Escaping from the Prison of Chronic Pain Through Meditation

This is the text of a talk that I have given, with small variations, at several book readings listed under Past Events.

My story is about headaches, devastating headaches that started in 2000 and nearly destroyed my career. I suffered miserably for two and a half years before I sought help from a therapist who changed my life. Jean Colucci guided me in meditation and encouraged me to attend a meditation retreat during the summer of 2003. While I was at that retreat, I had a life-altering insight about the headaches that would eventually heal my suffering.

Let me start by telling you how my book, Blinding Pain, Simple Truth, came to be. In 2004 a literary agent found me on the internet. My experiences with the headaches had been so profound that, with the encouragement of this literary agent, I started to write the book. We worked together for three years. Then the literary agent informed me that she would no longer represent me. No reason given. The suffering caused by chronic headaches had been the impetus for the book, and now trying to publish a book about the suffering caused by chronic headaches brought even more suffering. Despite this challenge, I encourage all would-be authors to hang in and not to give up. After sending out 188 query letters, I found a small, independent publisher, Rainbow Books, which published the book in May 2011.

This talk has two parts. In the first part I will relate the inner story of living with headaches. It's a story about chronic pain, suffering, Buddhist meditation, insight, and eventual liberation. Chronic pain can be a prison with deep, dark, dank, cramped cells and impenetrable walls. When I fought the headaches with anger and fear, the pain built that prison around me. When meditation enabled me to accept the pain and to allow the pain to become my best teacher, the suffering ended, and the pain became the door out of the prison into a vast landscape of peace and equanimity.

I am not alone. We all have pain: physical pain, emotional pain, the pain of the human condition. If you suffer from pain, then your experiences could be your door out of that prison. My goal in giving this talk is to help you find that door. My story could be your story.

Meditation can do much more than heal the suffering caused by pain. In the second part of the talk I will discuss how it can become an artful, all-encompassing approach to your life, which is what has happened to me.

I was blessed with a first-rate Western education, have enjoyed a successful career, and have a loving family. But neither the education nor the career nor my family prepared me for what happened on a dark night in February 2000 when the headaches erupted. A wild winter wind howling, I awakened, afraid to awaken. Lightning. Thunder. Whirlwind. Flame. A storm of Biblical enormity short-circuiting the fuses in my face. An earthquake savaging my forehead, splitting open my skull with jack-hammering pain. All the changes and losses and rejections of the past months, the past years, the past lifetimes focusing their raw fury on the nerves between my eyes, the nerves igniting and burning with a chronic, neuralgic hellfire. Eyeglasses became impossible to wear. The pressure of even the most lightweight pair caused insufferable pain to radiate through my forehead and nose. Dear God, please help me. My face is on fire. My life is my work, but I can't even read.

I suffered from the pain and even more from my outrage over the pain. The truth was in my face, but I didn't see it. Duped by the medical profession and deceived by my own blindness, I cried out, “Where should I turn?” No one answered. I shouted, “How can I get relief?" Nothing worked. “What if the pain gets much worse?” I shrieked. “What if it lasts forever?” The pain mocked me by throbbing even more. Being a mathematician who worshipped at the altar of reason, I logically tried to figure out why the headaches had begun. I never found an answer. Because tension and stress exacerbated the pain, I logically tried to protect myself from them. Despite my Herculean efforts, I realized that I couldn't control the world.

My experiences with all but one of the doctors I consulted were disastrous. They did not treat me as a person, but as a receptacle for pills. Their only response to my misery was to prescribe medication that changed my personality, drained my intellectual and emotional energy, and gave me no insight at all. In desperation, I tried one more doctor, Dr. Nagagopal Venna, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a prince of a man. He urged me to try to taper my stash of personality-changing drugs. My goal was not to be pain-free by overmedicating myself, but to find a manageable level of pain with a minimum of drugs.

Dr. Venna had grown up in India, the land of the Buddha. Inspired by Dr. Venna's support, I decided to turn to meditation. A friend had introduced it to me in 1980 during an earlier episode of headaches, and it had completely healed me. But this time would not be so simple. It is now December 2000, almost a year after the new headaches had begun. The many drugs having been successfully weaned from my system, the pain alarmingly flared up, rekindling the fire in the middle of my face that congealed into a sharp, pinching nose pain that glowed white hot.

