As a physician who specializes in teaching patients to listen to intuition-the body's own voice-I know how this can help you act on pain faster, and heal it. Intuition is a potent form of inner wisdom not mediated by the analytic mind. It's a still, small voice inside that we all have, though many of us haven't been taught to recognize it. You may experience intuition as gut feeling, a hunch, a knowing, or a snap-shot-like-flash. Pain is a type of intuition, a way of relocating you in your body so you know something is out of balance.
You can't heal your body unless you're in it. Most of us check out of our bodies from the moment we get sick. We feel pain and discomfort, we get scared, and we withdraw. We're out of our bodies so fast the last thing on our minds is to rally every ounce of awareness and energy to the part of us that most needs attention. Let me explain why this helps.
First, the more love and consciousness you bring to your body when it is ill, the better chance you have of mending it. Second, if you resist discomfort, it will persist. If you soften around it, it will lessen. In the Journal of Perinatal Education, Lamaze, a breath technique for softening pain during natural childbirth, has been documented to ease many mothers through labor. Success comes when the mothers relax with the pain instead of clenching around it.
The use of breath for pain relief is hardly alien to Western culture. Based on the principles of Lamaze-which helps laboring mothers breathe through childbirth-we stop resisting pain and develop compassion for our bodies.
Here is a meditation I suggest based on a Buddhist exercise called Tonglen.
Relax into the discomfort. Don't try to rid yourself of it. Just let the pain be.
Visualize your discomfort. Does it have color? Texture? Emotion? Ask the discomfort, "How can I ease my pain?"
Focus lightly on the pain. Feel it completely. As you inhale, breath all your pain in. Visualize it as a cloud of dark smoke. Let it flow through your body. Now picture every last bit of your pain purified by love. As you exhale imagine love as a clear white light. Send it back to the area of pain. Breathe in pain. Breathe out compassion. Breathe in pain. Fill the pain with the healing breath of compassion.
For most of us the premise of this meditation is radical. It says that by actively engaging pain, we can transmute it, a form of mystical alchemy never to be misconstrued as succumbing to weakness or admitting defeat. Harmonizing with pain will relieve it, not make it worse.
Intuition can help you act quickly on acute pain. Perhaps you're going to discover you have appendicitis. The first signs are agony, curled in a fetal position on your bed. Your body is sending out a frantic intuitive SOS. Something's really wrong. The quicker you listen and head for the emergency room, the quicker the problem will be diagnosed and solved. You find you need surgery and there's no way out. Next thing you know, you wake up in recovery, sans appendix. You made it. Your acute pain obviously had a purpose. It got you to the hospital, fast. Acting on your body's intuition can prevent the excruciating pain and potentially fatal complications of a ruptured appendix. I've worked with stoic or macho patients who've needlessly endured severe pain and suffered dangerous consequences. Part of loving ourselves and honoring intuition is to heed the "danger" messages we receive. Sometimes, in cases like appendicitis, when you yourself can't improve or repair the pain, intuition gives you the message to get help.
Some pain is short lived. You have it. It is treated and then gone. Even with this kind of pain, however, there's no question that informed attention is an asset. From the onset of a health crisis, focus your intuition. Pay attention to what your gut says and listen to your inner voice. This can get you past all-too-human resistances. For instance, people frequently die of heart attacks, failing to heed the warning of their angina. Intuition combats denial. By turning into pain, you'll get a more incisive take on how to deal with it.
Along with listening to intuition, there is a different strategy and that's lovingkindness. It's especially helpful with chronic pain, but is important in acute situations, too. Whatever your situation, the lovingkindness approach never fails. It involves conscious softening. Releasing resistance and fear. Not forsaking the body. This is where you begin.
So often in medicine we have it backwards. We attempt to repair the body without consulting it. Pain has its own language, intelligence, and rhythm. Pain is absolutely alive. It will speak to you, not in the usual sense but on an intuitive level. My patient Meg is using this technique for chronic, inoperable back pain. She told me, "Whenever a dull ache begins to feel sharp, that's my body's way of telling me to slow down and also do yoga. If I listen, I can prevent the pain cycle from worsening."
We each deal with pain differently. As a physician, there are some classic types of coping mechanisms I've seen that can work against the healing of pain. Pain can often become a metaphor for your life and beliefs. Type 1 is The Blamer, the person who blames herself for bringing on the pain, or blames someone else for causing it. Type 2 is the Victim, the person who says, "Why has God done this to me? This pain is tormenting me. I'm being punished for no reason." Type 3 is the Complainer. This person may be suffering terribly and seeks experts for help, but doesn't accept the pain as a messenger or a helper in some way. She lets everyone know her misery, a difficult dynamic for family and friends. Type 4 is The Stoic, the person who silently suffers, and doesn't reach out for help. Stoics often were never given permission in their families to express their feelings; they may feel "weak" or ashamed for showing vulnerability, so they try to push though pain.
In contrast to these types, what I'm suggesting is a new model for dealing with pain that can point the way toward wellness. In my model, harmonizing with pain and illness will relieve them, not make them worse. Also, see pain as a teacher with a message you can learn from. I know this goes against much of what we've been taught. Still, the fact remains that each of my patients who've trusted enough to explore this in therapy have experienced significant reduction in pain or improvement in an illness, even when all else has failed.
I never lose sight of how relentless chronic discomfort can be. I know personally the nagging pain and ongoing fatigue that can come from irritable bowel syndrome. If I don't eat well and get plenty of rest, a cycle of irritable bowel can be set off which can be debilitating. When the pain comes, I tune in, try to consider it a spiritual riddle containing layers of meaning. Sometimes the pain is saying, "This person is bad news. Get out of the situation," or sometimes it says, "Cancel all social engagements and rest." In the same way, I suggest you look to your body for answers.