Mudita Journal

Treating chronic pain through radical acceptance

A new friend asked for my advice about using meditation to treat chronic pain.

I would assume that, like me, you have consulted many doctors and they aren’t able to do much to help. In this case, one of the most powerful therapies is what we might call “radical acceptance.”

The basic premise is that we often don’t realize how much of our suffering is of our own creation, created by how we react to the pain in our body. Sometimes the core of pain itself can be like a grain of sand in an oyster; but through our irritated reaction, it grows and grows and grows, like a painfully hard pearl, into something large and hard that impinges on our ability to live.

I use the word “radical” acceptance because normally we think of acceptance as a sort of trivial cognitive process: I know I’m in pain. OK, I accept that — but it’s not going anywhere.

On a more influential level, though, real acceptance is not just cognitive but also emotional, and has roots deep in the body and the unconscious mind. And so the process for those of us who experience constant pain is to learn to look deeper than our thoughts, deeper than our surface emotions, and observe our own reactions to the pain in a very intimate way. Instinctively, it is often the last thing we would think to do, since we just want the pain to get out of our way; but if we become skilled at looking deeper and with greater compassion, it can help a great deal.

One of the first steps, especially for those of us who tend to get caught up in our thoughts, is to learn to be more deeply present with “the now” — and not just when we sit down to meditate or do yoga, but as a way of life. In this area, I know of no better teacher than Eckhart Tolle. His book The Power of Now is perhaps the best instruction manual for learning to get more deeply into the present moment and stay there.

I particularly recommend listening to the audiobook version of The Power of Now, so you can hear his voice and join him at a psychological level as he models the quality of consciousness of which he speaks.

When it comes to more intensive meditation and personal inquiry, another teacher I’ve learned from immensely is Adyashanti. His True Meditation audiobook is particularly incisive, even though the recording quality isn’t great. For anyone with some prior exposure to Buddhism, I would also highly recommend his Spontaneous Awakening recordings.

Adyashanti’s basic teaching is very simple. He teaches that if we want to reach our true potential, we must learn to stop trying to manipulate our mind into artificial states, wishing for our experience to be different, always longing, striving, aching for reality to be other than it is — wanting to get somewhere faster, to gain more insight, to overcome our struggles, to change the way we feel, to improve the way we think, etc. This striving creates a conflict in our minds, so that we do everything from a place of effort and tension, rather than ease.

And so his basic spiritual teaching, regardless of your level of meditation experience, is to simply let go of control and allow everything to be as it is.

In my own meditation practice, I often sit on a small bench, put my torso in a nice relaxed upright posture, get in touch with the feeling of my in-breath and out-breath, and then start paying attention to the tension in my body. As I see my emotional tension, I notice where it is at in my body, observe it as intimately as I can, and then let go of it.

Then I repeat that same process with any urgent thoughts that come to mind, any aching tensions in my body, any well-intentioned efforts to improve my state of mind, etc. The answer to each of these things, almost like a mantra or a psychological balm I administer to them in equal measure, is: Let go of control and allow everything to be as it is.

And I keep repeating the process. The first time notice some mental tension and let go, I might get 10% of the way there. But as I keep repeating it, with each tension in my mind and body, I get deeper into a state that actually looks like radical harmony with the way things are.

Amazingly, the more I let go of control, the more my mind and body are able to join this harmony, accomplishing things I could never have accomplished through deliberate effort: My mind is more clear, I have more energy available, I’m able to think more creatively, I feel more relaxed, and my aches and pains gradually shrink back to much more manageable proportions.

Lately I use this instruction-mantra not just when I’m on my meditation cushion, but when I’m typing e-mails, when I’m in conversations, when I’m doing the dishes, when I’m shopping, when I’m working, when I’m driving: Let go of control and allow everything to be as it is. It’s amazing how much it helps.

If you get to experimenting with these ideas, I’d really enjoy hearing how it goes. I know many friends who have been helped by them in one way or another. I wish you luck in your journey. Feel free to write if you have questions or want to know more about something.