To my horror, meditating often made the pain much worse. Here is a typical scene. I find a comfortable chair and shut my eyes and follow my breath, noting that the pain isn't bad today, just a wave of sensation rolling between my eyes. Breath in. Breath out. Breath in, getting caught in the wave, which becomes angry and surges down the damaged nerve into my nasal passage - I can't stop it although I know what is about to happen - and transmogrifies there into the sharp, pinching clamped-plier-throbbing-pressure of nose pain that is so sharp that following my breath mindfully becomes as impossible as excising my nose from my face, which I'd really like to do because it hurts so bad.

I continued to suffer for two and a half years. In September 2002 I sought help from Jean Colucci, may her memory be for a blessing. Jean was a clinician who based her therapy on meditation and Buddhist teachings. She changed my life. During my first session with her, I asked whether there was a way out of my confusion and suffering. Jean was so wise. She gave a one-word answer, “mindfulness.” I would later discover that she was absolutely correct.

Mindfulness is the calm and direct awareness of what is happening in the present moment. Mindfulness began to replace anger and frustration as I began to meditate regularly under Jean's guidance. My practice was supported by the mindfulness-based stress-reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, which I attended in the spring of 2003. Soon I was meditating every day. If the pain became worse during meditation, I learned to accept this because the increased pain was a small price to pay for the insight that the experience gave me. To my delight I discovered that I was being mindful, not only when meditating, but also when my eyes were open.

My work with Jean Colucci set the stage for a transformative experience in the summer of 2003. It happened while I was participating in an eight-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I had come to the retreat with an agenda: the facial pain must vanish forever. Despite my expectations, the experience of the retreat would be nothing that I could have imagined. Soon after the retreat had begun, I found myself plunging into the Grand Canyon without a parachute. The headache pain I had there was the worst since the headaches had started.

The pain was bad, but still I luxuriated in the peacefulness and silence of the retreat, and the absence of computers and email and news, and the inspiring talks by the teachers. On Tuesday, August 5, 2003, three and a half years after the headaches had begun, I experienced the truth about the headaches and the suffering they had caused. This truth would eventually liberate me from the prison of chronic pain. I was calm on that day, and my mind was quiet, conditions that allowed an innate voice of wisdom to speak within me.

During the 11:30 a.m. sitting a major insight bubbled up out of nowhere. My headaches have taught me so much about myself, my relationships, my life, but I was always angry at my teacher. When the pain comes, I might say, “Welcome. I am open to whatever you will share with me today.” That is how one greets an honored teacher. Instead, I always took pains to avoid the pain, cursing it, pushing it away, protecting myself. Let the pain do what it wants. The truth is in my pain. The truth is in my face. Let the pain guide me, not me guide the pain. It has much more wisdom than I. Cursing the pain sets up duality. Loving it makes it mine.

Miraculously my head stopped hurting. I wanted to love the pain as I would love my best teacher. Love the pain. Don't shun the pain. Honor the pain. Don't curse the pain. The truth is in my pain. It will go away when it has nothing more to teach me. It will go away when I no longer need it to go away.

On Tuesday, August 5, 2003, through no effort of my own, I experienced the truth that is in my pain, the truth that had been in my face since February 2000. It's not the pain that causes suffering, but the mental state associated with the pain. The mystery of this wisdom. It had taken me three and a half years to understand deeply what I could now express in a single, short sentence. It's so simple, yet so deep.

The mystery of this wisdom blessed me only because of the headaches. Soon the headache pain, once my brutal enemy, became my beloved teacher. My teacher, I honor you for liberating me from that impenetrable prison painted with pain and bringing me to this oasis of peace. Whenever you return, I will not push you away as I always did. Rather I will say, “Welcome. What will you teach me today?”

After the retreat in August 2003, I have continued meditating daily. Meditation has empowered me to let go of the image of myself as a victim and to transform my suffering into healing. It has invited me to give up knowing what causes the headaches and why they return on some days and not on others, to give up knowing what role stress plays and what I should do to make the headaches go away. It has given me the insight that pain is not an impenetrable steel wall. It's a conceptual abstraction because whenever I meditate, the pressure in my face dissipates and starts to flow.

