Have you ever had a chronic injury or illness that caused you a lot of pain no matter what you tried? It can be quite horrible. But did you know that science is now finding that meditation can help reduce pain just as much as pain killers? Fascinating isn’t it?
In this article we’ll take a look at some of the things science is discovering about meditation and pain and then look at some different resources you can tap in to if you want to give it a shot for yourself.
My background with pain and meditation
Although I have been lucky enough to meet quite a few meditation teachers, I have never really capitalized on my fortune. I am not someone who can speak about meditation from experience because I simply don’t do it enough.
But last year I got quite sick with a strange problem; a giant stone was stuck in my saliva gland and causing me more pain than I had ever experienced. And in my agony and despair I tried to do a bit of meditation and mind training in order to find some relief as well as to make the experience perhaps a little bit more meaningful.
And it worked. The most stress and pain free moments of that month were when I managed to calm down and focus on my breath for a little while. At that time I realized how much better off I might have been if I had trained in mediation prior to getting sick. It is no wonder Tibetan Buddhist Lamas are able to endure great hardships and illness without showing any pain at all. They have done years and years of isolated meditation.
Science and meditation for pain relief
So what exactly has science been finding out about meditation and pain relief? Actually, quite a lot. Since the early 1970’s American researchers and scientists have been working with Buddhist meditation experts because they discovered that meditation actually changes the way the brain works.
Realizing that they understood very little about all this, the scientists began taking MRIs and CAT scans whilst the yogis or lamas were meditating. The results were very interesting. Here is an excerpt from a recent article in the Sacremento Bee:
Researchers have found that people who meditate on a regular basis actually develop thicker brains – they increase the connections between their brain cells, and they also increase the network of blood vessels in the brain, especially in those areas that help us to focus and pay attention, as well as areas of the brain involved with self-awareness and empathy.
Meditation can also lead to a reduction in the area of the brain that is associated with pain and stress. In other words, we can literally change our brain by what we focus on. And you don’t have to be an expert at this in order to benefit.
This falls in to a new area of neuroscience called Neuro Plasticity. Basically, what this means is that the brain is constantly changing and can be changed by what we think and do. A decade ago scientists didn’t think this was possible but are now discovering that we can literally change the shape and function of our brain by our thoughts.
But it gets better. The study also showed:
In this study, 15 healthy adults were taught to meditate in four 20-minute classes. Prior to and at the end of the study, the participants underwent a special kind of MRI that measures activity in the part of the brain responsible for the perception of pain.
While they were getting the scans done, a device that produces painful heat was placed on each participant’s leg for five minutes.
At the end of the study, all participants noted a reduction in their pain ratings, some by as much as 93 percent – this is more than the pain reduction seen with narcotic and other pain relieving drugs.
Now we are on to something! Here we see a concrete example of how meditation can actually help with physical pain more so than strong pain relieving drugs. This could have wonderful implications for millions around the world who are suffering with long term injuries that they can’t seem to shake.
Of course, you don’t want to stop medication and just start meditating. That is a bad idea. But a combination of the two could prove to be very useful when done in conjunction with your doctor’s advice and the guidance of a qualified meditation instructor.
Where to start?
If you want to give meditation a try to see whether it helps you with your pain there are a few things you can do.
- See your doctor
Firstly, go and see your doctor and make sure it is alright with him/her. Some mental illnesses, for example, aren’t very compatible with meditation. It is always good to check with your GP first.
- Read some books
There are wonderful books available on mediation from both the philosophical point of view and the medical/scientific point of view. It would be good to start with some titles by the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche as they have written books in conjunction with scientists and as such you get a very good mixture of the East and the West. Mingyur Rinpoche’s book is called the Joy of Living.
- Find a meditation teacher
The most important step is to find a good meditation teacher who can guide you based on tradition, experience as well as your own personality. A good mediation teacher can guide his/her students differently depending on their experience level, neurosis, etc. This type of instruction cannot be found in a book. In the USA some good places to start include Shambala, Karmapa, FPMT, Lotus Speech USA, Sakya Trizen, etc.
If you do all of these steps you should be able to get some wonderful information that might really make a difference to your mental and physical health for years and years to come.
Have you tried meditation?
I would love to know whether meditation has helped to improve your life in any way. Please leave a comment with any stories you might have or advice that might help anyone who reads your comment. Also, if you know of any good books or meditation centers please feel free to share a link. Here are some excellent resources for using meditation to alleviate pain: