05 January 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: Tools

Fourth in a series.

Pain management cannot be all theory and discussion, so I am following my first posts about Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now with some tools and skills. 

The dreadful enslavement to incessant thinking
In my previous post, I discussed the first chapter of Tolle's book and how it relates to pain management.  Briefly, it's important to understand that our mind creates suffering: the mind's addiction to thinking, worrying, and projecting into the future causes emotional and physical stress that exacerbate the pain.  Tolle speaks of the "false mind" and how it "casts a shadow of fear and suffering."  Enlightenment, on the other hand, is "a state of wholeness, of being at One and therefore at peace." (p. 15)

That sounds wonderful, yet to those of us in chronic pain, almost impossible.  How can we find peace in the midst of physical discomfort?  Since there is nothing in scripture or spiritual literature suggesting that people in pain are exempt from spiritual growth, there must be a way.  Perhaps it is a harder way, but it is surely there for us.  (One of the ironies of the migraine pain that has been my daily companion for seven years is that it has taken me deeper into my spirit and closer to God.  But that is a subject for another post.)

Stop identifying with the mind
Tolle takes ten chapters to make his case for dis-identification for the mind, but now it's time for practical help, so the theory will wait for future posts.  Now we need to try to change our habit of identifying with the mind in order to manage our pain.

Notice that nowhere have I written, "stop thinking." The mind thinks -- that's what it does. An instruction like stop thinking is nothing but frustrating because it's impossible. We may as well tell our blood to stop circulating. Meanwhile, we are still in pain.

Focusing on the breath is the easiest and oldest way to stop paying attention to all the thinking going on between our ears.  Here are three simple ways to teach yourself to focus on the breath - it's about how you breathe.

1. Practice breathing more deeply by relaxing from your diaphragm (stomach area) instead of from the top of your chest just below your collarbone.  Feel that the air fills your lungs to their very bottom.  Then, slowly relax the diaphragm, releasing all of the air.  Stop if you get light-headed. 
2. You can also expand the rib cage by stretching the intercostal muscles.  When you relax your diaphragm, try to feel your ribs move apart also, so that you are expanding that area of your abdomen for 360 degrees around. 
3. Do this intentionally, three breaths at a time at first, when you first wake up, during the day, as you lie down at night, whenever.  When you are accustomed to it, make it ten breaths.

Those of you who meditate know that breathing intentionally in this way is a wonderful tool for meditation, which is my most effective pain management tool.  I have posted before about meditation, especially for those of us who don't think we do it very well: Meditation for (Distracted) Dummies (Like Me).  Believe me, breathing like this, with a meditative focus on the physical process of breathing, is a wonderful pain management tool.  I do not say it cures or stops pain, I say it is a tool for managing pain.

Once you have practiced deep breathing so that it feels natural, try it when you are in pain:
1. Get into a position that is comfortable.  Forget those meditation gurus who insist you sit upright, with straight back and your feet on the floor.  Lie down, stretch out, curl up on your side: do whatever does not make the pain worse.
2.  Breathe.  Use your diaphragm in the way you have practiced.
3. Focus.  Count the breaths ten at a time, or focus on one particular aspect: its coolness or warmth as it enters and leaves your left nostril, for example, or how your stomach feels as it expands against the waistband of your pants.  Stay with that focus.
4. Allow the thoughts.  If you fight them, or wish them away, or feel inadequate because you cannot meditate properly, they have power over you and your pain.  Your efforts against them will make you feel worse.  When you realize you are thinking, simply name that ("thinking...thinking") and then re-focus on the breath.

This is a lot of information, so I will wait for my next post to explain deep muscle relaxation, which goes hand-in-hand with deep breathing.  In the meanwhile, have fun breathing!

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment link below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com


  1. Recently I had my third surgery for a back injury a few years back that left me almost paralyzed. Ever since I have been through rehab and fighting to gain back my full mobility. One of the best reliefs for my pain has been spinal cord stimulation. It works better than most of the drugs on the market or at least works well with them. Learning to manage pain in a healthy way is very important, i have seen other people get addicted to some of the stuff out there.

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