Meditation has done all this and much more. It has taught me to live with the pain and accept the pain and breathe with the pain and breathe through the pain, opening me up to the vast landscape on the other side of pain, to the unknowable mystery and grandeur of life, of which the headaches and their comings and goings are a symbol. In that vast landscape the prison of chronic pain is a speck of dust, a mirage, a dream, a hallucination, an illusion created by the mind but having no substantial reality.

The scientific literature on the effects of meditation on pain is large and growing. However, much of the scientific literature seems to be unaware of the Buddha's main emphasis, which was not to heal pain, but to heal the suffering caused by pain. In addition, this literature does not reveal that meditation can do much more than heal pain, as important as that is.

One of the deepest gifts of meditation for me is that the rewards of meditation are potentially infinite. If you study Buddhist teachings, then you see that the Buddhists love lists. Here is my list titled “The Seven Infinite Rewards of Meditation.”

  1. Meditation calms the mind and brings equanimity.
  2. It teaches us to accept whatever happens with perfect trust.
  3. It enables us to connect with the wisdom of our bodies and the wisdom of the present moment.
  4. It helps us cope with pain, reduce stress, and alleviate suffering.
  5. It allows the innate wisdom planted within us to blossom.
  6. Through meditation, we heal ourselves.
  7. Calming our minds creates peace within us and peace for those with whom we interact.

This list brings me to today. The pain comes and the pain goes, but the suffering is gone. I can now describe myself in a way that I had not thought possible when the headaches began, a description that is not always valid, but is valid enough of the time to convince me that the transformation is real. This description is: I am happy. The happiness arises because I have a deeper understanding of what happiness is. Before the headaches started, it meant that everything is going my way, a state of mind that cannot last because the world does not act according to our wishes and desires. Now, happiness means that I can see clearly and so is synonymous with mindfulness.

These are the highlights of my story. It is embedded in the details of my life yet addresses universal themes: the desperation of blinding pain; serious side effects from the pills prescribed by many doctors; dealing with the pain by distraction, avoidance, anger, and fear; feeling victimized and being overwhelmed with self-pity; slowly returning to meditation; seeking help from a therapist; attending a meditation retreat at which the truth of the pain was revealed; gratitude and deepening meditation practice. It is the story of how the blinding pain first blinded me to the liberating simple truth that is the heart of the Buddha's message, and how the pain revealed that truth to me when I was ready. The liberating simple truth is that pain is unavoidable, but suffering can end.

If you have suffered, whether from physical pain, emotional pain, or the dissatisfaction and sense of lack that are pervasive in our lives, then I expect that you will recognize aspects of these themes in your own experience. Through meditation, headache pain became my best teacher. What can your pain teach you?

I explain this in a list titled “The Eight Teachings of Pain.”

  1. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Mindfulness, which is cultivated by meditation, can help you heal suffering and alleviate pain.
  2. By quieting the mind, meditation allows the body's natural healing powers to flourish.
  3. Meditation can help you heal suffering by enabling you to slow down, to be in the moment, and to pay attention, with a light touch and without judgment, to what is pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.
  4. Everything in your life is interconnected.
  5. Accept your pain. Embrace it. It's an integral part of your life. Open yourself up to the wisdom of your pain. That wisdom can be inexhaustible if you let it unfold.
  6. By accepting and embracing your pain, you may eventually come to love it. Cursing your pain, hating it, pushing it away create duality and more suffering.
  7. Pain wants to be a verb, not a noun, an energy flow, not an impenetrable steel wall. Relax. Open up. Observe it changing and flowing, surging and vanishing.
  8. No matter how bad your pain is, it could always be worse. Gratitude and compassion are two of its fruits.

I have covered a lot of ground in this talk, the heart of which is meditation and mindfulness. I would like to end by explaining how meditation works its magic, healing suffering and bestowing upon us other rewards of infinite value. However, meditation is a practice that goes beyond words and concepts, and so I would rather not use words and concepts to explain it. It would be much more consistent with the spirit of meditation to invite you to spend a few minutes experiencing it yourselves. Perhaps then you will be closer to understanding.

