January 26, 2012

How Mindfulness Helps us Respond to Physical Suffering. ~ Toni Bernhard

Photo: Big Mind Zen Center

Despite our best efforts to take care of ourselves, we’re in bodies which get injured, sick and old. The Buddha gave us a practice—mindfulness—to help ease that physical discomfort. With practice, we can learn to respond skillfully to the inevitable physical suffering that comes with being in bodies.

Bodily discomfort has three components:

  1. The unpleasant physical sensation itself (pain, aching muscles, fatigue).
  2. Our emotional reaction to that discomfort (anger, frustration, fear).
  3. The thoughts that are triggered by the discomfort (the stress-filled stories we spin that have little basis in reality, such as, “This pain will never go away,” “I’ll never be happy again,” “I’ve ruined my partner’s life”).

Note that two of the three components that make up our experience of bodily discomfort are mental in origin! These two mental components are often referred to as “mental suffering.” They can make our physical suffering worse because mental reactions are felt in the body.

Photo: Zach Klein

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of paying careful attention to what is happening in the present moment, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body, or mental cognition (this latter includes emotions and thoughts). Mindfulness is called a practice because it takes practice: our minds tend to dwell in the past and the future.

You don’t need to be meditating to practice mindfulness. Right now, stop and take three or four conscious breaths, feeling the physical sensation of the breath as it comes in and goes out of your body. There. You’ve just practiced mindfulness!

Notice that while you were engaging in this conscious breathing, your mind wasn’t dwelling in the past or the future. You may have been aware of a sound, a smell, a bodily sensation other than the breath, an emotion, a thought. Meticulous attention to whatever is happening in the present moment is the essence of mindfulness. The sensation of the breath is often used as an anchor because breathing is always present in the moment.

How can mindfulness help ease physical suffering?

With practice, mindfulness calms and steadies the mind. This is beneficial because when we’re experiencing physical discomfort, our minds often churn with stressful emotions and thoughts, but they’re a muddy blur—we can’t sort them out. With mindfulness, the “mud” settles so we can see more clearly which allows us to identify what emotions and thoughts are present in our minds at the moment. “Ah, this is anger.” “This is fear.” “This is a worry-filled thought about the future.” With this clearer view, we can make skillful choices about how to respond to these emotions and thoughts—choices that will lessen our overall suffering.

Stressful emotions. Our habitual reaction to physical discomfort is some form of resistance and aversion, such as frustration or anger. By practicing mindfulness, we can counter that habitual response with one that’s more skillful.

Photo: Ben Seidelman

For example, if we’re in pain, aversion in the form of frustration may arise. We have two choices. We can let that habitual response brew and get stronger; this not only increases our mental suffering, but it often increases our physical pain because the muscles surrounding the pain tighten in response to our frustration. Or, we can respond to our frustration by mindfully acknowledging it and beginning to incline our minds toward kindness and compassion for ourselves. (After all, who doesn’t get frustrated at times?)

Once we begin to treat ourselves with kindness, we can calmly and gently examine the actual physical sensation. It’s not a solid block of discomfort. We may feel waves of sensations, some of which may even be pleasant. We may notice some heat, some pulsating, some tingling. Using mindfulness to examine physical sensations reveals their ever-changing nature. This helps break up the sense that our whole being is only the discomfort.

Having noticed that the physical sensation keeps changing, we can reflect that our frustration is impermanent too. It arose but it will pass. This recognition alone weakens its grip on us.

Stressful thought patterns. At a meditation retreat in the 1990s, the Buddhist nun, Ayya Khema, told us, “Most thoughts are just rubbish, but we believe them anyway.” Becoming mindfully aware of the stories we spin about our physical discomfort quiets and steadies the mind so that the “mud” settles and we can see the thoughts more clearly. Then we have a choice. We can continue to blindly believe them or we can calmly assess their validity. Are you absolutely sure you’ll never be happy again or that you’ve ruined your partner’s life? Early on in my own illness, I believed both these thoughts, neither of which turned out to be true.

Letting go of stress-filled stories that have little or no basis in fact is a tremendous relief. A smile might even appear on your face as you acknowledge the convoluted stories the mind can spin. As Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, likes to say, “The mind has no shame.”

Photo: Minoru Nitta

Mindfulness calms and steadies the mind so we can respond more skillfully to stressful emotions and thoughts. This, in turn, eases our physical suffering because we’re not adding mental suffering to it. As the wonderfully blunt Zen teacher, Joko Beck said, “What makes life so frightening is that we let ourselves be carried away in the garbage of our whirling minds. We don’t have to do that.”

Mindfulness is the way not to do that.

*Previously posted on Psychology Today


Toni Bernhard is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers. She can be found online at How to be Sick.

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