found a place of rest, despite the fact that the headache raged on and my body had begun to feel a little feverish. It was a though I sat in an oasis of the mind, surrounded by a scorching desert.

Some time later I awoke to the ministrations of Gracie Moon, one of our cats. I sat up a checked in with my body. Though I still felt a little warm, the headache had subsided to a faint echo of itself. I pulled out pen and paper to write this column afterwards.

The Power of Attention and Focus

I am grateful for the power of attention and focus. Learning to focus on difficulties in this special way — by mentally sitting in the center of them — strengthened my mind in ways that pay dividends every day.

If you want to develop a sharper, more resilient mind, I suggest starting slowly with some simple mental stretching. One of my favorite stretches I call “hear it all.”

Find a comfortable place to sit. Take a deep breath and sigh. Now pick a sound in your immediate environment and focus your attention on it. Listen to it. Bring your full sense of hearing to it so you can perceive its texture, rhythm, and depth. Hold the sound in focus for several seconds. Now, without ignoring the first sound, bring your attention to a second sound. Focus on it while still hearing the first sound clearly. Hear them both clearly now, then bring your attention to a third sound.

Repeat the process until you can hear all the sounds around you simultaneously without focusing on any one of them. Sit in this sonic space for several minutes. You’ll find it’s quite a challenge at first but, as with any physical exercise, your mental muscles will benefit tremendously from the workout.

You will likely discover unexpected side benefits, such as improved overall mental performance and a greater sense of awareness.

Not to mention a cure for headaches.

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