There are as many ways to meditate as there are to write a poem, sing a song, cook food, or raise children. The meditation I practice is called insight meditation. In Pali, the language of the Buddha, it is known as Vipassana, which means to see reality as it is. The Buddha discovered this meditation technique 2,600 years ago and prescribed it as a path for understanding how suffering arises and how one frees oneself from suffering.

The Buddha's life is an inspiration. The son of a king, he received a first-rate Eastern education and was surrounded by a loving family, which tried to shield him from death and decay. His first experience of death changed everything. He left the royal palace and went on a journey for the truth. After years of experimenting with different spiritual practices, at the age of 35 he spent a night doing insight meditation under a tree that would be known as the Bodhi tree, the tree of awakening, and he became enlightened. He spent the remaining 45 years of his life teaching and helping people liberate themselves from suffering.

The Buddha summarized his insights into suffering in the Four Noble Truths. They are as follows.

  1. The First Noble Truth states that there is suffering. In the context of a person's life, this becomes the statement, “I am suffering,” an insight that could become the first step on the path of healing.
  2. According to the Second Noble Truth, suffering originates in attachment: attachment to desire, to craving for sense pleasures, to one's own views, to the belief in I and self.
  3. The Third Noble Truth is simple and deep. It says that suffering can end and peace can be experienced.
  4. The Fourth Noble Truth describes the way that leads to the end of suffering and to experiencing peace. It is the path of being mindful, of seeing reality as it is, not from the viewpoint of I and self.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path of being mindful, which one accesses through insight meditation. Here is an overview of insight meditation, followed by brief instructions. When we meditate, we use the breath as a point of focus to keep ourselves centered and calm. We also observe the mind as it deals with distractions such as sounds and thoughts. We observe, trying to remain nonattached and not to react. Although we normally consider sounds as being external and thoughts as being internal, as mental phenomena they are on the same level, just like pain. Eventually the distractions cease to distract, and they become part of the passing show. Wisdom and peace arise when we learn to accept them, just as we accept the rhythmic flowing of the breath. As we focus on the breath, our mental landscape expands. Personal concerns exert less pressure in the expanded space. Because the breath sustains life, focusing on it can give rise to gratitude for the miracle of being alive.

Learning to observe distractions and not to react is central to a study of meditation and pain reported by NPR in April 2011. Here is an explanation by Dr. Fadel Zeidan, the leading author of the study. “You are trying to sustain attention in the present moment - everything is momentary so you don't need to react. What that does healthwise is it reduces the stress response. The feeling of pain is a very blatant distraction.” It is remarkable that the Buddha understood this 2,500 years ago without the benefit of modern science.

Here are brief instructions for insight meditation, which I invite you to follow:

If you would like to participate, then I invite you to sit up straight in your chair. Feel your body in the chair and your feet on the floor. Relax and be comfortable in this space. Close your eyes. Gently focus on your breath. If you are distracted by a sound, then make a mental note of that distraction. You can't change the sound or stop it, so just let it go. Similarly, if you are distracted by a thought, then make a mental note of that distraction. Let the thought float through your mind like a cloud through the sky, and let it go. When you are able to, bring your attention back to your breath. Relax into it. Keep your attention soft and precise. Let your mind become quiet by focusing on the always changing and recurring breath. ... When you feel relaxed and present, open your eyes.

What happened during the time that you just meditated? If you have done it before, then you might have experienced an ease in quieting the mind and remaining in the present moment. On the other hand, if you have never meditated, then you might have been surprised to discover that the mind has a mind of its own, jumping from thought to thought, unable to stay quiet and focused. If so, then you experienced what the Buddhists call “monkey mind.”

Whatever your experience was while meditating, I hope that it included feeling less agitated and more aware. Perhaps after meditating, you might be able to appreciate how simple this practice is to explain and how difficult to do. You might also be able to appreciate that this practice can eventually transform how the mind works, heal suffering, help us accept whatever happens with perfect trust, make us feel at one with the present moment, and bring peace and lasting happiness.

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