Last week I interviewed Danny Penman for our forthcoming summit.
Danny knows serious pain. He was paragliding, as he’d done many times before, when his glider failed mid-air. He managed to recover it as he plummeted to the ground, but then, with 40 feet to landing, the glider failed again. As he fell to the ground he thought ‘this is probably not going to kill me, but it’s going to hurt.’
He was right. He fell feet first, but unfortunately his knee got driven up into his thigh. As you can imagine, it was severely painful.
Danny hadn’t done any meditation for years. In fact, the first time he learnt meditation was once, back at school. But for some reason, he knew it would help in that moment. He managed to stay conscious and focused by doing some mindfulness meditation.
When he eventually arrived in hospital, he had to have lots of bolts put into his leg. His surgeon said a few years earlier, they would have had to amputate. The surgeon said Danny has experienced one of the top 5 most severe injuries he’d seen in all his years of service. The surgeon predicted the recovery would take 2 years.
Every evening, Danny meditated. Before going to sleep, he meditated on his breath. Feeling each in and out breath. And it seemed to help. Despite the huge pains he was suffering, he could find calm and a greater sense of control.
Amazingly, Danny recovered in 3 months rather than 2 years! His surgeon couldn’t believe his eyes. Danny is convinced the meditation made a big difference. Even his surgeon seemed to think so.
Danny was a journalist, so once he was out of hospital, he started to research mindfulness and meditation more and more, and published articles about the practice. He discovered the research suggested mindfulness can reduce pain by 90%. Fast forward a few more years, and he ended up writing a book on mindfulness for the general public together with Professor Mark Williams which has sold a million copies! I’ve read it - it’s absolutely brilliant.
So how does mindfulness reduce pain? There’s lots of theories out there - here’s what I think based on the science I’ve studied, the monks I’ve listened to and my personal experience:
Understand there's two layers to pain - There’s the physical sensation itself, and there’s the emotional reaction you have to the pain. What Danny found was that when he gently moved his attention towards the pain, it wasn’t as bad as he thought. The pain was still severe of course, but not quite as bad as he’d imagined. So mindfulness helps you separate the physical pain from the emotional pain.
Mindfulness strengthens your immune system - It’s well-accepted in science - you have two systems within you: your stress system and your relaxation system. Your relaxation system is linked to your immune system - the more relaxed you are, the more powerfully you’re able to recover. Through mindfulness practice, as you access moments of relaxation, you are able to recover faster and more effectively from any ill health you may have. In this way, pain can ease.
Mindfulness reduces tension around the pain - Let’s say you’re suffering from back pain. The pain naturally makes you tense up around your back. That tension makes the pain worse. That makes you tense up more. You get into a negative pain cycle. Mindfulness can help you break that pain cycle. Your pain stops spiralling upwards, but instead, you begin to find moments of relief every now and then.
Mindfulness helps you separate thoughts from sensations - There’s a difference between thinking ‘I’m in pain’ and actually feeling the sensation of pain itself. Through mindfulness you become aware of the difference. This greater clarity helps make the sensation of pain more manageable. You learn to let go of self-critical thoughts, or at least don’t take them to be facts.
Impermanence of pain - Danny told me once he became aware of the pain, he realised that is was never exactly the same - the pain fluctuated. Sometimes it increased and sometimes it went away altogether. This gives some relief. If you’re not being aware of your pain, you may just think ‘I’m in severe pain all the time’, whereas in reality, it may change more than you think. This can be a huge relief to realise. Ultimately all things pass - including pain. Nothing lasts forever. For example, each time you fall asleep, the pain disappears.
The power of disidentification - You may have heard the idea ‘you are not your thoughts’. In the same way, consider the idea ‘you are not your pain’. Much easier said than done, I know... Mindfulness helps you to see that you are the observer of the pain rather than the pain itself. The more you create a space between you and your pain, the more you’re able to get a sense of control. Every tiny step makes a difference.
Redirecting your attention - As you practice mindfulness, you become better at choosing where to focus your attention. You may not think you’re good at it, as your mind wanders so much! But in reality, you do subtly get better and better at moving your attention. So if you’re in pain and you move your attention to the calming feeling of your breathing, your attention is no longer directly on the pain, and so your experience of the pain is reduced.
Acceptance - One powerful aspect of mindfulness is acceptance. If you’re in pain right now and you deny it, you’re fighting with reality. That fight increases a sense of frustration within you. As you move towards acceptance, you begin to get a little less tense about the pain. Your emotional pain also reduces as you begin to accept your present moment experience. You begin to feel more empowered.
Kindfulness - As you begin to be mindful, you are also more likely to notice how hard you’re being on yourself. When in pain, it’s so easy to be self-critical, ashamed or feel unworthy. As you practice being kind to yourself, you learn to treat yourself as if you’re treating your best friend. You forgive rather than blame yourself. With this friendly attitude, your emotional pain begins to ease.
There’s a lot of different ways in which mindfulness may help to give you some relief of your pain. Being with a short, manageable guided mindful meditation and take it from there.
Here’s a 10 minute Mindfulness and Kindfulness of Breath for Pain Relief Guided Meditation I’ve recorded for you - I hope it helps - let me know if it does.